05/08/22 – A Female Disciple, Oh My!

A FEMALE DISCIPLE, OH MY!

May 8, 2022
4th Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-43; Ps.23; Rev.7:9-17: John 10:22-30
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

It is ironic that this week before Mothers’ Day, the news has focused on women. The uproar has been over a draft of a Supreme Court opinion supporting the abolishment of the Roe vs. Wade decision, which has been upheld in the courts for over 50 years, which was leaked creating a firestorm of public reaction. Today, our reading from Acts also focuses on women – specifically, the role of women in the early church, who cared for marginalized women when others had failed to do so. The story of Peter resurrecting Tabitha to continue her good works for the widows of Joffa is a powerful example of a Christian witness. The author of Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, highlights the importance of this story by referring to the woman he resurrected by name, a rarity in the bible, even using two names. But even more astonishing, the author refers to her using the Greek feminine word for disciple – the only time this occurs in the New Testament.

The readings from Acts during the Easter season, in place of an Old Testament reading, can be confusing because they are not read in the order they appear in Acts or chronologically. The promised divine guide and comforter, the Holy Spirit has been given to Peter and a multitude of people gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost in chapter 1. To better understand the significance of Tabitha’s discipleship, one must go back to Acts 6. At that point in the story of the early church, complaints had been made against the male disciples, in regard to their lack of impartiality in caring for the Aramaic widows over the Greek widows. The name, Tabitha, is Aramaic, while Dorcus is the Greek version of the name, which means gazelle. The gazelle is noted for its graceful motion and… speed.  That was Tabitha, gracious and unhesitatingly active, letting nothing deter her in doing what she could to help the helpless.

The men who were tasked with taking care of the needy after the complaints about the Greek widows were led by Stephen, who became the first Christian martyr. Luke tells us Stephen and his band of deacons performed “many signs and wonders” in the countryside. Stephen was taken before the Council because he was performing his duties in the name of Christ and preaching the gospel as he went about his healing and charitable deeds. A violent mob, members of what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, argued with Stephen. They planted people in the crowd who testified they had heard Stephen saying blasphemous things against Moses and God. We can see in Acts, chapter 6, that lying about an opponent and spreading conspiracy theories is an old trick to stir up an angry mob. These “Freedmen” were using their freedom to deny Stephen his.

The anti-abortion lobby has used these tactics of lies and deception to shock and enrage others to win them over to their side. To refer to them as “pro-life” is absurdly misleading. Efforts to protect and nurture the lives of children after they are born is of no concern. The politicians who claim to oppose abortion to gain votes from this lobby, often do everything in their power to oppose rights to paid parental leave, subsidized childcare, maternal and child health care, or any kind of social safety net that could improve family life, while supporting large tax cuts for the wealthiest in our society.

Challenged by those who falsely accuse him of blasphemy, Stephen responds with a long speech in which he testifies to God’s saving works in the Hebrew Scriptures through revered men of faith, including Abraham and Moses. Stephen ties these patriarchs of Judaism to God’s ultimate salvific work in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Luke tells us the mob “could not withstand the wisdom and Spirit in which he spoke.” (6:10). The mob seized him and brought him before the Council. Bearing false witnesses against him, the mob swayed the Council, including Saul, who gives the mob the green light to stone Stephen.

Next, we hear about Saul’s dramatic conversion on Damascus Road, which leads to Saul becoming Paul, an apostle of the Risen Christ and champion of new worshipping Christian communities. We are not privy to more information about the works of the other deacons who had been under Stephen’s leadership. What we do find out is that while all this drama was being played out, Tabitha was in Joffa quietly going about the task of taking care of the widows there, both Greek and Aramaic.

The story of Tabitha’s resurrection is introduced and paired with the story of Peter healing a paralytic man, Aeneas, in the neighboring town of Lydda. This is Peter’s first healing miracle outside of Jerusalem and established his authority as one who had been given the healing power of Christ. The widows of Joffa, devastated at the death of their gracious benefactor, begged two disciples to bring Peter from Lydda to Joffa so that he might resuscitate Tabitha. Their desperation highlights an important theme in Acts — the value of using all a community’s resources for its health and wholeness, especially those devalued by the prevailing culture and societal stratifications.

From the Old Testament, we know that widows were code for the most vulnerable of society. Widows had no means of support unless a man in her family was willing to do so. We can infer from the preponderance of widows mentioned in the bible, that many men did not feel responsible for supporting the widows in their families. There were very few employment opportunities for them, leaving no option but to become poor and destitute, with their children experiencing the same fate. What little money they could earn was used for the staples of life, so Tabitha’s provision of clothing was an act of great mercy. Like the food banks and second-hand clothes shops today, Tabitha’s garments relieved the pressure from their subsistence budgets and gave them some dignity. Tabitha’s ministry to these vulnerable women was essential to their survival in a world that devalued and marginalized women, especially those without husbands.

The story of Peter’s resurrection of Tabitha would have aroused the memory of other healing miracles. Both Elijah and Elisha revived a widow’s dead son. (1 Kings 17:17-24) Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37). When Jesus revived Jairius’ daughter, like Peter, he ordered everyone out of her room. Peter said, “Tabitha get up” just as Jesus had said: “little girl get up.” In each of these stories, God’s power for life is given to human agents. Could we not testify today to life-saving miracles performed by scientists, doctors, the “first responders” and even untrained people who happen to be at the right place at the right time.

Oftentimes healing miracles that transform and restore life are not physical resuscitations, but the gift of abundant life. The restoration of dignity, of hope, and a future brings new life. Sometimes these resurrections are initiated by those trained in the helping professions – teachers, counselors, coaches, youth workers – and sometimes God performs these “miracles” through people who care enough, like Tabitha, to be where they are most needed and do what they can.

In his commentary on the story of Tabitha, biblical scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann has written: “Peter…is an epitome of the authority and capacity and mission of the church. Peter, now the embodiment of the church, enters the room where there is a smell of death. He prays. He engages the body. He utters his commanding imperative. And life is given, life that is, in verse 41, celebrated by saints and widows…They stayed in the chamber of death and were there for the surprising gift of new life… The church is entrusted with the power to create new life. . .bodily, concretely, locally. It is no wonder that in the Book of Acts, the church is always before imperial authority, for the capacity to bring life out of death threatens every status quo.” (1)

In our gospel reading from John, Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) When the church stays close to Jesus and follows him, not just in being obedient, but also by employing resurrection power for abundant life, the church continues Christ’s work to bring the world closer to the kingdom of God. The faithful, empowered church, has “eternal life.” We are shown that “eternal life” was already demonstrated in the life of “Tabitha,” who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). She already knew, in her daily life of compassion and charity about “eternal life.”

On this day when we remember mothers with cards, flowers, and restaurant brunches, let Tabitha, the female disciple, remind you of the mothering heart of God.

Amen. May it so!

  1. Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century: Blogging toward Sunday (Acts 9:36-43) April 23, 2007.

 

 

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2022, All Rights Reserved
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