Texts: Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Jesus is walking in the Temple portico in winter, around the time of a religious festival that today is called Hanukah. He is approached by Temple officials for an identity check. Are you the Messiah or not? The question wasn’t friendly. They wanted to kill Jesus; they only needed to catch him calling himself God’s Son.
Meanwhile in a Palestinian village sometime after the resurrection of Jesus a dead woman was healed by Peter. Her name was Tabitha. Some years further on, a man on the Greek island of Patmos had a stirring vision of the reign of Jesus where time and space no longer are. And…it’s Mother’s Day.
If this is a recipe for a biblical casserole, it’s well-nigh indigestible. We shift from one time frame to another, from one place to another. Jesus is many years gone, celebrated as the Lamb seated at the throne of God. Then Jesus is still living, and matching wits with religious elders.
Taking a step back from all this swirl of time and space, it’s truly amazing how many ways people encountered Jesus while he was alive, and after his death. The New Testament reflects how diverse those encounters were. But at the center of it all is this witness: Jesus cannot be made to go away. Not by enemies. Not by physical absence. Not by the passage of time.
The story of Tabitha is quite a significant testimonial to this. Although we don’t know much about her, we hear that she was a beloved elder Christian leader of Joppa, in north-western Palestine. A woman disciple as the text plainly says. She may have been well-to-do. Many of the earliest church leaders in various communities were. Tabitha’s devotion to, “…good works and acts of charity” tells us that she had ample time and resources for this important work.
Was Tabitha a widow herself? It’s uncertain. But she was very well loved by the widows in Joppa who gathered to mourn her untimely death. And to celebrate her creativity and generosity.
Peter was on something of a walkabout at the time. He spreading the news of Jesus risen from the dead, among the synagogues beyond Judea and Jerusalem. It happened that Peter was in Lydda, a town just next by Joppa when Tabitha died. The widows sent for Peter. That he came, without delay, tells us just how well connected and important Tabitha had been.
In last week’s story about the Apostle Paul’s conversion, he was immediately afterward going around and preaching that Jesus was the Son of God. Using that same ferocious legal mind that he had once used to debate in synagogues against Jews who believed in Jesus, he was now confronting Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus. As Acts relates, this made people on both sides so nervous that the other disciples sent Paul clear to Tarsus in Asia Minor.
In the meantime, Peter was hard at work. Where Paul’s style of witness and conversion featured intense and withering debate, Peter simply showed up and did what Jesus would have done.
So it is, that arriving in Joppa, Peter did almost exactly what Jesus had done with the daughter of a Synagogue leader, who had died of an illness. Jesus put people outside, except for the girl’s parents and the disciples and then took the child’s hand saying, little girl, get up. Which she did. Peter, likewise, first put people out the room. Then he prayed. After that Peter said, Tabitha, get up. And the woman did.
The similarity is no accident. In the book of Acts Peter does just as Jesus commanded, taking the authority conferred on him by Jesus into a world eager to hear God’s Word speak healing and new life. The disciples often laid hands on for healing. But only Jesus had raised the dead. Did Peter know that this would happen with Tabitha? Whether he did or not, Peter was obedient to Jesus’s instruction. And in doing so, Jesus was there.
One detail of this story of Tabitha and Peter deserves specific attention. Before commanding Tabitha to get up, Peter prayed. So it’s not by direct laying on of hands that she is restored. It is by prayer joined to the word of Jesus. In effect Peter does not do anything here other than to be the means by which Jesus Christ is present to someone in need. Peter was a guide who pointed the way to the power of believing in Christ.
The visions of the revelation to John’s functioned in a similar way to his community in a later generation. In a time of deep distress, John’s vision was a reassuring word from God that the risen and ascended Christ was not gone, and that they were not forgotten. People who were treated with contempt and violence for their faith heard in John’s vision the promise that the Lamb of God sees their suffering, and shares their pain. Jesus is here. God cares. No wonder Christian faith is so readily embraced by people on the edges of society.
The Gospel of John speaks of the indivisible oneness of God and Jesus, and the oneness of Jesus and all who love him. A singularity of purpose comes out of choosing to “be” in Christ who is in God. And just as the works of Jesus witnessed to his identity, so also the acts of each one of us who say we believe in Jesus witness to our true identity.
The Christian life is a balance of getting the identity piece right. We are the sheep, and Jesus is our good Shepherd. True. We follow the leader. At times however, we are called to shepherd others so that they too can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them. We lead others to follow.
When we keep ego and competition out of it, we go well. Other times, we do not go so well. And for those times, at least we can ask God’s forgiveness.
Tabitha got it as right as anyone can. She realized that you can sew tunics and other clothing and gave them away for the sake of all that is holy. Her life was full of love and beautiful. When she died, all that love she gave flowed back toward life. How could it not?
Perhaps Peter’s prayer that day was only that God’s will be done. And as Peter prayed Jesus was there, just as he gave his word that he would be. And where Jesus was, so was Tabitha. She was that kind of disciple. It all sort of makes sense: life belongs to life after all. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.