You will be my witnesses, Jesus had told the disciples in Acts 1:8. And indeed the book of Acts is a long record of how his statement was proved to be true. In story after story, the apostles, now empowered by the Holy Spirit, are now doing miracles similar to those Jesus himself had done. In the preceding verses Peter, the one upon whom Jesus promised to build his church, heals a man, Aeneas, who had been paralyzed for 8 years. The language shares some overtones with Jesus healing the man who for 38 years had been lame in John 5. Jesus says: Get up! Pick up your mat & walk! Peter uses the words: Jesus Christ heals you! Get up & make your bed. Both men respond immediately to being healed.
The context of Tabitha has similar echoes of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the young girl in Mark 5. The death of Tabitha happens while Peter is in the area, but not present at the death (as with Jesus’ delay in getting to Jairus’ daughter); Tabitha is laid in an upstairs room. In both stories mourners are present at the time Jesus & Peter arrive, & in both stories Jesus & Peter have them leave the area so they can pray alone at the bodies of the deceased.
Tabitha merits the only use of the feminine form of the Greek word for ‘disciple’ in the New Testament, a rather abrupt insertion in itself – considering the conventional scheme of relations between men & women. This feminine disciple exemplifies further disruption in the usual pattern of things. Here in this new faith community no one stays in his or her place. Common fishermen are preaching to the temple authorities, paralyzed old men are up & walking about & changing lives, & a woman called Gazelle (that’s what her name means) heads a welfare program among the poor at Joppa. In her work, Tabitha is making a new configuration of power in which God uses what is lowly & despised in the world to bring to nothing the things that are.
Widows, by definition, are poor, on the bottom rung of society, without any one to represent them or to protect them. These are the ones to whom Tabitha, the Gazelle, has given life. She dies & her life-giving work dies with her. The community sends for Peter, not telling him why he must come with haste. Her death has caused a crisis in the community. Now the most vulnerable ones have no one. Their coats & garments are tangible evidence of the life of Tabitha & what her death means for them. These widows do not concern themselves with questions of theology, they are not interested in the consolations of the possibility of a better world someday. They are too poor, too consumed with the need to get by one day at a time for such speculation. Tabitha is gone; how will they survive? Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza has noted, “In the first century – as today – the majority of the poor & starving were women, especially those women who had no males that might have enabled them to share in the wealth of the patriarchal system.” We are reading a discontinuous story of the marginalized, a story lovingly recounted by widows & people like them, a story which echoes 2 Kings 4, suggesting like the prophets of old that apostles bring power to bear on behalf of the poor.
And surprise! Death will not have the final say. There is a power loose which is able to break the last reluctant enemy. In this new faith community widows will not be left to perish. Tabitha is restored to them by Peter’s bold word & act of solidarity. The name of Jesus Christ bears the same life-&-death giving power as the creator of the whole universe. All the boundaries of life, the highest heavens, & the breath of life obey his command. Yet the story says that this name belongs to widows & others who have no hope nor power except this name.
This new, discontinuous community, abruptly pushed into the flow of history, stands beside those who have no one, even as its Lord stands beside them. Lacking the power of the world, silver & gold, it has only one resource – the word, the name which transforms all structures & arrangements, changing them from structures of death into structures of life.
Luke explains nothing in these stories, nor can you or I as interpreters. How God’s agents steal life from death is not something so trivial as to be explained. The stories can only be told & heard, asserted, inserted into life as they are thrust into the flow of the book of Acts. It is not Peter who turns our history inside out but the story, the story which proclaims that our history is not closed & that there is someone, some subversive reality, there for even the widows of the world.
Every community, every family, every congregation exists within certain settled, fixed arrangements of power & weakness, life & death. People are told that there is a divinely established chain of being, a fixed order in which we are to find our place & stay there. Tabitha is to stay home & let the men devise an affordable welfare system. Peter is to stay with his fishing nets & leave theology to the scholars, & Aeneas should obey doctor’s orders & stay in bed. But the Word comes to these people in the presence of these who, like Peter, come out among them & stand beside them. These miraculous events are subversive of the present order, for they announce a new age, an age where reality is not based upon rigid logic or cause & effect circumstances but upon God’s promise. Each miraculous intrusion is a sign that, as Jesus said in Luke 11: If I throw out demons by the finger of God, then God’s kingdom has already overtaken you. Every time a couple of little stories like these are faithfully told by the church, the social system of paralysis & death is rendered null & void. The church comes out & speaks the evangelical & prophetic Get up! And nothing is ever quite the same again.
All these stories end with a full restoration of life. Jesus has told his disciples that they will do his deeds, & in the fullness & power of the Holy Spirit, that is just what they do. We usually assume that raising the dead & healing the lame were God-given signs designed for the apostolic age. Most of us have no illusions that we are going to be physical healers to those who are physically dead. But maybe we underestimate the degree to which God has empowered us to do more than we attempt. After all, Jesus said: I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul wrote: A demonstration of the HS is given to each person for the common good. A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, & the interpretation of the tongues to another. All these things are produced by the one & same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.
In the church, God has appointed first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, the ability to help others, leadership skills, different kinds of tongues.
We need to encourage ourselves & one another that now is not a time for us to shrink back but to lean forward. We are Christ’s witnesses for this time & place! We have received the life-giving power of the spirit of the living God! May we leave this place this morning - & every Sunday - convinced that wherever we go death will not have the final word.