Acts 9.36-42 | Order of Worship
It’s been called “the forgotten resurrection story.” Hard as resurrection is to forget, this story of Peter raising Tabitha has been ignored or at least overshadowed.
Everyone knows Lazarus and how Jesus wept for him before calling to him in his tomb, “Come out!”
We remember the son of the widow at Nain — how Jesus encounters his funeral procession and his mother wondering what will become of her now that he is gone. “Young man, I say to you, arise.”
And who can forget Jairus’ daughter, whom Jesus’ raises with those beautiful Aramaic words, “Talitha, cum,” — little girl, get up.
But Tabitha slips our minds and is sometimes skipped in our sermons and study of scripture. Is it because these other stories are in the gospels, while her story is in the book of Acts? Is it something about the story itself? Is it something about her?
“Tabitha” is what Peter would have called her, but to others she was known as Dorcas — woman whose work and witness was so wide it needed at least two names. One name is Aramaic — a semitic language, and the common language of Jews at that time in that area. The other name is Greek. Even her name itself, “Tabitha called Dorcas” is evidence of the span of her influence. She embodied the universal reach of the gospel that we see throughout the book of Acts — the stretch of the gospel “from Jerusalem to Judea and to the ends of the earth,” as Acts 1:8 describes.
We remember how this has always been the movement of the God of Israel — unbound, unrestrained, always moving toward more openness and greater reach to all people. The story is set in Joppa, after all — a city we might recognize, remembering that hundreds of years earlier Jonah came to Joppa, fleeing from the Lord because he was afraid of God’s call to expand the reach and preach to the Ninevites. Peter is now in the same city with the same call, but he is not afraid. The Spirit had rested on Peter at Pentecost, and he had proclaimed to the crowds, “this promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away.” Peter has traveled that far distance throughout the first part of Acts. Even with Paul’s conversion, it’s not until chapter 13 that he becomes the focus of the book. For now it’s Peter, amidst a tour that has taken him to Lydda and now to Joppa, reaching to all people — those who speak the same language and follow the same customs, yes, but no less to those who speak the language of the Gentiles and still need to be able to call on the name of someone who knows and follows Jesus.
That was Tabitha. Tabitha called Dorcas was a follower of Jesus. We hear about it right from the start of the story: “In Joppa, there was a disciple, whose name was Tabitha…” and what we can’t see in English is that this is the lone time in all of the New Testament that the feminine form of the noun, “disciple,” is used. There were plenty of women who were disciples, but this is the only time the feminine form is used, because Tabith was that kind of emblematic follower of Jesus.
Both of her names are translations of the word, gazelle. And so she had been swift to follow in the way of Christ’s love. She had been graceful in sharing with those around her from her resources and gifts. “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity,” the text says. She was faithful and steady. She was known especially for the fine clothing she made for the members of her community, but every community of faith has people like her. She was the one who knitted prayer shawls for people experiencing grief, or for the graduates on their way to college. She was the one who made sure that everything was just right for VBS week (our church was full of Tabithas all week long, and will be in the week to come). She was the one who attended to all the details for the mission trip. She was the one who did a hundred other unseen things that mark the lives of Christ’s disciples.
Tabitha was especially committed to the vulnerable women of her community — the widows, for whom the early church was especially concerned. Even today her name lives on in “Dorcas Societies” founded by Christian women as vehicles for serving those poor and overlooked. You can imagine her studying scripture and seeing the call to care for the widows, and knowing it was a call to her. The poet George MacDonald imagines her standing by and hearing Jesus say, “I was naked and you clothed me” and hearing in that clearly the call to go home to Joppa and prepare garments for those in need, seeing them as she saw Jesus’ own self. (1)
So as Peter arrives, the evidence of her discipleship is clear. It is draped about all of those gathered, the way my grandfather’s wood carvings stay close on my table, reminding of his careful, meticulous, purposeful love or the way my late college professor’s books fill my shelves, where I can pull them out not only to study, but to remember the one who so inspired me to preach and teach and love and follow Jesus. In the same way, these tunics and scarves are held close, enfolding all of those who remember Tabitha and are telling the stories of what her faith has meant to them — stories that remind us that to be a disciple is not always to announce the good news at the center of the city like Peter, but also to know the presence of the Spirit in the quiet, steady work of making clothing and tunics. The work of the Spirit is not only the dramatic fire and wind, but sometimes the private, committed work of needle and thread. See, before Peter ever arrived in Joppa, there was already a disciple there.
Of course, as we know all too well and mercilessly, faithfulness doesn’t protect Tabitha from falling ill and dying. Good people — even the best people — also die. As the poet Louise Glück has written, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.” (2)Those who loved Tabitha called Dorcas are in the throes of such grief, and they can’t accept the death of one they loved so much, so they send for the one who’d just healed a paralyzed man in nearby Lydda. And verse 39 says that Peter got up and went to them.
What strikes me the most is that Peter doesn’t hesitate. He responds immediately and sets out. His actions are deliberate and steady throughout the scene, almost like one who has himself seen resurrection before, and knows what it can mean in the face of all of the world’s evidence of death. As he walks those 11 miles, he’s surely remembering all those times before. He remembers standing near as Mary says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother, Lazarus would not have died.” He thinks of standing there and watching as the widow at Nain wept at her son’s funeral procession and wondered what would happen to her. He recalls how Jesus himself had once been interrupted along the way by a desperate father, Jairus, and how Jesus had gone straight away and followed him to his child’s side. “What was it he said?” Peter thinks to himself, then rehearsing the words beneath his breath, “Talitha cum… Talitha cum…”
Yes, Peter has seen plenty of death, as most of us have, too.The great preacher, Rev. Dr. James Forbes, tells of how he has struggled with healing stories, and especially this one. Dr. Forbes grew up in the Holiness tradition, and if you didn’t believe in healing you didn’t belong. But he went to Union Theological Seminary, and he became confused. One day he was in a rotation of Clinical Pastoral Education, and he was given the definition of clinical death. His supervisor said it was when a person had “flat-lined,” and Dr. Forbes thought, “Flat-lined? Well, I preach to people like that every week!”
Beyond his quip, he meant something deeper. He meant church is full of people who know death. People who are dying, really really dying in all of the ways that a person can experience death, or a soul can be crushed, or a life can be overwhelmed with hopelessness. The walking dead. The “mostly dead,” to quote “Miracle Max” of The Princess Bride. Those who are encased in their tombs. Those who are losing the color and vitality in their lives. People like us, in other words.
And Peter had been that way before. More than anything, he’s probably walking those miles, quickening his pace, remembering what it was like when he was mostly dead, or when he wanted to die at least — when he realized he was not as strong and brave as he once believed he was. He had once been ready to give it all to the cause, yet he had crumbled beneath the pressure of Jesus’ trial and denied him to the echo of the rooster crow, and he felt like going away somewhere and dying, falling asleep in a tomb and not waking up. And Jesus got up and came straight away to him, no delay, and said by the shores of the sea, “Peter, you can still feed my lambs. Peter, you can still care for my people. Imperfect though you are, you can still be the one with whom I will build my church. You can still speak the words of new life.”
See, Peter knows death, but he knows resurrection, too. So Peter goes as fast as he can, arriving as they hold out their arms to him, draped in their grief. He enters the house and it must have looked familiar and felt familiar, with death hanging in the air. And perhaps with some echo of “Lazarus, come out” in his ears, or perhaps with some memory of the particular motions and power of Jesus in his mind, or maybe with some memory of “Little girl, rise” as Jesus had said to Jairus daughter, or with some memory of the very resurrection and new life of Jesus that could not be held by the power of death, Peter says with a new kind of boldness and volume, “Tabitha, get up.”
Perhaps we can’t hear it, but these words are familiar. When Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he uses those Aramaic words, “Talitha cum…” and Peter surely would have spoken Aramaic to Tabitha. His words to her, then, would have been “Tabitha cum” — only one letter different than Jesus’ own words of life. See, Peter knows the words. Peter knows the power of resurrection. Peter is doing now what Jesus once did.
This is the first such miracle performed by any of the apostles after the resurrection of Jesus, showing that the power of resurrection has been passed on to the movement of those following in the Way, and all these years later it has been passed on to Christ’s church. And I wonder if that’s why we so often forget it. Because in this case it is not a miracle of Jesus, but a miracle of the church that Jesus leaves behind. Tabitha is lifted to life by someone like us. It’s much easier to imagine such power distant from us, coming from the person of Jesus rather than through our very lives. It’s far easier, actually, to just leave it all up to Jesus, rather than responding to the desperate need and urgent cries, “Please come to us without delay.” Yes, perhaps we easily forget or overlook this story, because it’s a story about us.
It’s about the challenge to our conventional expectations, and the remarkable movement of the Spirit of God, and the call to people from death into new life, and about how all of that happens now through Christ’s followers. We’re more accustomed to more settled expectations of ourselves, and more conventional forms of discipleship for our church. And I guess Tabitha never had to follow Jesus, she could have left it all up to the others. Peter could have stayed with the fishing nets and left all the preaching and healing and raising to someone else. And the church, could just stay settled, conventional, insular, safe, and totally forget that Jesus has taught us how to say, “Talitha, cum.” Rise. Get up.
My friend, Rev. Heidi Neumark, is Pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in New York, and not long ago shared a story of a time when she heard these words of life at her church. Shehad received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. He wrote from Los Angeles to tell her about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church but had reached out to Pastor Neumark’s colleague from what Heidi called “the shadowlands of trauma.”
Their youngest son had a rare, terminal illness, and this Brooklyn-based family was spending nearly all of their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their son was receiving care. Heidi Neumark was actually in her own hospital bed when she got this message, having just had surgery. It would be a few weeks before she was able to venture out, so she asked her church’s seminary intern to go to that intensive care unit and visit that family.
The seminarian spent quite a bit of time with them— praying, waiting, weeping, listening, sitting. The young minister helped Charlie, the five-year-old brother, say goodbye. She stayed beside Charlie’s parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. And eventually, Pastor Neumark and the intern did the funeral for this child, his family absolutely breathless with their shock and loss, and little brother, Charlie standing there, hiding behind his parents legs.
Within a few weeks of their unimaginable loss, this family began attending Trinity Church, having now found a church home amidst their grief. Mother, father and 5 yr old Charlie would come, and most Sundays Charlies rarely spoke. He didn’t want to go to Sunday School but would hide behind his dad’s legs, or sit and draw pictures of cars and rockets like the one illustrating a prayer of his that was in the funeral order of worship. It was the prayer Charlie had spoken four days before his brother’s death. “Dear God, please send us a rocket ship so my brother and me can go to the stars.”
Eventually Charlie decided to go to Sunday School with his father sitting nearby. And one Sunday the teacher prepared a lesson on Tabitha. She told this story of Peter raising Tabitha and also of how, after her death, the widows that Tabitha had clothed held her memory close through all the tunics she left behind. The teacher panicked as she told the story. What would Charlie think? How would this 5 yr old boy react? Wouldn’t he wonder why Peter hadn’t shown up for his brother? Wouldn’t he remember how the doctors walked out of that room and said there was nothing more they could do? Why hadn’t God answered his prayers and those of his parents?
And then this quiet little boy, for the first time ever in that church, began to speak. He told the class of preschoolers to second graders that his brother had died, but that Jesus had raised his brother, and that his brother was with Jesus in heaven and that his brother was also still with him. He showed the class a woven bracelet that reminded him of his brother, just as those widows held out their arms, draped in Tabitha’s tunics.
The class sat perfectly still. Every young eye and ear was focused on the testimony of their Sunday School classmate who had walked in the valley of the shadow of death and was now speaking about it. There was one little girl in the class who must have known something of his pain. This little girl, named Heaven, was born with drugs in her system, raised by her grandmother while her mother was in and out of treatment. Heaven spontaneously got up and went over and gave her classmate Charlie a hug. Then following her example, every child in the class got up and, one by one, they hugged their little brother in Christ and his father. (3)
Church is supposed to be the place where people come back to life. And it’s not to be quietly held or safely stored, or kept in one place with those who have some memory of resurrection. Just to underscore this, Acts describes in verse 43 how Peter stays in Joppa at the home of Simon, a tanner. It seems a simple narrative detail, unless you remember that it’s later in the story, on the roof of Simon’s house, where Peter will see a vision that will lead him to welcome Roman soldier, Cornelius, and realize fully that God’s new life is for all people. God’s new life welcomes individuals and communities from every corner of the world, even to the ends of the earth, and still to this day reaches for every one of us and reminds us that amidst death and hopelessness and loss, Jesus has taught us the words to speak: Talitha, cum. Rise. Get up.
- “Dorcas” by George MacDonald
- “October” byLouise Glück
- “Companion to strangers” in Christina Century (February 26, 2014)