Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
May 8, 2022
Scripture: Acts 9:36–43
Happy Mother’s Day. I would love to say that our reading of this scripture lesson about the disciple Tabitha was chosen to coincide with Mother’s Day, but alas, credit for that remains with the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary, who scheduled the reading but likely without any sense that it would fall on Mother’s Day 2022.
We spend much time preparing for the day we observe the resurrection event. We infuse the day we set on the calendar as Easter with sustained focus, with celebration in prayer, praise, song, and proclamation. But Easter is also a season beyond Easter day worth observing and exploring in its own right, as it offers a much-needed opportunity for the church universal, which may be suffering from a narrative collapse, to share its story. The Christian story has become harder to transmit. That has much to do with our more advanced ways of acquiring knowledge. But it is also that that story has become too weighed down with years of contested dogma and doctrine, political and ideological ambitions, and the church’s resistance to change and modernization. But if we are struggling to locate or reclaim the church’s story, or reason, or purpose, perhaps what happens after resurrection—the confession of the risen Jesus, who goes ahead of us, whose purpose and mission are active and awake—is how we keep Easter robustly winsome, powerful, and meaningful in a cold, cynical world.
We can’t find a better resource to help us do that than the Book of Acts. People often forget that Acts is the second half of the Gospel of Luke. It is a continuing saga of the well-ordered account that the writer of Luke-Acts promised to offer. I can hear some of you now: Book 2 is never as good as book 1. But I assure you that this continuing story gives us an account of how the followers of Jesus committed to faithfully living Easter, not just celebrating it; how they practiced resurrection in ways that witnessed to the possibilities of life in the midst of death. Acts shows us a church on the move, spiritually and geographically, a church open to people of diverse backgrounds and traditions, and a church where ministry was not just confined to men or to those of status, even when the prominent role of women and widows was seen as a threat. In a sense, Acts introduces us to a post-resurrection, all-hands-on-deck faith in which people responded to the gospel in their lives everywhere they happened to be.
That faith, that Easter life, was the legacy of Jesus’ ministry to us. In appearances to his disciples after the resurrection, Jesus declared that the disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and they would be his witnesses to the ends of the Earth. Could this be what an Easter life looks like: empowered by the gift of God’s Spirit to be witnesses, to be God’s instruments of service, healing, and deliverance? In our Scripture lesson this morning, we get a glimpse of what it looks like or what it could be like. It looks like Peter, going here and there, being an instrument of God’s healing, deliverance, and the good news of God’s love to all.
In the words of Bishop Will Willimon, it looks like “Peter repeats Jesus.” Those who thought themselves rid of Jesus continue to see Jesus’ work and service lived out through his disciples, repeating the ways Jesus embraced, healed, and delivered all those he encountered. That’s why Peter would go to the disciple Tabitha, empowered by the Spirit to pray for her even though death had come, trusting that the justice of God would prevail. In Peter’s faithfulness the new thing God is doing is a “subversive reality” that will not allow death to close off the movement of God or short-circuit a ministry.
But pay close attention, because the Easter life also looks a lot like Tabitha, “the only woman in the NT explicitly called a disciple” (Levine and Brettler, 218). Tabitha was “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” most especially to the widows, the most vulnerable people among them, and the ones for whom God has explicitly commanded the faithful to care and protect. Tabitha embodies the kind of disciple that John the Baptist and Jesus talked about often in their ministries. It is more accurate to call Tabitha a minister because Luke previously called men who cared for the widows like her ministers. We can imagine the writer’s reluctance to confer that title on a woman, given the need to present Christianity as nonthreatening to that status of men. But Tabitha stands out as a minister in her own right, empowered by the Holy Spirit to make a difference in the world through her works and generosity. See, Easter life has a more radical new look than what prevailed before.
Keep paying attention, because the Easter life also looks like miracles happening. Our world has conditioned us to be suspect of anything characterized as a miracle. Characterize something a miracle, and someone will respond with science to explain it. What did the saints and widows expect when they called on Peter? Why didn’t they bury Tabitha? Were they expecting a miracle? Did they expect Peter to restore Tabitha? Perhaps they know that God is active and awake, working in and through Peter and Tabitha to reveal that Jesus’ ministry and purpose continue. Perhaps miracles are the outcome for people open to the movement of God’s power, God’s justice waiting to be revealed. There is no conjuring. There are no magic words. Peter has no audience. He prays. In light of the resurrection, with the gift of God’s Spirit now active and awake in the world, the locus and centrality of prayer and holiness shifted to places like Tabitha’s home in an upper room where God will do a new thing. That’s why Luke doesn’t explain the miracle. The writer doesn’t share this story to prove or explain anything. It is to bear witness that Jesus’ work, mission, and purpose continue. That the life of discipleship continues and bears witness. Easter becomes that time when we present ourselves, our work, and our abundance as the instruments of God’s healing, deliverance, and restoration.
But it is worth pointing out that there is a lot of Easter living by Easter people out there in the world. We may take it for granted, or perhaps we’ve stopped looking for it. I look back over my life in the church, and in hindsight, so many Easter people have been ministering to me even when I wasn’t aware. When Luke described the widows showing the tunics and clothing that Tabitha had made for them, I remembered how often, as a child, I went with my mother to the church’s sewing circle. Sometimes as many as 20 women gathered in a literal circle sewing, mending, and crocheting, making quilts, blankets, prayer shawls, and other garments. But what I most remembered, and I confess what I have joked about often with my friends over the years, was their conversation. Throughout their work, they talked about who was sick or struggling, who needed a visit or some kind of help, and who was available and when to go spend time with the sick and the shut-in or to go to the senior living residences for prayer or worship. They would check in about what they knew about how people were healing and recovering and share wisdom about medicines, treatments, and home remedies they learned from their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.
I saw it as a humorous example of nosiness and busybody-ness for years. What I would learn much later in life is that what I was witnessing was ministry. I saw Easter living among women empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses. And they did so lovingly and willingly. They were taking care of vulnerable women. They grieved the losses of good women, and they prevailed upon the ordained men to visit and pray with the sick. But they also testified to miracles—the healings and deliverances that confounded science and medicine but were a testament to the movement of God as God had promised.
Unfortunately, much of the world doesn’t get to see the way the church embodies Easter living. Some of it has to do with what the world sees or chooses not to see. But a lot of it has to do with our reluctance to embrace the gift of God’s spirit as a subversive reality in a closed world, to allow the optimism of grace to shape us so entirely that people have no choice but to see our good works and acts of charity, and say “I want to know more.” That being alive and awake in the world mitigates any anxiety about church decline or religious extremism.
The good news is that in Easter and among Easter people, God is still moving and doing justice. During Easter and among Easter people, death doesn’t have the last word. During Easter and among Easter people, widows and saints are not without hope. During Easter and among Easter people, there is a power in the gift of God’s Spirit that heals, restores, and delivers.
The story we have before us bears witness that the work of Jesus continues in Peter, in Tabitha, in the widows, and in the saints. But the work also continues in Plymouth Church. In the Drop-in center; in the community meal; in the children, youth, and families who find community here; in the community fund where our abundance is shared; in our embrace of and service to the immigrant and those without food and shelter; in the gathered worship where prayers of the people are lifted up together; we are the Easter message. We are the Easter message, alive and awake in the world, manifestations of God’s subversive reality that will not allow death to close off the movement of God.