Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 12, 2019
Acts 9:36-43 Commentary
Reading Dr. Luke’s account of the growth of the early church is a bit like watching a frog hop from lily pad to lily pad—from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip to Samaria to Damascus to Joppa, from Peter and John to Philip to Stephen to Paul and now back to Peter. OK, maybe the image of a frog hopping on lily pads is a bit insulting for such a magnificent movement of the Gospel. A better metaphor would be the title of F.F. Bruce’s famous summary of the rise and spread of Christianity, The Spreading Flame.
Here in Acts 9:36-43 we have a little spark of a story that was part of the spreading flame. It is short compared to the mighty stories of conversion that precede and follow it (The Ethiopian Eunuch, Saul/Paul, and Cornelius the Roman centurion). Those stories show major jumps in the Spirit fueled flame that was spreading to the ends of the earth. But small as it is, this story shows us an event that contributed mightily to the growth of the church and the coming of the new heavens and the new earth where there will be no more death, or mourning, or sighing.
This short story is packed with historical details, moral lessons, literary flourishes, and theological denseness. You will be challenged to decide where you will focus your sermon. It is marvelous to see how Luke weaves together many narrative strands in his account of the early church. In the previous chapter, we have watched Saul get converted and called to a world-wide mission. His preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem has been so powerful that the Jews wanted to kill him as they had killed Stephen and Jesus. His friends bundle him off to his home town of Tarsus for some R and R and preparation for his upcoming journeys to the end of the earth.
Now, suddenly, Peter is re-introduced, and he isn’t in Jerusalem where we first met him or in Samaria where we last saw him. He is in Lydda in the far west of Palestine, which is close to its twin city of Joppa. Biblical scholars will remember that Joppa was famous in the story of Jonah, who sent to the Gentiles in Nineveh, even as Peter will be sent to the Gentiles in Caesarea. But first Peter must be called from Lydda to Joppa to take care of another matter, the death of a female disciple named Tabitha or Dorcas (both meaning gazelle).
The story moves abruptly. With no fanfare, we are told that in Joppa there was a female disciple; the Greek word there is used only here in Acts and that makes it remarkable. This is the first time a woman is spoken of by name in a positive way in this history (apart from Mother Mary in the pre-Pentecost days). The story is nearly all about men, so the introduction of this woman is noteworthy.
That is even more the case because she is such an outstanding woman, “who was always doing good and helping the poor.” You might be tempted to make a big deal of that, as one preacher did: “Tabitha used her privilege—her wealth, just acts and gifts, and prophetic speech—for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, the indigent, the hungry, the depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.” While that line has a wonderful homiletic ring to it and touches all the right social justice buttons, it stretches the facts of the story just a bit. My advice is to note the fact that she is a woman and a great one at that and to show that women have always been an important part of the spreading flame (cf. Acts 2:17,18). But don’t get so stuck there that you miss the real point of this story.
Similarly, some preachers will want to spend time on her works of justice and mercy, because that is definitely an important feature of this story. Here’s how one famous scholar put it. “The church spread through these ‘good works and acts of charity.’ Thus, the commendable example of Dorcas serves as the topic of today’s First Reading, reminding the church that mission often takes the form of responding to the needs of others.” Of course, it is true that the Gospel spread through acts of love, but I don’t think that is the main preaching point of this story.
Similarly, you might be tempted to dwell on the last little note about Peter staying at the home of Simon the tanner, because there is actually something there that is worthy of note in your sermon. A tanner took the hide of dead animals and turned it into leather boots and clothes and the like. As one who touched dead animals, Simon was ceremonially unclean in the Jewish faith. Peter’s residence in his home is both a sign of his Gospel openness to the marginalized and a foretaste of what will happen in the next chapter when God will dramatically call Peter to preach to the unclean Cornelius. Here is a seemingly unimportant footnote in the story that is actually a clue to a major development in the history of the church.
All of these things—a woman disciple, the importance of good works as witness, the acceptance of the unclean—are important aspects of the text, so you can legitimately accent them in your sermon. But it seems to me that the major point of the story is the resurrection of Dorcas/Tabitha. Here is a reversal as great as the conversion of Saul. “Once I was blind, but now I can see.” “Once I was dead, now I am alive.”
Some scholars think this story is important because it shows that Peter stands in the long line of prophets, like Elijah and Elisha who each raised the dead, and more importantly like Jesus who raised dead people three times in his earthly ministry. Peter is, thus, legitimately a major prophet in redemption history.
While that is surely true, I would summarize this story a bit differently. I think this happened and was recorded to say to the church that redemption history is still going on. Jesus has risen and ascended, but Jesus still raises the dead. What we have here is a real-life example of the great doctrines at the center of the Christian faith as summarized in the Apostles Creed: “I believe…the third day he rose from the dead” and “the resurrection of the dead.” Jesus conquered death not only for himself, but also for all those who follow him in faith. Here’s one little historical proof of those doctrines.
This emphasis will make some preachers and congregants uncomfortable, because, as one scholar puts it, “we live in an age that simply cannot accept a physical resurrection.” So, we must dance around the story as that scholar does, talking instead about the early church’s experience of Jesus ongoing presence, or about being witnesses of the new life Jesus gives, or about testifying to our own experience of dying and rising with Christ. All of that touches on Biblical themes, but it also avoids the real issue. Did Jesus rise? Did this miracle with Dorcas happen?
The story is told so simply. “Dorcas lived, Dorcas died, people wept, Peter prayed, Dorcas lived, and people rejoiced.” Indeed, says verse 42, “This became known all over Joppa and many people believed in the Lord.” One scholar, hesitant about preaching a real resurrection, says sarcastically, “Church rolls were never swelled because people sat up after being dead.” But they did.
In a day when church attendance and membership is on the decline nearly everywhere in the West, maybe this is the very thing the church and world need to hear. Maybe a real resurrection is not an obstacle to faith, but the heart of the faith. While it is clearly true that there is a cultural bias against the supernatural (unless it’s zombies, vampires and demons), maybe people are literally dying to hear the good news that sickness and death don’t get the last word. Jesus does!
A story like this sends a clear and comforting message to a dying world. This Christian gospel is not all talk. It is action, the actions of justice and mercy done by the likes of Dorcas, and also the action of resurrection. It may not happen all the time; indeed, it happens so seldom that it merits a special mention in the larger story of the church. But it will happen at some future time. Here is the proof that it can happen. To people who live entire lives in bondage to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15), this story is precisely what people need to hear the most. By the power of God in Christ, one day we will all hear, “Tabitha (insert your own name), get up.”
As survivors of the awful fires in the American West know all too well, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” What a terrible thing a fire is, unless it is contained (in a fireplace), or controlled (in a fire started by firefighters to stop wildfires), or used to stop the spread of disease (in the sterilization of needles and the destruction of plague-ridden houses), or as a weapon against evil (as in the burning of enemy fortifications after a battle to ensure that they won’t be used again).
Or a fire, like the one started by those Spirit given flames and tongues on Pentecost, can be an instrument of creation, the new creation without sickness and death and sorrow. That’s what we’re following here in Acts, the spreading flame of the Kingdom that will result finally in that new heaven and earth we read about several weeks ago in Isaiah 65. Our story today is one spark that got a fire going in Joppa, and that will hopefully get a fire started in your church. Or maybe in you, and me.
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