Sermon: The raising of Tabitha (May 8, 2022)
Let me tell you a story. Let me tell you a story about a very special woman. A woman deeply loved by those who knew her. A woman well known for her almsgiving. A woman known for her care of widows. A woman known for her compassion. A woman known for her faith.
Let me tell you a story about a widow. Her name was Tabitha in Aramaic but she was known by other names as well. She was called Dorcas in Greek and once her story was told beyond the known world she would be called Gazelle in English.
Tabitha lived in the the city of Joppa. Joppa was a port city in Northern Judea. She was a widow which meant that she did not have the protection of a husband. We do not know if she had sons to care for her or other family members. But it seems that she was a woman of some means. Tabitha took seriously the command to look after the widows. She used her means and her talents to look after those most vulnerable, those on the margins, those without power or voice. Tabitha cared for the widows. Tabitha was constantly ministering to others. She used her talents for handicrafts to make clothing for the widows. She lived out her faith. She was a central figure in her community.
Tabitha was called a disciple. She is the only named person in the New Testament to be called a disciple using the feminine form of the word. The only person.
And as she ministered to her community at one point she fell ill and died. The widows, the saints, the believers in Joppa were beside themselves with grief. The women washed and laid out her body and prepared her for burial. But some were not yet ready to say goodbye. Not yet ready to see the end of her ministry. These were believers who felt that something could be done. And so they sent messengers to the Apostle Peter asking him to come - but not telling him why.
But they believed he could do something. Peter had become known as the leader of the Jerusalem believers. He had assumed a leadership role and was building the community of believers. He was building the Church.
Peter answers the summons and comes to Joppa. Here he finds the widows gathered around Tabitha - once more in an upper room. They are filled with grief. They are not professional mourners crying out for a stranger. These are the women Tabitha cared for - the women she made tunics and other garments for. These were the women - the widows she protected.
They show Peter the garments - they tell him of her acts of kindness and compassion. They tell him she is a beloved member of the community.
And they think he can do something about her death. They believe. They have heard the stories of the resurrection of Jesus. They have heard the stories of the raising of Lazarus, they know the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. And they really believe that Peter can do something.
Peter removes the widows from the room. He kneels down and prays and then tells Tabitha to get up. And she does.
Peter is alone in the room. We only have the stories told about this incident. We have the testimony of the widows, the believers of Joppa. In other healing stories we have the name of Jesus invoked at the time of healing or the moment the miracle occurs. Not in this story. It is Peter, alone, in prayer and then the command to get up. And Tabitha does.
And this is where the story ends for us. We only have the tag line that Peter stayed for some time with a tanner.
We do not know what happened to Tabitha or the widows. We do not know what happened in Joppa. But we are told, once more, that people came to believe. And that is the core of the story.
Is the main character Peter or Tabitha? We could make an argument for both - and scholars have and continue to do so.
Tabitha was guided by a core of care and compassion for others. She gained a beloved community by always sharing her resources. Tabitha’s dedication to her community brought her back to life. The story of Tabitha led many to believe in Jesus. To follow “The Way” and to work for the Kingdom. The story of Tabitha has inspired many to care for those on the margins of society. Tabitha was called a disciple.
Tabitha was a prominent disciple because of the networks she created. Her story is important because of her gender. She was never formally appointed as a deacon. She was never in any formal leadership position but she served the widows as an equal.
Tabitha had no formal training to be a deacon or a disciple. She did what she could do - she made clothing, she loved her neighbour as herself. She cared for those most vulnerable - widows with not protection of a male family member.
It was those widows - those women who wept for Tabitha. Those were the women that Peter first showed the risen Tabitha. The women in this story acknowledged what she did and validated it. They acknowledged and validated her ministry - for that is exactly what it was. Ministry to the widows. There was no need for hierarchy here. This was a community of equals.
We know that there was squabbling among the disciples who followed Jesus - who would be greater than the other? We know that there were tensions between those who would follow Peter and those who would follow Paul.
But that is not the case for the disciple Tabitha. Again - the only person named in the New Testament as disciple using the feminine.
So who was the main character? I think we are supposed to think it is Peter - Peter who raised Tabitha from the dead. Peter who was growing in stature. Peter who relies on prayer to restore a beloved member of a community.
But it feels like Tabitha upstages Peter somewhat. It is her work, her community, that seems to matter in this story. Tabitha’s story is an example of the importance of the work we do. In the end, it does not really matter if this work is acknowledged by those in power. It does not really matter what title we hold. What matters is how we live out our faith - in big ways and small ways. Tabitha is an example of how one person can impact a community. Tabitha’s story shows us how the Kingdom of God is.