Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2016
Acts 9:36-43 Commentary
The text the Lectionary appoints for the fourth Sunday in Easter is a happy, hopeful one of healing in the face of chronic illness and life in the face of death. Yet it sticks out like a sore thumb in its Scriptural context. Its story of healing and raising to life just doesn’t seem to fit into Acts’ flow.
For one thing, we’ve heard nothing about the apostle Peter for almost four chapters and then bang – he reappears travelling “about the country.” What’s more Luke places this text about healing and rising to life right in the middle of three dramatic conversion stories. Just before it opens we read about the startling conversions of the Ethiopian government official and Saul. And in Acts 10 Luke tells about the shocking conversion of the first gentile, Cornelius.
As Acts 9 opens, things have calmed down a bit for the early church. It’s growing all over the region. The Holy Spirit is filling Jesus’ followers with both strength and reverence for God. Acts describes how the young church seems to be prospering wonderfully.
Yet immediately following that happy summary, it tells the sad story of Aeneas whose paralysis has kept him in bed for eight years. While that story stands outside the scope of the text appointed by the Lectionary, it’s an integral part of the disciples’ healing ministry and, as such, deserves at least some attention.
It reminds us that even as the early church experiences God’s favor, it can’t escape heartache. In the midst of the church’s success and growth, our text reminds us that the while the last enemy that is death is doomed, it’s still alive and flourishing.
That remains the experience of Christ’s Church even 2,000 years later. God is expanding the Church in nearly every corner of God’s world. People are receiving God’s grace with their faith in big and small churches, new and old churches, growing and even struggling churches. People are proclaiming the Word. Churches are celebrating the sacraments. Christians are caring for creation and serving people on society’s margins.
And yet physical and mental illness wreak great havoc in even the biggest and fastest-growing churches. The death, mourning, crying and pain that will have no place in the new creation seem to flourish in God’s current creation. And so our emotions sometimes swing wildly from joy to sorrow, from grief to gladness. After all, Jesus Christ’s resurrection that animates our lives and gives us hope doesn’t yet mean that we live without pain and suffering. Things are not yet, as Neal Plantinga entitled a book, “the way they’re supposed to be.”
Of course, Luke’s description of Aeneas’ experience of that is spare. He reports that Peter enters the home of a man whose paralysis has kept him in bed for eight years. Luke is very careful to emphasize that it’s the name of Jesus that liberates all slaves. So the risen and ascended Christ alone raises the Ethiopian and Saul to new spiritual life and Aeneas to new physical life.
Yet Aeneas doesn’t just jump up and make his bed for the first time in eight long years. He also seems to rise to new spiritual life as he almost certainly becomes a lively witness to what Jesus Christ has done and can do. After all, Luke reports, perhaps with some exaggeration, that all of Aeneas’ neighbors faithfully turn to the Lord.
Yet as striking as that account is, what the risen Christ empowers an apostle to do next is unprecedented. He does something even more shocking through Peter in Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. The only time the New Testament uses the feminine form for “disciple” is to describe Dorcas.
After all, it’s not just extraordinary men whom the Spirit transforms into Jesus’ followers. Ordinary fishermen become disciples who preach to the most powerful people in their world. Religious fanatics get knocked off their high horses and into the kingdom of God. Old men get out of their beds and walk around, sharing the gospel.
But God also empowers a woman whose name means “gazelle” to be Jesus’ disciple who heads up a welfare program among Joppa’s poor people. In her day widows languished on the very bottom rung of society’s ladder. They had no one to either protect or represent them. So widows are society’s most vulnerable citizens to whom Jesus’ disciple Dorcas gives hope.
In Joppa every believer knew and thanked God for this disciple of Jesus. Dorcas reminds us of the people in our own congregations who never seem to tire of doing Jesus’ work for hurting people. God always seems to put them in the right place at the right time, with helpful words and compassionate actions. We thank God for them, and wish there were even more of them.
However, after an apparently short illness, Dorcas’ seemingly boundless capacity for ministry drains away. She dies, plunging the whole community into profound grief. And when Dorcas dies, her ministry to people on society’s margins dies right with her.
While Luke doesn’t tell us why, Jesus’ Lyddan disciples beg Peter to immediately come to her makeshift funeral parlor. Even once the apostle arrives, Acts doesn’t record what, if anything, those grieving disciples ask him to do. When Peter arrives, Dorcas’ old friends, most of them widows, show him her impact by displaying some of the clothing she had lovingly made for them.
Yet Luke still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, those widows, who may now wonder how they’ll survive, ask Peter to do. In fact, our text’s silence among all but Jesus’ followers is among its most striking features. After all, Luke doesn’t tell us that Aeneas says anything. Obviously Dorcas is silent.
So it’s as if Acts implies that the world has gone silent, unable to say anything in the face of suffering and death. It’s as if the world is quietly waiting for Jesus’ disciples to say something.
That’s what sometimes happens, after all, when our hearts are broken. We scarcely even know what to say or ask for. So we wordlessly depend on God to be present in a way that our pain leaves us scarcely able to even identify.
Yet God knows exactly what the mourning Lyddan community needs. So is it too much to imagine that God moves Peter to gently usher the mourners out of the room and then drives “the rock” to his knees in prayer? And is there any explanation but God’s prompting that would explain how Peter would even dare to tell the dead Tabitha to “Get up”? After all, his gesture is not unlike one of us approaching a casket and asking a dead loved one to “Get up.”
Yet the “gazelle” does get up and come back to life. Any decay that had happened to her somehow suddenly reverses itself. Dorcas’ brain that death had silenced now re-fires on every neuron as she becomes undeniably alive again.
Passages like I Thessalonians 4 remind us that the early Christians died all the time. Following Jesus has, after all, never guaranteed perfect health and long life. So not long after the disciples preached the first Christian sermons, they also had to preach a different kind of message: Christian funeral sermons. Peter had no guarantee that Dorcas would come back to life. In fact, he, as one colleague notes, could just as well have preached her funeral sermon as raised her back to life.
So why does God empower Peter to both heal Aeneas and raise Dorcas back to life? Perhaps to remind their loved ones and us that death doesn’t get to have the last word for Christians. Our text reminds us that God has turned a new power at loose in the world as the Spirit invades death’s occupied territory.
God’s work through Peter signals that while dead Christians may not physically come back to life now, one day God will raise all of God’s children back to life. That nothing in heaven or earth, not even the last enemy that is death can finally resist God’s loving sovereignty.
However, Dorcas’ rising to life also signals that God values society’s marginalized citizens like widows as much after Jesus’ resurrection as before it. Widows, orphans, children and other vulnerable people are very close to God’s heart. So those who make it their ministry to them in are also very dear to God’s loving heart.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
In his striking book, Terms of Service, Jacob Silverman notes that Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and early investor in Facebook (and another [Ayn] Rand disciple), has “derided the inevitability of death as an ‘ideology’ while plowing millions into companies that might, as he said, ‘cure aging.’ Google’s own first into life-extension research, through a biotech subsidiary called Calico, reflects its belief that it can solve death — at least for a paying fee.”
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