Rather than talking about conversion as we have the last couple of weeks, now the story shifts to Peter’s miraculous raising of Tabitha, or Dorcas. This is not the first time that Peter has emulated Jesus in this way. Earlier in Acts 3, we read of Peter’s healing of a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. So, this raising is not as out of the blue as it sounds to us at the onset.
Here, the congregation in Joppa (and particularly the women) has lost one of the pillars of its community. She was nothing short of a beloved saint, their own Mother Teresa, if you will. The fact that we are given not only her Aramaic name but also her Greek name Dorcas may imply that her ministry went far beyond even her own community. In both languages, the name means “gazelle”. This seems to be a deep and profound loss. In fact, Tabitha is so powerful that the community does not want to let her go. She is literally called mathetria, or a “female disciple”. This puts her on equal footing with the New Testament disciples that we know so well.
The emphasis is not really upon Peter, but upon the community. They had lovingly anointed and cared for their friend’s body and then waited prayerfully outside while Peter went inside. This is a congregation who had lost a friend, a role model, a mentor. This is a congregation who had lost the one who would stand up for them, these helpless widows. This was one who was bringing about change. But it also shows that this was a congregation who believed in hope, who believed in the possibility of new life and resurrection, who believed in a God that could transcend death. It also shows a congregation that was willing to get involved in each other’s lives, to even weep together for their friend, and to dare to hope that life would return. This was truly a healing community. This was a community that was open to being transformed.
Now there is no way to verify whether or not there was really a raising. We have been told before that Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. This may count as a legend or the writer may have just took some poetic license and put it in. But, regardless, it is a story of transformation—death to life, brokenness to wholeness, hate to love. It is the story of the power of death and despair once again being overcome and recreated into life. It is that hope that binds us all. Maybe we need more stories like that. They invite us to look for God’s hand in today’s new beginnings. They invite us to feel the continued echoes of Christ’s story, glimpses of the mystery of God. Martin Marty said this about this text:
“Church rolls were never swelled because people sat up after having been dead. They swelled and endure because people who have faced in faith what Karl Rahner called death, ‘the abyss of mystery,’ are content to leave the details and reportings in the realm of mystery. They want something else. Through and in it all they have seen and known and experienced Jesus Christ’s rising as something that breaks the mold and ushers in a new age in history, including in our personal histories.”
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) What does that mean for you that this community believed in hope and in each other?
3) What does that have to with transformation?
4) What does it mean to “look for” new beginnings?
5) The 18th century writer Voltaire said that “it is not more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.” What would that mean for our lives if we looked at everything as resurrection?
6) How much could others sense echoes of Christ’s story in our lives?
NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 7: 9-17
First of all, remember that the writings that we know as Revelation are full of rich imagery and metaphors, some of which make sense to us in our time, and some of us do not. Remember that the book was written when the Christians of Asia Minor were being persecuted by Roman officials for their refusal to acknowledge and worship the emperors. Some Christians became martyrs; others weakened and left the faith. There were enough leaving that there appeared to be a crisis as to whether or not the fledgling new religion would survive. So, the writer tries to sharpen and make clear the alternatives of worshiping either Caesar or God. The passage today is one of words for those who are desperately striving to remain faithful.
John begins the chapter by talking about all the people from the twelve tribes of Israel who will be in “heaven” with us—144,000—the perfect number, the complete number of 12 tribes times 12 times 1,000. The twelve tribes of Israel—the ones to which we as Christians have been grafted—are there. The writer is reminding us that we may be surprised at what comes next, at who comes next, at how it’s construed. It is a reminder that in spite of our plans, in spite of our prejudices, in spite of our boxes that we build, God is recreating everything and everyone.
But whatever it is that we call “heaven” or the “afterlife” or (not my favorite) “our great reward”, the work will not be done. Whatever you think comes next, we will indeed rest from our labors, but the worshiping and ministry and building of the Kingdom of God will continue. We will be guided to the waters of life, true life, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye. No more tears….just meaning and relationship and shalom.
But when we read this, it is not just an account of the future. It is, after all, a testament to the idea of the Kingdom of God that is now as well as something to come. We are given glimpses of what will be, a “vision”, if you will, to work toward. The writer known as John broadens the vision beyond what we can imagine—people gathered from every nation and language on earth, all giving praise to God, to the TRUE one on the throne. In a sermon, “Glimpsing Heaven in Thin Places”, the Rev. Dr. Nora Tubbs Tisdale says this:
I’m guessing that included in that crowd, too, are going to be a lot of people who surprise us by their presence there.
My maternal grandfather, a lifelong Presbyterian minister, died some years ago at the ripe old age of 98. There were many things I loved about my grandfather–his integrity, his intellect, his deep faith in Jesus Christ. But we regularly disagreed on a host of social, political and church issues, including the ordination of women to ministry. Sadly, my beloved grandfather never came to terms with what I did with my life and always thought that I was forsaking my true calling by going into ministry.
My husband, however, made me smile through my tears on the morning of my grandfather’s death–which just happened to take place early on World Communion Sunday. “Nora,” he said, “Who do you suppose is serving your grandfather communion in heaven this morning? Clergy women perhaps???”
If truth be told, we all have our blind spots, our prejudices. And, consequently, I have a feeling that we’re all going to be surprised by who is sitting at the Lamb’s eternal banquet table with us in heaven. Surely we will see people there we considered unforgivable, unredeemable. People against whom we have long held grudges or prejudices. People from nations we branded with the label “enemy” or people we failed to even see in this life because of their poverty, disease, or station in life. They will all be there. For no matter how inclusive we think we are in our embrace of others, heaven–according to John’s vision–will be far more so.
But inclusivity will not be the only surprise awaiting us in heaven. I think we’re also going to be surprised by what people are DOING in heaven.
When heaven is depicted in romantic art, what we often see are a group of cherubs playing their harps, while people lounge around on clouds of ease, as if on a perpetual vacation.
But when we peer through John’s veil, what we see is that heaven is actually a very active place. And what is it people are busy doing? They are worshiping and serving God and others–doing those very same things that gave them the greatest joy, the greatest meaning, in their life here on earth. (Available at http://day1.org/1117-glimpsing_heaven_in_thin_places, accessed 21 April 2010.)
But, as I said, this is not just meant to be a vision for the future; it’s a vision for now. It’s the way to encounter holiness even here on this messed up old earth. (And maybe the messed up old earth is what we’re supposed to be working to transform into God’s Kingdom anyway. You think?)
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What does this idea of glimpsing holiness now mean for you?
3) What changes if we embrace this image as one for “today” instead of one for “whatever comes next”?
GOSPEL: John 10: 22-30
This Gospel passage may be a little bothersome for us. We may identify a little too closely with those that were gathered around Jesus. There’s a part of us that wants so desperately to know that Jesus is the Messiah, to hear it explained and spoken to us with clear, plain, undeniable proof. We read this and we begin to question a little bit whether or not we’re even qualified to be a sheep!
The image of the shepherd is a powerful metaphor for the Messiah in Israel’s collective memory. They didn’t need to have it explained to them; it was part of them. And by Jesus implying that they were not part of his sheep, he was saying that they were not part of his way. The claim that he makes that he and God are one is not necessarily some sort of partial-Trinitarian claim. It is rather an expression of unity. He is saying that he and God are unified, united in the work that is being done. And he’s implying that those who understand this are also part of this unified Spirit of God. But only those who are part of this way, who understand what it means to be united with God, who embark on that journey toward a oneness with God—only those will actually hear the holiness that is God.
For us Christians, the story of Jesus—his teachings, his miracles, his healings, his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection—and making that story our own is the way that God is revealed to us, the way that we find that way to God. As (once again) anti-Semitic as this version sometimes sounds, Jesus is not claiming here that he is the only way that God is revealed; he is claiming this his way of relating to God and working with God is the WAY to God.
People who like black and white answers and who prefer plain meaning to subtlety and allusion may find this passage frustrating. Who are we kidding? People who like black and white answers and hard and fast rules of who and what’s in and who and what is out will find the whole Christian walk frustrating. We usually find ourselves asking, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told us what to do? Wouldn’t it be easier if you made it plainer to understand?
The truth is that for most of us the challenge is not in following Jesus. We like the road. After all, we know how it ends up. The challenge is not following, but recognizing Jesus’ voice. That is the hardest part of this Scripture passage. We have not really learned what that means.
In keeping with the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep, remember that in Jesus’ day, sheep were in constant danger—from thieves, wild animals—they could be snatched away at a moment’s notice. But they knew the shepherd and they listened. As long as they could hear his voice, they knew they were OK. They knew they would not be snatched away. They knew that they would know where to go if they just listened. In fact, if you’ve ever been around livestock, it seems that is all they know. They just follow the master. Maybe they’re not as dumb as we think. Maybe they do a better of job of shutting out the competing voices than even we do.
Now don’t get me wrong…going this way with Jesus, hearing the Shepherd’s voice, if you will, does not guarantee an easy road, regardless of what those preachers of the prosperity gospel may tell you. You can do everything right; you can walk the same road that Jesus walked; you can open your lives to others; you can feed all the sheep in the world—and bad things will still happen not because you did anything wrong. It’s just part of life. But read on…”I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
But you have to listen. And you have to know to what and to whom it is that you’re listening. That is probably the hardest of all.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What does that mean to listen to the voice of God above all the other noises to which we are subjected?
3) What does this passage say to us about transformation?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Miracles are retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. (C.S. Lewis, 20th century)
The note we end on is and must be the note of inexhaustible possibility and hope. (Evelyn Underhill)
Blessed are the ears which hear God’s whisper and listen not to the murmurs of the world. (Thomas a’ Kempis, 15th century)
Truth-telling, wind-blowing, life-giving spirit—we present ourselves now for our instruction and guidance; breathe your truth among us, breathe your truth of deep Friday loss, your truth of awesome Sunday joy.
Breathe your story of death and life that our story may be submitted to your will for life. We pray in the name of Jesus risen to new life—and him crucified. Amen.
(“Prayer of Illumination”, from Prayers for a Privileged People, by Walter Brueggemann, p. 179)