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.
A few years ago, I heard one of the former Bishops of Mozambique, talk about his twelve-year ministry there. Quite interestingly, he’s an American who had spent years in that East African country before they made him bishop.
In this talk, he was comparing the many differences between the Episcopal Church in America and the larger Anglican Church in the southern hemisphere, like Mozambique. During his time as bishop, he would visit these remote villages that had an Anglican parish, but the only way he could reach them was by going up-river in a single engine boat.
Because he was only able to visit these places every few years, the whole town would come out to see him, and the church services would take hours; in part because he would have so many baptisms and confirmations to do.
Here at St. Martin’s, we just confirmed about 70 people, which is astounding, at my last church we had 10 confirmations in three years, but in Mozambique the bishop was confirming 50-60 young people every few days as he made his way along the river.
What astounded him as he visited these different villages wasn’t the sheer numbers though, but the vibrancy of the churches and their ministries. Some had priests in the community who did weekly services, others had one visit every few weeks or months to offer communion, and yet all the churches were thriving.
And it wasn’t the work of one or two lay leaders that made this possible, but everyone in these churches were doing their part, finding ways they could use their God-given gifts to serve the Lord. Young and old, rich and poor participated in the life of their local congregation, and in doing so, more and more of their neighbors were impacted by the church.
As this bishop talked about his experiences with these congregations, you could tell he was coming to a fuller understanding of how the work of the church is done in so many parts of the world. Bishops (and priests for that matter) are used to being “THE ministers” of the church; we’re used to being the ones who problem solve and inspire, to cast a vision and above all else, to lead.
And yet, these congregations along the riverbank, thrived in spite of what you and I would usually consider as obstacles. The bishop soon realized that he wasn’t there to advise or delegate, as much as he was there to be a witness to what God was doing in the life of those churches; to come upon their shore and say, “Surely God is in this place, among these people.”
A similar experience happens to Peter in our reading from Acts 9 this morning. This chapter actually encapsulates a major lesson that the writer Luke was trying to make throughout the whole book of Acts.
Generally, Acts is broken up in two: the first half focuses on Peter’s ministry and the second half on Paul’s. Both of these apostles are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to preach the good news of Jesus.
They are preaching and teaching and healing—doing everything Jesus promised that his believers would be able to do when he left. It is inspiring. God had taken the church’s chief persecutor and Jesus’ greatest denier and made them his evangelists.
Acts 9 is right in line with this Peter and Paul focus. At the beginning of this chapter Paul has his great conversion on the road to Damascus, one of the most well-known stories in all the New Testament about one of the most well-known men in all of Christianity. The chapter starts there with a bang, and it ends with Peter doing some miraculous works.
Clearly, this chapter is just solidifying the fact that God is working wonders through his apostles. But for some strange reason the writer Luke gives us a few important details about Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek). She’s the one that Peter raised from the dead. Even in this situation we could very quickly breeze past her, after all, she is the object (she’s the one being healed) and Peter is the subject (he’s doing the healing).
But Luke tells us that Tabitha had devoted her life to doing good and helping the poor, and when Peter arrives, the widows that she has cared for show him the clothing that she made for them.
In just two lines we’ve learned that Tabitha has spent her life caring for the most vulnerable people in her community. Widows were usually at the bottom of the social ladder; having no family meant no financial or physical protection. They had no one to be a voice for them in Greco-Roman society. But Tabitha had made it her purpose in life to care for these women; to be their voice when no one else would.
And so, when Tabitha fell ill and died, her death created a crisis in the community, and that’s why they called Peter. He’s got to do something. What is going to happen to them if Tabitha is gone? Who is going to care for them?
In these few short verses, we learn just how important this one woman is to the church in Joppa. In so many social and cultural respects she is a nobody, and yet to the women she serves, she is the most important person in the world.
In fact, she is likely the single greatest witness of Jesus’ love and power that they have ever seen. She wasn’t like Peter and Paul, going from one village to the next preaching and converting the masses. Rather she likely stayed in Joppa, rooted in that one particular community, loving her neighbors with no publicity or fanfare day after day, year after year.
Like that Bishop in Mozambique, Peter walks into this vibrant community of faith, and sees the impact it has had on their neighbors. He is first and foremost a witness to what God is already doing in that place, long before Peter ever stepped foot into the city.
He has not come to preach the Good News to these folks; he can see with his own eyes that they are ministers of the gospel already, and he has been called there specifically to care for one of his fellow ministers.
How do we know this? Luke describes Tabitha as a disciple. This may not seem like a big deal, but this is the only feminine form of the Greek word “disciple” in the whole New Testament.
And so, in giving her this title, she is bestowed a great honor, and the quiet work of caring for the poor in her community is memorialized forever. The Apostle Peter knows this woman is a partner in the work of the gospel.
The Book of Acts, in its longer form is known as Acts of the Apostles. But don’t be fooled, this entire book is about how God’s Spirit works in the lives of the apostles…and many, many others.
This is not the Peter and Paul show, but the Holy Spirit’s, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about people like Tabitha and Aeneas, Philip and Lydia, Simon the tanner and Cornelius and his entire household, and how God is doing something that is simultaneously surprisingly wonderful and yet utterly baffling to those who consider themselves the experts in faith.
Undoubtedly, Peter and Paul’s eyes were being opened to the expansive nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in each place they visited. Either the church was already at work in those places when they arrived, or the Holy Spirit had been preparing people to hear and receive the gospel once it was presented to them, and that group would be the one to continue the work in that community once the apostle left for another city.
We mustn’t be lured into thinking that ministry is flashy or even noteworthy to anyone but God. Tabitha’s faithfulness to the poor is a testament to that. The church is filled with people who quietly and diligently serve, and if you think long enough you likely can come up with a list of folks who have done just that for you in your life in Christ.
Tabitha’s of the Church
I can’t help but think of Margaret Ordoubadian who was my childhood Sunday school teacher. She shaped a generation of kids as she taught us the Bible, in her quiet and beautiful way, week after week.
I think about the couple I met at my college church who faithfully took communion every Sunday afternoon to a nursing home, and how many of the residents had become like family to them.
I think about my friend Bill who has served the same small church and the homeless community in downtown Nashville for fifteen years. I will never forget when I walked out the back door of the church after one of the lunch ministries had concluded and saw Bill knee deep in a trash can trying to make room for another bag, while wearing his priest collar. I whispered under my breath, “Now that’s my kind of priest.” And I have tried to live out my ministry like Bill.
And lastly, I think about Joy who has worked for the same nonprofit for years that serves the homeless, the immigrant, and the poor in her community. When anyone has a crisis in that town, they come to Joy. She gets paid too little, she works way too much, and is rarely ever noticed. And yet day in and day out she is there to serve in the name of Jesus.
Pope Francis, who has so wonderfully used his position to raise up the poor and forgotten around the world, once said, “The Jesus who was weak and insignificant in the eyes of politicians and the powerful of the land revolutionized the world.” And if I could be so bold to add, “And Jesus has called us to continue that revolution in his name and through his Holy Spirit.”
Friends, the church is filled with Tabitha’s. For every one bishop or priest in the church there are tens of millions of Tabitha’s—people who are agents of Jesus’ redemption and resurrection, and they are living this out in their office or school, among family and friends, among the rich and the poor.
It is in the ordinary, seemingly mundane rhythm of our life, in whatever part of Houston that we call home, among those neighbors that we may or may not know so well, that you and I are called to share in the revolutionary ministry that Tabitha so beautifully lived out.
God’s Holy Spirit is already working, already moving, and we are called to go and be a part of his work. We are called to be a witness to God’s action, like Peter. And we are called to jump head first into it, like Tabitha.
Truly, the church is filled with Tabitha’s, and actually come to think of it, I see a lot of Tabitha’s here. Go ahead look around… you’re surrounded.
4th Sunday of Easter. Year C. Acts 9:32-43. Story about Bishop Mark Van Koevering. Pic here.