A NEW WAY OF SEEING: A NEW WAY OF LIVING
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Left to my own devices, I would probably skip this passage. Besides Jesus himself, there are five different people that Jesus, Paul or Peter raise from the dead. Some drew a lot of attention, some are mentioned almost as an afterthought. At least for me, there is no discerning why this one and why not that one are chosen to rise from the dead.
And of course, resurrection, or in this case reanimation, is a tough topic. It is one thing to talk about new life, hope and the promise of God’s presence in the world and quite another to read about a particular person dying and being called back into life. It strains modern credulity. Over the years, I have mostly set these passages aside—hoping and trusting that they had something for me that I couldn’t grasp. It has only been the last few years that I realized I was focusing on the wrong things. I focused on events not meaning.
We know very little about Tabitha. She is the only named female disciple and “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity”. It is perhaps tempting to connect her devotion with her second chance on life but over the centuries, there have been thousands, if not millions of such women. There are many in our own church. But Tabitha is the only one that I am aware of that fell ill, died, had her body prepared for burial —-but then was called back to life. This is not a story about Tabitha’s devotion nor is it primarily about her rising, it is a story about God’s presence.
Somewhat similarly, it is also tempting to try to understand the story as a ‘proof’ of God and more particularly a proof of God’s protective care for the faithful. All too often we report finding God in the events of our lives that were more to our liking. We tend to associate God with Tabitha’s rising more than Tabitha’s dying.
Likewise, most of us tend to associate ‘answer to prayer’ as an outcome that we desire. Our trust in God and our belief in God, is enhanced when we see ‘good’ things happen for us. The same was true in the first century. In verse 42, we are told “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” But please note, no matter how dramatic rising from the dead might seem, all who saw did not believe. Faith and belief do not hang on video tapes of biblical events, they hang upon a transformed way of seeing and living life.
In FIRL I asked if there were events in the members lives that had added credibility to the gospel for them. The answers were varied and specific. They ranged from finding a lost sewing tool to seeing a family survive a fire. In other cases, a quilt was protected by God when it survived a house fire, a failed windshield wiper started working when the driver was frightened and stuck in a driving rain storm, a life threatening accident did not bring death. The same events might not mean the same things to a listener—but these were the events people picked out to describe how God was present in their lives. They were signs of God’s care and watchfulness.
Arguing about ‘what really happened’ misses the point entirely because the faith claim is embedded in our description of the experience. The experience does not prove faith. We cannot prove faith we can only point to faith. We reveal our faith in how we describe our experience. The faith claim is that God is with us. In Easter language, He lives.
Over and over again, we equate our comfort with God’s presence. It is a very unreliable measure. It suggests that God is good only when we like the outcomes. What happens when the devoted woman dies? —or the quilt is consumed by flames or the sewing tool is lost forever?
The other risk is that we create tests and proofs of God. Every single one of the examples described in FIRL could be described without reference to God. The events could be recorded but the meaning of those events depended upon the lens of the viewer. They just as easily can be viewed as fortuitous coincidences or magical thinking. They are only seen as God given from the faith perspective that God is always present. They are all confirmations of belief for the believer— but not so much for others. In real life, people are resuscitated every day. Many are clinically dead and they live again. These events are easily documented but they do not necessarily lead to belief or faith. It is a futile argument to offer any of these events, including the reanimation of Tabitha, as proof of God.
It turns out the rising from the dead stories in the bible are surprisingly ordinary. You would think that raising someone from the dead would be pretty definitive, but, biblically, it is not. We have Jesus raising Lazarus but as dramatic as that story is, it is only recorded in John. The other gospels leave it out. We also have the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56) being raised by Jesus. Then we have Peter raising Tabitha in today’s scripture (Acts 9:36-43) and finally Paul raising Eutychus in Act 20:7-12. These stories are more significant for the immediate social circle in which they occurred than they are occasions for conversion.
A sister loses her brother, a father is desperate for his daughter, a widow not only loses her son but now stands alone in the world and finally, a young follower of Paul cannot stay awake during Paul’s extended discourse and falls out of window to his death. Paul calls him back to life and goes back to his sermonizing. (I have yet to hear a sermon on the danger of being bored to death by the sermon). These people experienced God’s presence in moments of great darkness and the experience changed them. Once only an idea, God becomes more and more real. It is the eastertide promise.
The promise is that God is present—even in the darkest grief or unfortunate circumstance. These are all events of ordinary life. There is nothing special or particularly deserving about any these people. What stands out to me is that they reflect the promise of God’s presence. For me, it is not about defeating death. Death will still occur. It is about the lens of faith that affirms that nothing—including death—can separate us from God.
In real life, resurrection is not about belief so much as it is about transformation. There have been times when in retrospect, my life has depended on the thinnest of threads. The fact that I could have just as easily have died in a fall on Stone Mountain probably may not lead anyone else to faith. But for me, the experience is one of many that has been formative. I really don’t know why I’m alive and other people are paraplegic or dead.
I would like to believe I have become a little more humble and a little more grateful. It is up to me to use what I have been given. It all too easily could be gone. Slowly but surely my life has included accepting what I don’t know. Slowly but surely, I see what I have is a gift instead of something I am entitled to. Slowly but surely, I see my job is to live what I have been given without knowing the whys of my good fortune or the whys of my pain. Faith is the lens through which I view my life and tell my stories. And looking at life through that lens has changed me.
I would like to believe that the death of Tabitha served to remind the community of what mattered. God was present in her life, in her death and in her life again. Devotion, good works and trusting God’s presence did not end with her first or her second death.
Love lives on. Suffering and death cannot destroy it. It is a powerful faith claim. It changes lives. Let it be so.