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.