During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.
To access audio for the sermon for this week, preached by guest preacher, the Rev. Deborah J. Blood, please go to this link: https://soundcloud.com/chrissy-cataldo/sermon-june-12.
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, ‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
What God Has Made: Acts 11:1-18
There is one practice that that Christians have been perfecting since before we were even called Christians. Communion... maybe you think I'm talking about what we have come to call the sacrament of Holy Communion. We've been doing that for a long time. Nope. I'm not talking about communion. Baptism... maybe you think that I'm talking about baptism.
Nope. I'm not talking about Baptism. The practice I'm talking about we were doing this well before baptism became common practice among Jesus' followers. Wonder what it is? Arguing. I'm talking arguing, and about how the disciples seem to do a lot of arguing, often when they/ we are anxious or worried about changes in our ministries. Twice in the book of Luke, Jesus had to break up arguments among his disciples because they were vying for the title of the "greatest Apostle." Both times they seemed to be arguing when their ministries were in transition: the first time, shortly after Jesus gave them the power to heal on his behalf and the second, shortly before his arrest. Neither of these would be last argument in this story.
Knowing that the apostles resort to argumentation in times of anxiety and fear of change, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to see the newer disciples here in the book of Acts arguing again. This was a time when the early Jesus movement was getting ready to make some significant change. The argument in this case was between some Jewish disciples in Jerusalem and Peter, who has been spending time in the cities of Joppa and Caesarea. These disciples didn't understand why Peter has been hanging out with Gentiles while he was there. In fact, hanging out with Gentiles seems to be well outside of the whole movement's missional purview. Remember, despite a few exceptions here and there, at this point in the Christian story, Jesus' followers were mostly Jewish. In fact, it was often assumed that in order to follow Jesus, one had to become Jewish. It is this assumption that is at the root of the argument that we are talking about today. We would do well to remember the Jews, some until this very day, lived a lifestyle rooted in the Law and in religious codes that shaped their everyday behavior. They understood their religious codes to be a gift from God. To follow the codes was to demonstrate one's faith in God. Included in these codes were instructions on right familial relationships, calls to charity and compassion, limitations on interactions with people of different religious and ethnic groups, and instructions for religious rituals, hygiene, and food preparation.
Beyond serving as faith practices, these religious laws also helped to preserve a specific Jewish identity, a very important purpose for this small ethnic group that was often surrounded by powerful and warring neighbors. Colonizing empires who could easily swallow up and destroy smaller ethnic communities. Living according to religious codes based in the law seemed like one way that God saved them from destruction and kept them alive as a community. Their faith was their culture. It kept them together in the face of oppression. You can probably imagine that for some people, to threaten or dismiss the law was to threaten the very thing that held them together... it was to threaten God. Even Jesus was clear that he had no plans to ignore the law. His own ministry seems to emphasize certain parts of the law, in particular the parts about loving God and loving one's neighbor. Given the importance of the religious codes in everyday Jewish life, we should not be surprised that the Jewish disciples would question Peter, who was also Jewish, if his actions seemed to go against the law. Something important must have happened in he was willing to ignore the rules around which he had built his life.
It turns out that Peter thought something pretty incredible happened in Caesarea, something that would greatly expand his idea of what Jesus' actual mission was. He seems happy to tell the other disciples what had happened. They needed to know the new ways that God was working in this world. He learned all of this while in the home of people that he had been taught to see as unclean. The first incredible thing happened when Peter was staying in the home of a man named Simon, a tanner, who lived in Joppa. This is how Peter described what happened: Peter was hungry and a member of Simon's household was making him lunch. Peter fell into a trance while he was thinking about the meal that was being prepared for him. He saw a large sheet being lowered down towards him, like a tablecloth over a Thanksgiving table. As the table was being set in front of him, he saw an abundance of animals on the table, including animals that he was not supposed to eat. He probably saw a lobster and some shrimp, maybe a pulled pork barbeque sandwich, or even a cheeseburger. He was shocked when heard a voice tell him that he could eat all of it. Peter knew the law forbade it and said no. He had never eaten anything that was not included in his religious code. But, the voice told him two more times, to eat what had been placed before him. The voice said, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane or unclean." Then, just like that, the whole surf and turf table was zipped back up to heaven.
Peter told his friends in Jerusalem that while he was standing there, puzzled about this heavenly meal, three men showed up. The Spirit told him to go with them. It turns out that these men were sent by Cornelius, the God-fearer. So, Peter and several more Jewish disciples, went with them to Cornelius' home. When he arrived, Cornelius told him of his own amazing vision. Cornelius was a God-fearer, a Gentile who loved the Jewish God and followed some of the commandments, though he hadn't officially converted. He is described as devout, sharing his wealth and praying constantly to God. Cornelius said that an angel had appeared to him and said that Cornelius' prayers and acts of justice had ascended as a memorial before God. The angel then told Cornelius to send for Peter. Cornelius then waited for Peter to share what God had told him to share.
It was at this very moment that Peter realized why he had seen the vision of the heavenly banquet. The vision was to help him know that all people who worked for justice and loved God, regardless of their ethnicity or whether the followed all of the law, could be a part of the kin-dom of God that Jesus was helping them build. The vision helped him see that all people were welcome. He said that he now truly understood that God showed no partiality, and he began to share with Cornelius and his whole household the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. While Peter was teaching, something else amazing happened... Like upper-room, Pentecost morning, tongues of flame amazing. The Holy Spirit, yes, that Holy Spirit, poured out onto the Gentiles, and they, too, began to speak in languages they did not know and extol God.
And, in yet one more miracle, Peter looked around at a room full of people whom he had been taught his whole life to avoid... people he may have even been taught were dangerous and could pull him away from right relationship with God, and he saw God working in them just as surely as God had worked on his own heart and through his own hands. He said to the other Jewish disciples, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" He could not deny that the Gentiles were part of Jesus' on-going, ever-evolving mission. He knew that they were his siblings in Christ. He said, "Can anyone withhold baptism from these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" No. Nobody could. The Gentiles were baptized. And, the Body of Christ just got a little more interesting.
What Peter shared with the disciples back in Jerusalem was that the Body of Christ will always be rooted in the Law, but the law is more like roots that spread across a field than walls that define strict, immovable boundaries around God. What he shared was that the walls which they had once felt were absolutely necessary for their survival were now not the only way to enter into a relationship with God. The Holy Spirit was moving beyond those walls, expanding God's reach into the hearts all kinds of people, even the people that they had always been taught to avoid. I believe that this scripture is asking Jesus' modern day disciples an important question: who are the people we need to be reminded are included in God's grace? Maybe immigrants, transgender folks, people with little education, people who have different political views that we do? Who would we be surprised to see across the table of a heavenly banquet? Are we ready to see the image of God in all of God's people? I hope we are. It sure makes the heavenly banquet more interesting.
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mitzi J. Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2828
Kyle Fever: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1617
James Boyce: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=566
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 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.’ 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. 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Wrapped in Love: Acts 9:36-43
Tabitha is that woman you know who is a cancer survivor who also knits hats for the chemo room. She knows from experience how cold it gets when you're in treatment. She knows that it is easy to feel lonesome when you're on isolation. So, she knits, or maybe crochets, little warm reminders that she is thinking of you as you work to get well and to remind you that God is with you while you sit there with the needle in your arm. Dorcas is the 10 year-old boy who, having lived in homeless shelters with his family, takes his own money and buys fabric. He gets sewing lessons from his mom. Now that his family has some stability, he wants to help other kids who were in the position that he once was in. He has learned to make them stockings and Easter bags. He plans to make them clothes. He knows that the kids at the shelter will need clothes. With fingers fleet as gazelles, Tabitha lives on in the art professor to sets up his sewing machine on the sidewalk in San Francisco, mending the clothes of anyone who needs it and also in the woman from Iowa who sewed more than 1,000 dresses to send to children in need. Tabitha, also called Dorcas, whose name means Gazelle, was the first woman explicitly called a disciple in the book of Acts. What did she do that merited being called a disciple? She saw people in need and she helped them. She wrapped people in love, the love that she had come to know through her faith in Christ.
In all likelihood, Tabitha was a woman who had a little money and she used it to support her ministry. It is clear that several women of similar means were some of the greatest benefactors of the early Christian movement. Their financial support allowed the traveling disciples to spread Christ's message far beyond Jesus' original home in Galilee. Perhaps Tabitha was a widow of a wealthy man. Perhaps she was a business woman like Lydia, who we will meet later in Acts. Lydia sold luxurious clothe to wealthy people. If Tabitha was similarly employed, and not currently married, she would have been free to spend her money as she pleased. She used those funds to serve her neighbors and to serve Christ, becoming a beloved and well-respected disciple of Christ. When she became sick and died, people were bereft.
In the same way that the women went to clean and tend to Jesus' body, Tabitha's friends and fellow disciples took great care with her body. They washed her and took her to a place of great respect, the upper room of a home, possibly her own home. While common things happen in lower rooms (sometimes they were even used to house livestock), it is important for us to remember that in our recent scripture, when we have heard about upper rooms, something miraculous has happened there. Back in Jerusalem, the first disciples were in an upper room of a home when the Holy Spirit filled them. It is even possible that Tabitha was with them when it happened. When we hear that Tabitha has been taken to an upper room, it is supposed to be a clue that something special is going to happen. Some friends waited with her body. Other friends went to find Peter. All of her friends hoped that they might be a part of yet one more upper room miracle.
The author of Luke and Acts recorded three resurrections in the book of Luke. Jesus returned a son to a widowed woman with no other family and a daughter to a leader called Jairus and his wife. Jesus himself came back to life after three days of death. It seems clear that the group of disciples who had gathered to mourn Tabitha had similar hopes for Tabitha. Perhaps they sent for Peter with the hope that, now that the Holy Spirit resided in him, he, like Christ, could bring the dead back to life. Peter hurried to the home where they waited. When he arrived, he met many women in mourning. These women, widows who had no family to care for them, wept and showed them clothes that Tabitha had lovingly made them. Asking for some time with Tabitha's body, the mourners left and Peter knelt to pray. He turned back to the body and said three simple words, "Tabitha, get up." Thank God, she did. Peter made sure that the widows, whom she served, and the other disciples, whom she happily served beside, were the first ones to see her return. How overjoyed they must have been? Their friend and benefactor had returned. Her good works on Christ's behalf would continue.
Now, I think it is clear why the author of this book included this story. From the beginning of both Luke and Acts, the author say that they are sharing these stories so that you will hear them and believe. This is one more miracle that demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit and the life-giving potential of Christ' love. The author probably also wanted to make sure to establish that Peter was a key leader in the early Christian movement, hence the reminder of Pentecost in this upper room story. However, just because the author had one intention, that does not mean that there is only one interpretation of this story. Any of us who have ever told a story outloud or written one down know that the author's intended meaning isn't usually the only meaning. The Spirit can move in all kinds of ways, drawing our attention to a varieties of meanings in a text. I think we would do well to pay attention to another important part of this story. I think we need to pay attention to what it tell us about the nature of discipleship.
On Pentecost, we were reminded of the expansive prophecy of Joel, who assured us that the Good News of God's restoration of this world would come through all kinds of people: Young and old, men and women, enslaved and free. The primary symbol of this prophecy is that of the Holy Spirit alighting on the 11 apostles and giving them the power to speak languages they hadn't known. It is a flashy, wild story, with flames and loud, almost drunken, speech that took place during a busy religious festival. In that story, discipleship meant being willing to give oneself over to the untamed machinations of the Holy Spirit in order to welcome all kinds of people into the Body of Christ. But, remember, Tabitha is called a disciple and her good works are not described in such raucous terms. The Holy Spirit isn't there in a mighty rush of wind. Instead, the Spirit is quiet, present in the consistent creak of a spinner's wheel, the click of her knitting needles, the snap of her scissors on thread. Yes, the Holy Spirit may be a wind that completely re-orients your bearings. But, it may also be the steady, rhythmic motion of a foot to treadle and a needle through clothe. Peter wasn't the only one doing Christ's work in Joppa. Tabitha was, too, just a different part of it.
Do you remember how Jesus' described his mission at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke? He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." To follow Jesus... to act in accordance with his spirit... means that you will tend to those same things. At Pentecost, the Eleven did this by speaking in ways that made the Gospel more accessible to a wider range of people. In Tabitha's story, she did this by using her relative wealth and privilege to prioritize the needs of some of the poorest people in her community. When she looked at them, she saw fellow children of God, and made sure that their basic needs were covered. While the Bible story shares that news of Tabitha's resurrection inspired many more people to follow Jesus, my hunch is that her generous spirit and advocate's heart had already taught the widow women an important lesson about Jesus.
The author of Luke and Acts continually brings us back to the idea that God, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is a life-restorer and one who brings life into barren places. Tabitha's story reminds us just how expansive this restoration of life can be. Life can be restored through an action as simple as the creation of a garment for one who is deeply impoverished and as radical as the resurrection of the dead. Oppression and illness and captivity have many faces. Grace needs to have just as many. When we, like Tabitha, use our privilege to serve and advocate for our neighbors, we are living out one of those facets of grace. I pray that we can leave a legacy of love as powerful as Tabitha's. May we all be willing to show just how expansive God's grace can be.
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Mitzi Smith: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2814
James Boyce: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=565
Gail R. O'Day, "Acts" in The Women's Bible Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Loretta J. Reynolds, "The Secret of Greatness: Acts 9:32-42," preached at Danforth Chapel at Berea College in March 1998
Three of the Tabitha examples:
Xavier Elliot: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3134588/Ten-year-old-boy-lived-six-homeless-shelters-Army-veteran-dad-returned-Iraq-PTSD-starts-charity-project-sewing-clothes-kids-need.html
Michael Swain: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/tenderloin-sewing-machine-tailor-mend-community/
Lillian Weber: http://wqad.com/2014/08/14/pay-it-forward-99-year-old-womans-mission-to-help-children/
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.