Scripture (Acts 9:36-43) can be found here…
“Now, in Joppa, there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.”
Joppa is one of those places whose name keeps popping up in scripture. It’s a port city, known today is as Jaffa, and it’s the oldest and southernmost part of Tel Aviv. Its origins go back as far as 7,500 years before Christ. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joppa is the port in which Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet, boards a ship to go in the exact opposite direction from the way God is sending him. Later on, it’s conquered by King David; that comes in handy when his son, Solomon, needs to import cedar wood from Lebanon, for the purpose of building the Temple. Joppa is the port that receives all that cedar.
At the time of our story, Joppa was a place where the gospel had found a foothold. Tabitha lived there, and she was a follower of the Way of Jesus. That’s what they called Christianity then: “The Way.” She’s the first woman in scripture to be described as a disciple (though, it’s pretty clear she’s not the first woman disciple; women were there from the start). Disciple means, “learner.” And one of the things Tabitha has learned is the importance of caring for others.
Apparently, everyone loved Tabitha.
Our story tells us, “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” In the original Greek, it says, “She was full of good works.” And that word that indicates charitable giving? The root of that word is “compassion.”
Everyone loved Tabitha, because Tabitha was filled with compassion.
Sometimes it can seem like compassion is in short supply; so, when someone has it in abundance, it makes quite an impression. In our story, as soon as we learn about Tabitha, she dies. And the people around her are so shaken, they send for Peter. He’s not too far away—he’s in a town called Lydda, which is, actually, also a part of modern day Tel Aviv. Peter is well known: after all, he is one of the original disciples of Jesus, one of the very first followers of the Way. And at this moment in our story, he is gaining a reputation as a healer, as a man filled with the power of the Spirit. He comes.
When he gets there, Peter walks into quite a scene. Tabitha’s community has come out in force. The people who show up for Tabitha are the widows of Joppa. We find them there, in the upstairs room, after her body has been washed and prepared for burial. The widows are weeping, but they are also having a kind of calling-hours Show-and-Tell.
“Look!” one says. “Here is a tunic she made me.”
“See!” another says, “Here is a shawl she wove for me.”
Apparently, Tabitha’s way of caring for others involves lots of needlework. Tabitha is a maker. Like those who get together to make hygiene kits on our “Days for Girls” sewing days, Tabitha has devoted herself to this ministry of creating clothing for the community’s poorest women: widows.
The Hebrew Scriptures lift up three categories of people who deserve the particular care of the faith community: widows, orphans, and aliens—which is to say, immigrants. Widows, if they do not have adult children to help them, are incredibly vulnerable. They can’t go out and get work. They are entirely dependent on the kindness of those who have means. Underneath these strong commandments is the memory of when God’s people were vulnerable—when they were immigrants in Egypt, who were exploited and made slaves. That memory reminds them to care for the vulnerable.
Care for the widows—it could be your own mother, your own wife who is penniless.
Care for the orphans: it could be your own children who are hungry.
Care for the immigrants—your ancestors wandered in lands far from home, and you might well be in the same position yourself, someday.
Peter walks into this place in which the widows are testifying to Tabitha’s lovingkindness, her compassion, by showing the specific, tangible fruits of her labor.
This tunic. This shawl. This robe. This blanket.
And, of course, we do the same, don’t we? When someone we care about dies, we tell stories about them. The things they did, the things they said. Their legacy in good works. The mark they made, through their kindness. We share photographs. We tell stories. We testify.
See how we loved them, we tell one another, and we remind ourselves.
See, what an Easter person Tabitha was: living Jesus’ commandment of loving one another, as God has loved us.
That’s what many of us who loved the writing of Rachel Held Evans have been doing this past week. The 37-year-old writer of such books as Searching for Sunday and A Year of Biblical Womanhood died on May 4 after a brief illness, leaving two toddlers motherless and her husband a widower. She left us without her particular beautiful and compassionate voice, a voice that articulated a way of following Jesus that included space for people traditionally excluded.
And everywhere, this past week, I’ve been reading stories about Rachel: About people who thought church wasn’t for them, until they read her particular words of welcome. People who, when they were discouraged, found particular encouragement in her books or blogs. People who recounted acts of kindness that were private, out of the limelight, but which spoke to her strong, good character.
“Look!” said one, “Here is what she said to me.”
“See!” said another, “How her wisdom changed my path.”
And even in death, Rachel’s wisdom offered comfort. She wrote,
“… there’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.” (Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, p. 21)
In our story, Peter listens to the testimony of the widows. Then he sends everyone out of the room, kneels on the floor, and prays. He turns towards the body of dead woman, and says, “Tabitha, get up.” She opens her eyes, and he offers her his hand to help her up. Then he brings in her friends, the people who have just been grieving her loss so desperately, and shows them.
“See,” he says, “she is alive.”
And in doing this, Peter restores an Easter person to her community. He allows her to resume her ministry to those so in need of her care. And, he reveals the power of the crucified and risen Christ.
Interestingly, though Peter has been a catalyst for the power of God to be revealed in that moment, there is no talk of Peter as a new Messiah, or Peter as Jesus Christ, returned. His work here points to Jesus, not to himself. “Many believed in the Lord,” our story tells us. And… spoiler alert! Peter is also an Easter person, though we’ll be talking about him next week. The good Easter people do isn’t for themselves: it’s for God, and it’s for others. Tabitha is known in her community as the one who has compassion; the one who loves others as God has loved her. We can say the same for Peter’s revelation of God’s power: He is simply showing the love of God for this community, this love that brings life out of death.
We are still in the Easter season, and have you noticed? The stories keep returning to the death and resurrection. Sometimes, like today, it’s a literal death, and a literal rising from the dead. But often it’s like the death of Thomas’ doubt, and the new life he finds in the risen Jesus. It’s like the death of Saul’s harsh pursuit of the followers of the Way, and his rising to new life as Paul, a follower of the Way himself. It’s even like the death of Ananias’ fear, and the new life he is able to have and give, trusting in God’s power.
And then there was Tabitha. Everyone loved Tabitha, this Easter person whose literal death and rising brought new life to her community. Tabitha revealed that same love: the love that shows itself in kindness; the love that is the compassion of God for the vulnerable and suffering; the love that reaches into our own personal graves, day by day, bringing us back to life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.