Peter has been busy. Since preaching his first sermon at Pentecost, Luke tells us he’s been going “here and there among all the believers”sharing the good news and healing the broken in the name of the resurrected Jesus. Today the narrative finds him in Lydda.
When a group of folks in nearby Joppadiscover Peter’s so close, they send two people to him with the request to come “without delay.” A beloved member of their community has died. They wantPeter to bring her back to life. Happily for them, he does.
So, here we are with another resurrection story—Jesus on Easter, Tabithatoday. Another person who was dead is brought back to life. It happens a lot in the New Testament. Admittedly, resurrection is an important theme for Christians; it’s at the heart of our faith.
But focusing on the miraculous bodily resurrection of yet another 1st century person… That’s difficult after the week we’ve had, isn’t it? Because Lingzi Lu, KrystleCampbell, Martin Richard, and Officer Sean Collier, victims of the Boston Marathon bombing—they’re not coming back to life, are they? The 14—maybe more—people who died near Waco in the fertilizer plant explosion—they’re not coming back to life, either. And the hundreds of people with life-threatening and life-altering injuries from these two tragic events—their lives are forever changed. And the thousands—maybe millions—of people who now are walking around afraid or are suffering the devastating effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder —that healing process will take months, even years.
So, Tabitha’s bodily resurrection, while intriguing, might not be the most hopeful part of this story for us today. It’s great that she was resurrected, but—today—that’s probablynot the part of the story to which we can most easily relate.
So, to what part of it can we relate? In light of all that’s happened this week, where is the hope for us in the story of Tabitha’s resurrection?
While the resurrection itself is important, I think we might find more hope this week in what makes that resurrection possible: Tabitha’s community.
Think about it. How did Peter even know to go to Joppa and see Tabitha? He wouldn’t have known at all if Tabitha’s community hadn’t sent for him. If they hadn’t sent for Peter, Tabitha’s death would have been the end of the story. But they did send for Peter.
Don’t you wonder why? Who was Tabitha that her community went to such great lengths to see that she was brought back to life?
We’re told that Tabitha “was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” And the fact that both her Aramaic and Greek names are mentioned suggests that she was active and known for her good works in the wider public community. So, it’s obvious that Tabitha/Dorcas was active in serving others. With her death, her work in the community would be sorely missed.
We learn just how important her service was, though, when Peter arrives on the scene. We’re told that “all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”
In our day, widows often are well-cared for and are provided with everything they need after the deaths of their husbands. In 1st century Palestine, though, things were different. Widows who had no male relative to take them in were at the bottom of the social structure. They literally had nothing. A couple of chapters earlier in Acts, the Hellenists—that is, the Greek believers, those who weren’t Jewish—complained because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of the bread. That passage in Acts 6 marks the beginning of the ministry of deacons in the Bible; it was to ensure that everyone in the community was cared for, even “the least of these.”
So, when Luke tells us that widows came to Peter, showing him all the tunics and clothing that Dorcas had made for them—note that Luke uses her Greek name here—he’s telling us that a big part of the reason Dorcas’ community was so distraught at losing her was because shedid care for “the least of these” among them. Her ministry was vital to their community. If she stayed dead, something crucial to who they were as a faith community would be lost. And so, out of deep love and appreciation for her ministry among them, Tabitha/Dorcas’ community pulled out all the stops in their attempt to bring her back to life.They sent for Peter in the hope that he could effect her resurrection.
The widows’ tears in this scene are a powerful witness….They testify to just how important “good works and acts of charity” are, not just to the direct recipients of those acts, but also to the community who witnesses them.
The widows’ tears in this scene are a powerful witness…. They also raise a pointed question: Who will weep for us when we are gone? The widows wept for Dorcas because she had taken time with them, made clothes for them, cared for them. She had treated them with dignity and compassion. The widows wept for Dorcas because she had included them fully in the life of the community.
Who will weep for us when we are gone?
Sr. Mary Margaret wept for her friend Gilchrist, two other nuns, and a boy named Juanito when the jeep they were riding in was swept away in a torrential storm in January 1984.
Sr. Mary Margaret is one of the sisters at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, the monastery I visit regularly. She’d traveled to Charamoco, Bolivia, to visit her friend Gilchrist for a time of rest and renewal. Gilchrist worked on a team of four nuns and two priests with the poorest of the poor in a rural section of Bolivia. Sr. Meg found great solace in assisting with the simple and necessary chores of the team’s work—much of it with Juanito, a Bolivian boy who was deaf, mostly mute, and with significant physical disabilities.
A little over a week into Sr. Meg’s visit, there was a large gathering of Catholic clergy and religious in the nearby city of Cochabamba. At that gathering, several Bolivian lay leaders were going to be commissioned for their work in neighboring villages. Because they had worked so hard training these lay people, Gilchrist and 3 of her colleagues—Srs. Mary and Gerry and Fr. Jack—wanted to travel to Cochabamba for the commissioning service. They decided to go, despite warnings of a bad storm approaching. They invited Sr. Meg to come along, and little Juanito joined them, as he always did.
They hadn’t traveled far when the road began to wash away. Torrents of water came rushing down the mountainside. At one point, the jeep stalled. When Fr. Jack stepped out to check on it, he was swept away. At that point, Sr. Meg climbed out the window and onto the top of the jeep, hoping to help the other occupants get out so they could safely wait for rescue.
But before anyone else could climb out, the jeep dislodged and was caught in the rush of the river gone wild. Sr. Meg jumped off the roof of the jeep and was carried downstream, her body battered by rocks and tree branches. At one point, she was pulled to the bottom of the river and nearly drowned. Eventually, she found her way to a bank, where she stayed for three hours, nearly eaten alive by insects, until she was rescued.
No one in the jeep survived. They found Sr. Gilchrist’s body that night. The other three bodies were found the next day. Fr. Jack survived.
After making arrangements to have the bodies flown back to the States, Sr. Meg accompanied her friend Gilchrist’s body back to Chicago, where Gilchrist’s brother was waiting to receive it. Because she was still deeply traumatized by the events in Bolivia, Our Lady of Grace sent one of the sisters to accompany Sr. Meg home to Indiana on the bus.
Here’s how Sr. Meg describes their arrival at the monastery. “It was three degrees below zero… when our car pulled in. To my stunned amazement, all the nuns, from the oldest to the youngest, were lined up to welcome me at the back door as I greeted them one by one. Sister Geraldine, the oldest, was first to extend her arms and embrace me. Then followed Sister Rosina, Sister Scholastica, Sister Mary Robert, Sister Valeria, Sister Helen Wagner, and on through the tens of other dear sisters. (There likely were about 80 sisters in the community at that time.) I have no idea what I said, or what was spoken to me, or if any words were uttered at all. But as I made my way down the long hall of Our Lady of Grace, I felt deeply touched, both inside and out. I was home.” (Into the Depths)
It’s been a hard week. Our country has lost some good people…and a little more of our innocence. Perhaps we have wept our own tears this week. Perhaps we have been in a place of death. Perhaps we, too, have been desperate for resurrection. Here’s the good news from Tabitha’s story for us today—and Sr. Meg’s: our best chance for resurrection comes from being part of a community. The good news today is that, no matter what happens, it’s always just a little easier to manage if we are part of a community. The good news today—and every day—is that we’re all in this thing together. (“We All in this Thing Together/Blest Be the Tie the Binds”)
<!– 36 –>Peter in Lydda and Joppa
36 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.37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.38Since 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.’39So 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.40Peter 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.41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.