Title: Burst upon us
Text: Acts 6:36-43
Date: April 25, 2010
Author: Catherine Thiel Lee
Well, I sort of laughed to myself last week at Isaac’s sermon. He preached about the story of Jesus eating breakfast after his resurrection with his disciples, on how ordinary it all was, and on what it means for us to live our ordinary lives in light of the resurrection. It was a sermon all about the “ordinary.”
So this week, we’ll talk about miracles. We’re going to read a miracle story from Acts. It’s no “ordinary” miracle story either. No, this is nothing short of Peter raising someone from the dead. It’s the fourth Sunday of Easter and we are talking about signs and wonders, the power of the resurrected Christ unleashed on his people. Peter the naked fisherman isn’t going about his daily business tonight, he’s raising Tabitha from the dead.
Now, my own reaction to miracle stories is often a bit confused, because my life looks a lot more like the disciples counting their 153 fish at breakfast than a resurrection. My life is far more ordinary.
When it comes to miracle stories, there are a few reactions I may have given my mood. See if any of these resonate with you:
- I am amazed. “Wow! Really? Wow!” And then, (usually a short time) later, that wears off.
- I’m sort of taken with power of the miracle worker. I wonder if we should be working miracles too? I mean, the power of the resurrected Christ dwells in us, right? Shouldn’t we be raising people from the dead? Healing the sick? Praying for the miraculous release of captives and God’s hand in the most unlikely of difficult situations? Surely we should go and do likewise? And then, I start to think about times when that power seems to fail, times when people abuse their claims to that power. Unanswered prayers. Faith healers who trick people out of their money. People whom I love who have died tragically and are just…gone. And I start to doubt that power. And I distrust those who talk about it too easily.
- (And, this is probably the one I tend towards most often…) A miracle? I just write it off. “Well, that’s nice for them. But that’s not what my life looks like.” And I wonder, “what do any of these miracles have to do with anything in my life?”
So the thing I want to get to tonight is, what does this miraculous story have to do with us and our “ordinary” lives?
The story is simple enough: there is a devout woman named Tabitha, renowned for “always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36). She gets sick and dies. Members of her community carefully wash her body and place it in an upper room, presumably for mourning. Some other disciples hear that Peter is in the neighbourhood and send for him to come. When he arrives, he attends to the mourners, including a group of widows who weep as they show him the robes Tabitha made during her life. Peter sends everyone else out of the room. He kneels, prays, and then commands the dead woman, “Tabitha, get up.” She opens her eyes, looks at Peter. He gives her his hand, raises her up, and presents her alive to the rest of the believers.
One of the things that is interesting about this story, astounding really, is its location. It is a story about women. Women at the time of the early church, I’m sure many of you know, generally had little in the way of culturally sanctioned power. For the most part, they were subservient to the men around them. They were not “important” people. Not the people about whom you write important stories.
And these are women doing rather mundane things. Tabitha, and likely the women around her, make clothing. They work with their hands, which was considered a common, even demeaning set of tasks. It’s hard work—no sewing machines, no fabric shops. Spinning, weaving, sewing, all meticulously done by hand. This is textile labour, work traditionally, and still today, left to those in society who don’t have other options, anything “more important” to do.
And the story goes further—we’re not just talking about women, women making clothes, but widows. In a society built around male heads of household, unattached, older (even if not that old) and less desirable for marriage women were, if nothing else, yet another rung lower on the ladder of cultural influence. Though not necessarily destitute, widows were vulnerable and lived at a great risk of falling into poverty. Such a group may have included former prostitutes who, as converts, were now both unmarriable and unemployed, with no place in society.
The setting of this story is not a site of power. It’s not a strategic place. If you were a church growth specialist, this would not be your target group, nor the one about whom you told stories. This is a small room filled with a bunch of women. Clothing makers. Widows.
And this is God’s unlikely choice for the setting of miracle and restoration. Tabitha is his choice as Jesus’ “successor.”
For all the unusual amount of detail in Luke’s narrative, we don’t know a lot about Tabitha. Some speculate that she too was a widow, and/or a wealthy almsgiver. Perhaps she provided the widows around her with clothing, or maybe she organized them to work together to make garments. But the text doesn’t actually tell us any of that. It only says that she was a woman who did good and helped the poor, that she died, that she made clothes, and that she had a devoted group of widows who were her friends and community.
What we do know is how Luke characterizes Tabitha. He calls her a disciple, the only time in the New Testament that word is used for a woman. Her Greek name, which means gazelle, is the same as the metaphor used for the beloved in Song of Songs. We know she is compassionate, we know that she is loved. Her friends wash her body, lay it out for viewing and mourning, and weep over her life and death. And we know Luke intentionally sets her up to look like Jesus. For one she, like Christ, rises from the dead. And Luke’s choice of words, “Peter presented her to them alive” are nearly identical to the words he chooses in Acts 1:3 when the resurrected Jesus “presents himself alive.”
Tabitha is not a stock character. She is not just a “woman.” She is not an anonymous marginalized person who is merely acted upon. This is who Luke tells us is raised from the dead: a real person, a particular, loved member of a particular community. She may well be unimportant and marginal in her culture at large, but Tabitha is God’s beloved. She is Christ’s successor to resurrection. She looks like Jesus.
And then there’s Peter. In this story Peter—our same rough-edged, fishing-naked-in-the-boat, Christ-denying Peter—is walking around acting like Jesus. Really acting like Jesus. Luke’s Peter here does the same things Jesus does when he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead. He sends people out of the room, he commands her to “get up,” he takes her hand, he presents her alive to the others. Luke is clearly riffing on the other story, retelling it with the same sounds and a few tweaks. Peter commands the power of the resurrected Christ, and has the audacity to act like him too.
So here’s our miracle—the miracle of miracles: a dead woman brought back to life. Just like Jesus. The first post-resurrection resurrection.
Now, what do we do with it?
Miracle stories can be lots of things: an example to follow, an “inspiration” for faith and belief, a reminder of times when God is clearly at work, when He does answer prayers. But those reasons, though they are valid, leave me wanting. To me, they fade to easily and just don’t quite do justice to, well, the miraculousness of it all.
A miracle is mysterious, not utilitarian. We can’t explain it. It is more than a reminder, because we’re not just remembering the event itself. The meaning, the application, the memory, it all eludes us.
William Beardslee writes about the power of radical elements lying in their deconstructed states. He takes Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the poor.” It’s a radical statement. It is strange, hard to pin down, virtually impossible to “apply.” Christians have been trying, and arguing, for centuries about what to do with these words, “blessed are the poor.” From one perspective the words are useless: we don’t really know what they mean and we don’t know what to do in response.
But, as Beardslee says, “the positive effect is that [the saying] unleashes [an] untamable power … in order to challenge the reader at the deepest level and undermine any interpretation that might domesticate it.”
Listen to that again, “the positive effect is that [the saying] unleashes [an] untamable power … in order to challenge the reader at the deepest level and undermine any interpretation that might domesticate it.”
Now hang with me here for just a minute: can we apply the same principle to a miracle story? Can we read a miracle story for that deconstructive moment, that moment that changes our reality? As a radical element that refuses to be domesticated? Not just as a unit within an overall structure of plot and theology. Not just as a suggestion for emulation, a moral example, or a charismatic instruction booklet. These interpretations have value, certainly. But especially in the face of cynicism and the failures of history—the unanswered prayers and the swindling faith healers, in the face of the difficulties of living out our Christianity on the ground…
Maybe a miracle story can break in on us, throw us off, defy our attempts at interpretation and understanding and application.
Last week we sang the hymn, “Holy Spirit come with power,” and this is the refrain: “Burst upon your congregation.” That’s how I want us to read this story—to allow it to burst upon us, upon our minds and hearts, upon our imaginations and lives.
A miracle just is! It is a sign and sacrament of Hope. Freedom. Mourning comforted. Joy. Restoration. The power of the risen Christ unleashed on earth. The kingdom of God breaks in, on them, on us, for a moment—and we receive. And when the moment has passed, the story remains lodged in our hearts, un-understandable perhaps, but present through our daily grind and weariness.
So what glimpse does Tabitha’s story give us into the kingdom of God? How does her story break in on ours?
If we go back to Acts we see that Luke sandwiches Tabitha’s story between two “big” episodes in Acts. Paul’s conversion comes just before it in chapter 9 (that’s important—Paul later spreads Christianity throughout the known world and writes a good chunk of the New Testament). Then in chapter 10, just after Tabitha’s story, we have Peter’s encounter with a Gentile named Cornelius (that’s pretty huge to the history of Christianity too—it opens the boundaries of the new Israel to include non-Jews…including most of us in this room…). A lot of commentators read Tabitha’s story and are a bit puzzled as to why it is here. It seems fairly insignificant. They call it a “narrative transition” used to reintroduce Peter in the story line. They call it a “dip in the action.” Pardon my crude visual aid here, but if they charted the plot of Acts, it might look something like this:
(show picture: a line with a “v” in the middle jutting downward—diapgrams a “dip” in the action)
But I don’t buy it. I don’t think this story is some sort of low point, a break, a “dip.” I think this story is a high point. I think chapters 9 and 10 of Acts look more like this:
(flip picture upside down: now it is a line with a peak in the middle)
Why do I think this? Not because the setting and the people are powerful and important. Not because it tells of a major shift in Christian history. Here’s the thing: it’s a picture of heaven—right in the middle of everything.
Our passage for today from Revelation is a vision of the saints gathered around the throne of Christ, clothed in white robes, worshipping. Listen:
They are before the throne of God…[and] never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 7:16-17).
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” Do you see it? There’s no more crying. Do you see the picture of Tabitha’s community? The mourners have been comforted, there is joy and thanksgiving and wonder and praise. Death has been overcome and the community is restored. Heck, I can practically imagine those white robes that the saints in Revelation are wearing as the robes that Tabitha made herself. This is no “dip in the action” in Acts. In the story of Tabitha, Luke offers us nothing short of a picture of heaven, a glimpse into the kingdom of God, breaking in right here on earth.
And that makes sense of the way I read the rest of the Bible too: God always seems to be turning things upside down. The kingdom tends to break-in in the most unlikely places. Among fishermen and widows, in inconspicuous, unexpected places. Even to a little community of his children…even to his daughters…even to us.
We can read the book of Acts as a history, as a string of theological speeches, as the establishment of the early church. Or we could read it, and all of Scripture, as a host of stories that are surprising, astonishing, inspiring jewels laid out one after another in the crown of the most unlikely king of the universe.
Jesus’ kingdom is coming. Jesus’ kingdom is here. Here in a little upper room where a fisherman raises some woman from the dead, and restores her to her loving community.
I’m going to pray for us, and while I pray I ask that you just hold out your hands.
Jesus we pray, we ask—burst upon your congregation.
As Peter received your power, as Tabitha received your healing and her own life back, as the widows received their friend, have mercy on us and help us to receive.
To receive your grace
To receive the outpouring of your Spirit.
To receive the hand of our neighbor.
To receive the power of the resurrected Christ.
To receive the comfort of God, who wipes away every tear.
To receive hope.
To receive the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.