5/13/2019 11:38:59 AM
discipleship with a capital D: Tabitha Was [Sermon Manuscript]
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. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since 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.” So 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. Peter 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. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 12, 2019) on Acts 9:36-43. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Can you imagine what would your life would be like if you only had one shirt?
It’s difficult, I think, to imagine life without all our clothes. Just a few days ago, our big Trash and Treasure rummage sale made sure that space outside the church office was filled with clothing racks packed tightly with every kind of clothing. You could have purchased shorts, jeans, dresses, jerseys, leggings, evening dresses, suits, motorcycle jackets, hats, bags, ties, scarves, winter coats, and so much more. Half the church contained all the items you would need to look professional while at work and to keep yourself comfortable while binge watching your favorite tv show. What held all of us back from buying everything we wanted had less to do with the amount of clothing available to us and more to do with our budget, sizes, and personal style. We live in a moment of history and in a cultural context when we can personally own a lot of clothing. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, for most of human history, people didn’t own much clothing at all. Because until the invention of factories, all clothing was really expensive. Everything needed to make our favorite shirt or favorite hat had to be grown, harvested, and created by hand. There weren’t any online businesses where you could upload an image for your church vacation bible school and have it printed on a thousand shirts. Everything was made one at a time and most items were made at home. As a person, you were financially well off if you had more than a couple of shirts. And you were super fancy if your day look and your night look wasn’t always exactly the same. In the ancient world, there were laws that dealt severe punishments if you were caught stealing someone’s shirt or outfit. Because most people had only one of anything and you could tell a lot about where a person stood in society based on what they wore every day. In a world where every piece of clothing was expensive, the gift of clothing was priceless. And in our reading today from the book of Acts, we meet Tabitha who was known by clothes she freely gave.
We don’t know much about Tabitha. And in fact, this is the only place she appears in all of scripture. At some point in her life, she devoted herself to Jesus but we have no idea when that happened. She might have seen him when he started his ministry in Nazareth or when he spoke in the Temple in Jerusalem. It’s even possible that Tabitha first met Jesus through his friends as they shared their faith with her. We don’t know why Tabitha followed Jesus. All we know is that she did. And she was more than just someone who believed in what Jesus had to say. She, as we read in verse 36, was a disciple.
Now that word disciple might not jump out to you as much it should. Because, throughout scripture, everyone who followed Jesus was lumped into the group known as the disciples. A disciple was typically thought of as a student. They would, through prayer, worship, and scripture reading, study under their teacher Jesus. But a disciple was more than just someone who tried to get information out of Jesus. They were trying to live a life that took seriously everything that made him, Him. Jesus lived as if God’s kingdom was truly near and so disciples were invited to live that way too. A disciple, through the help of the Holy Spirit, walked where Jesus walked; prayed where Jesus prayed; and lived a life that believed God truly loves the world. A disciple takes seriously Jesus’ promise that eternal life starts now.
Tabitha, then, was a disciple and she devoted herself to love. When she died, the community gathered around her to make sure she was buried well. They washed her, laid her in a room upstairs, and surrounded her with their presence. In grief, they sent word to Peter. And when he arrived, he saw that Tabitha wasn’t alone. The community, especially widows, stood around her. Widows were more than women whose husband had died. They were people who, because of patriarchy and systems of oppression, had no usual way to earn money to keep themselves and their family fed. They were vulnerable to abuse, poverty, and homelessness. And they were there, mourning Tabitha. But they were also doing something a little different that we don’t usually hear in the Bible. These widows made sure Peter saw everything Tabitha had made. They showed him the tunics she sewed. They showed him their clothing. They made sure he saw every expensive gift she personally made for each of them. Peter stood there, bearing witness to the life of a disciple rooted in an abundant and consistent generosity. Tabitha, because of her faith, made sure that the vulnerable had the clothing they needed to thrive. She did the hard work to make sure those who society chose to ignore or push aside received the gift of dignity, care, and love that can come from a new piece of clothing. For Tabitha, the widows were not going to be defined by what they lacked. Instead, she gave them a taste of what God’s kingdom was all about. Tabitha didn’t horde, stockpile, or keep for herself the gifts and resources God gave her. Instead, she lived her life as a disciple - and she made sure that others might know that God loved them too.
Being a disciple is not only about being a student; instead, it’s a title and a way of life. And if we knew ancient Greek, the language the book of Acts was first written in, Tabitha’s status as a disciple would have truly jumped out at us. In Ancient greek, language is gendered which means some words are considered male, some female, and others can shift from a male or female form. The word disciple is, throughout the bible, typically always male because any group of people that had at least one male in it, would force that word to always be male. It didn’t matter if a group was 99 women and 1 guy; the word disciple would be, in that case, gendered male. Yet in verse 36, we find ourselves confronted by the only time the Bible uses the feminine version of the word to disciple to describe who Tabitha was. She wasn’t just someone who believed in Jesus; she was a disciple. Which means she was just like Peter; just like Mary Magdalene; she was just like Paul. She lived her life as if Jesus mattered and she knew that Jesus’ generosity of love, grace, and mercy, needed to be reflected in the generosity she gave too. She followed Jesus and that made her love others like Jesus did too. Tabitha wasn’t afraid to do the hard, expensive, and most generous thing possible because she trusted that, no matter what, she belonged to Jesus and Jesus belonged to her. She gives all of us, regardless of our gender, a model of what living the faith looks like. Because all of us, through our baptism and through our faith, were given the same title she shared. We are, right now, disciples of Jesus. So can we imagine how our lives would be different if we, like Tabitha, lived as if being disciple was the only thing we had?
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