“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

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Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

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