The Rev. Ryan Slifka
Fourth Sunday in Easter
Today we continue with our series “Surprise!” on the book of Acts. All about finding God in all sorts of surprising places and people.
Today’s text begins with a surprise. Though not the good kinds we’ve become accustomed to in the book of Acts. Today’s text begins with a surprise death that rocks a community.
Today we zoom in to this port city on the Mediterranean called Joppa. And here in Joppa it says there’s a disciple, a follower of Jesus, named Tabitha in Hebrew. Dorcas in Greek. Both of which mean “Gazelle.” Its sounds like one of those new-agey names that sounds awesome, but the grandparents cringe every time they have to say it at the playground.
The name fits her energy level. Gazelle, aka Tabitha, aka Dorcas, it says, is “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” The old King James puts it more poetically, by describing her as “full of good works.” Kindness and generosity seem to pour out of her. It’s also points out that woman is filled with God’s grace, God’s life, God’s Spirit. And the natural outcome of God’s grace is gratitude, manifested in loving service. Later on, we discover that though she herself is poor, she spends her time making clothes for people who don’t have any. Incidentally, there are still modern day Dorcas societies throughout the world devoted to clothing people and meet their basic needs. So it goes to show that we’ll never know how our good works will reverberate through history.
The surprise comes, though, when Tabitha-Dorcas-Gazelle leaps her last day. She becomes ill, it says. And she dies. Not sure how, not sure why. It’s a surprise, out of nowhere. A death is bad enough. But this death is really bad. It’s a community of widows. A community of women whose husbands have died. So the only option they’ve found is living together, and because they’re all destitute they depend on each other to simply get by. She’s a fixture, a kind of irreplaceable people who leave a huge hole in skill and energy and leadership. Without Dorcas, they’re in deep.
So this is the death not only of one person. But a whole household. Here death hangs over everybody.
And this is something we’ve talked about from Easter through the book of Acts. In the Bible, the New Testament, especially, death isn’t just something that happens to individuals. Death is not only physical, it’s also spiritual. It’s a power, it’s a force at work in the world. One that holds humanity, and all creation captive. Fear of death leads to violence when we try to escape it, and it leads to despair in the face of it. So in symbolic terms, it’s not just Tabitha-Dorcas-Gazelle who’s died. The power of death has come out of nowhere. It’s invaded this home, taken a beautiful life of loving kindness away, and crushed a whole community. Here death takes down this Gazelle like a stealthy lion, leaving the rest of the herd just waiting to see who’s next.
Now, this all can sound very ancient and superstitious to us modern enlightened people. It’s more subconscious, below the surface and unnamed. But it still operates for us in the same way.
Poverty is an affliction whereby all of your life and energy is put in to simple keeping yourself alive. That’s the deal with Dorcas’ community—they’re already at the end of their tether, on the edge of the cliff just holding on. We see countless lives like this in our soup kitchen, and our drop in.
But we could also extend this further outward in to all the afflicted areas of modern life. This week I couldn’t help but connect the figure of Dorcas to another inspiring disciple of Jesus, Jean Vanier. Vanier, who died this last week, is most famous for his hand in helping to found the L’arche community, a worldwide network of people living with people with intellectual, physical, and developmental disabilities.
In Vanier’s 1995 CBC Massey Lecture, he spoke about the epidemic of loneliness in western culture, and addressed the need for love and community as its antidote. But in it, he took a very biblical approach when he makes his diagnosis.
“To be lonely,” he said. “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unloveable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”[i]
Loneliness is a taste of death, he said. In our loneliness, we know something of the terror of ultimate aloneness. It’s no mistake that in various parts of the Bible, especially in the Psalms, abandonment by and alienation from other human beings is described as being deep in the pit of Sheol. A sort of shadow existence after death.
Loneliness is a taste of death. But it’s also not the only item on the existential menu that contains this ingredient.
Addiction is an enslavement to death. Where we can’t help but serve the very drives that are actually destroying us. Then there’s the vice of greed, which comes from a sense of scarcity where we try to accumulate as much as we can, in order to buffer ourselves from suffering as much as we can. So we can avoid death for as long as we can. Depression, too, at its worst, is when death argues inside of us its case more persuasively than life.
The power of death takes many different forms. But it’s what invades the community of widows in our text, and takes up residence in all of our houses at one time or another. Often without warning. And by surprise.
But as surprising as this whole episode is. There’s an even bigger surprise in store.
These women are desperate. But she’s dead, it says. Which, unfortunately, is not something that can be treated with a pill. There’s no product to buy, no medical professional to consult—other than the coroner. They’re out of options. So they, like so many desperate people, turn to alternative medicine for help.
They must have heard a local faith healer was nearby. A faith healer named Peter. If you remember a few weeks ago, Peter’s the ringleader, the spokesman for the Jesus movement. And one of the hallmarks of the Jesus movement in Acts is healing the sick. Which has given them a reputation. So when their friend Dorcas dies, these widows reach out to him. If you’ve ever had a loved one who’s terminal, you’ll probably know that desperation will drive you to try all sorts of things. Here there’s no other options. Faith healer it is.
And you know, according to the story, it actually works.
Because when Peter arrives, he follows the widows upstairs to the room where Dorcas’ body lay. The widows weep, clutching items of clothing she made. Peter assesses the situation, then he has all the widows leave the room. All alone with the body, he simply kneels down. He kneels down, and he prays. We don’t know what he says to God. But what he says to Dorcas is simply, “get up.” Again, the King James is more poetic, “Tabitha… arise” he says.
And those words are enough. She blinks. Her eyes focus, and there’s Peter standing over her. And, like any woman waking up to the sight of a strange bearded man beside her bed, she’s a little startled. She sit up. Then he lifts her out of bed, gently leading her downstairs to her friends. And soon the news spreads through the town. Local news headline reads: “Gazelle Bounds Back.” Winning over converts left and right.
The chains of death are shattered, and new life is given yet another day. All on account of a simple prayer, and a few words. “Get up.” “Arise.” Or, as another commentator puts it: “Rise up!”[ii]
This is, of course, a miracle story. A woman who is dead is brought back to life. But it’s more than that. It’s a story that shows us the life-giving, healing power of the message of Jesus. A message that somehow accomplishes the very work it proclaims. These words, “get up.” “Arise,” “Rise up.” All of them echo Jesus’ resurrection. When Peter speaks these words, they aren’t a sort of encouragement for Dorcas to try harder to live. She’s dead! But Peter invokes Easter with his words. Words that Christ uses to penetrate the grey cloud of death with God’s life-giving Spirit to pull her back to the light again. And to dispel the clouds from their community.
These simple words, “get up,” and “arise,” are words meant for us, too. We who have tried every method there is to beat death back. But when you’re dealing with death, the only weapon that works is resurrection. God’s power for life that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s a weapon that is aimed not at our enemies, but one aimed at our ears. And directed at our hearts.
These are the words that are able to plow into the graves of our own lives. Not to tell us to try harder, do better, fix a little here and a little there. But to “rise up!” After all, like Tabitha-Dorcas-Gazelle we’re dead! It’s death we’re dealing with. But as Robert Capon once said: “He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable;” Jesus came to raise the dead.[iii] Not only one day in the future. But here and now.
“Rise up”—these are the words that Christ uses to bust down our prison walls. To reach in to rescue us from all our deathly captivities. “Rise up”--this is the Word that brought the church into being. “Rise up--this is the Word that makes big lives of loving grace like Dorcas’ possible. And it’s also the same Word that renders all our little deaths nulls and void. Because it’s the same Word that created the universe. Meaning it can re-create us from the bottom up.
So question is, brothers and sisters… where has death paid you a visit? Where in your life are you in need of this surprising healing? That’s the question.
That’s the question but here’s the promise of the Gospel: Christ is already at work raising you on this side of the grave.
So rise up!
Rise up! You who are dead in your loneliness! Rise up! Today Christ reaches his hand down in love to you in the form of the church, the Body of Christ! Those people formerly known as dead!
Rise up! You who are shackled to death in addiction! Rise up! Today Christ shifts your burden from your own shoulders to his to help you carry your cross! It’s not over!
Rise up! You who are buried in suffering, sadness, poverty and hatred! Rise up! Because today Christ pours out his heart for you. Christ whose generosity overwhelms all greed, in love dives deep enough to rescue you from failure and despair!
Where ever death has paid you a visit, rise up! Rise up, each and every one of you. Because in the words of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians by “his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our trespasses. Because it is by grace we have been saved!” (Eph. 2:5)
So get up, and live! Run and share this good news with all who believe that life is over. Because Christ is risen! Death has been thrown down for good, and grace has been lifted up for all time.
Like gazelles, rise up and run.[iv] In Jesus’ name.
[ii] Lucy Forster-Smith, “Untold Lives,” Sermon from Fourth Presbyterian Church website http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2018/070118.html
[iii] Robert Farrar Capon’s Kingdom, Grace and Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 317.
[iv] The ending here was inspired by Frank G. Honeycutt, “Raising Gazelle,” Marry a Pregnant Virgin: Unusual Bible Stories for New and Curious Christians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2008), 172-176.