Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2022
Acts 9:36-43 Commentary
Call her “Tabitha” or call her “Dorcas” the meaning in both Aramaic and Greek was the same: “Gazelle.” Was it her given name or a nickname that matched her lifestyle? We don’t know but by all appearances the woman best known as Dorcas was gazelle-like indeed. She was lightning fast at helping the poor and ministering to especially the most vulnerable members of her community. She was fleet-footed, dashing from one place to the next with a seemingly indefatigable ability to be here, there, and everywhere—wherever needs arose.
When she wasn’t bringing a hot meal to a homebound widow, she was at home sewing garments and robes and coats to give away to the needy the next day. Every congregation has a Dorcas, and every pastor wishes that her tribe would increase. In Joppa, every believer knew this disciple of Jesus and gave thanks for her.
And then she died. After what appears to be a brief illness, her seemingly un-killable life force ebbed away and she breathed her last. The grief was overwhelming. So, probably, was the disorientation and the anger as people asked why in the world God would “call home” (as we say now) someone so vital to the ministry in Joppa. “Why her?” people no doubt wondered aloud. This was clearly, to borrow the title from my friend Neal Plantinga’s wonderful book on sin, “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
So they called for Peter, though the text does not tell us what (if anything) they expected him to do. Did they want apostolic consolation in their sorrow? Did they want to show him Dorcas’ corpse and ask the theodicy question of how God could allow such a thing (and is this all the more difference being a follower of Jesus provides for us!!)? Did they hope he’d do the grand miracle of bringing her back to life? We don’t know.
No specific request was made of Peter initially and even once he arrived in the place where Dorcas’ body was, no request was made of him then, either. In fact, from the looks of things, it appears that perhaps they really did just want to honor Dorcas by having the lead apostle be present at the side of her casket. They showed Peter some of the clothing she had made and obviously filled him in a bit on how important she was to their community. And just possibly they did all that with the hopes that this would move Peter to take some action here, but we are not told that directly.
But, of course, Peter does decide to take action. It’s probably about the boldest action an apostle could attempt to undertake, too—the woman had been dead for a while by the time he got there. No one thought she was merely comatose. She was dead. But Peter prayed and then simply spoke to Dorcas/Tabitha, telling her to get up. And in a miracle more complex on the physical level than we sometimes appreciate, she did “wake up” and come back to life. What decay had happened in her body was reversed. Her brain, which had gone to useless mush by then, re-fired on every neuron. A few billion things happened at once in her body and she was back, as undeniably alive and herself again as she had been undeniably dead a few moments earlier.
People died all the time in the early church (witness the end of 1 Thessalonians) and so the percentage raised back to life was astronomically small. Being a disciple in the early church was no guarantee against disease or death. Not long after the first Christian sermons got preached, those same early Christians had to adapt to a new form of proclamation: the funeral sermon. So all things being equal, there was no good reason Dorcas could not have remained dead. Peter could have just as well preached her funeral sermon as raise her back to life.
So why did he do the latter? Perhaps as a sign to the early church that death never has the last word for those who now live in Christ. No, that does not mean that every Christian who dropped dead would be raised back to life on the spot, but it did mean that one day they would be raised and they would be “back” in as true a sense as was the case for Dorcas that day in Joppa.
Perhaps it was also a sign that God valued the work of disciples like Dorcas (William Willimon notes that the feminine form of the word “disciple” is used only here in the New Testament). God was as concerned for the least, last, and lonely after the resurrection of Christ as he had been forever and anon before that. The widow, the orphan, and the alien remain near and dear to God’s heart and so equally dear to God are those who make it their special ministry in the church to reach out to them as Dorcas did.
After all, God’s own Son made himself vulnerable in the incarnation. God’s own Son identified himself with “the least of these” to the point that he told his disciples in Matthew 25 that a kind word to the lonely, a visit to the prisoner, a garment provided to the naked, a meal brought to the hungry was in every instance a direct encounter with Jesus himself, whether the disciples doing those good deeds knew it or not.
The work of the church could have continued without Dorcas. Of course, the day finally came when it did continue without Dorcas as she surely died again eventually and this time no one raised her back up. But for this moment in the earliest days of the Christian community, Peter did raise her back to show everyone that in Christ, death has been defeated but also that in Christ, those who minister to the ones God loves so very dearly—the poor, the weak, the widowed, the vulnerable of any age and of all ages—are also dear to God and he desires to see that holy work continue.
Peter stayed on in Joppa for a while and it will be in Joppa in the next chapter that Peter will receive a most startling revelation from God about the true reach of the gospel to all people. It’s the perfect place to remember how much God cares for all people: the widows, the poor, and also the outsiders to whom God will send Peter (Cornelius and company). Joppa is the perfect place to learn all that, especially when we recall that it was to Joppa that the prophet Jonah fled precisely because he did not care for all people and was not about to become an agent of salvation to those rotten non-Israelites called the Ninevites.
Had Jonah run into Dorcas in Joppa, she would have had a thing or two to tell him. Peter will learn a thing or two himself while there. And the message in both cases is the same: God loves everyone. It’s the church’s job to display that every day.
Punch the unlikely name of “Dorcas” into Google and you’ll get just shy of 7 million hits and will see on the side a painting of Dorcas that makes her look like a good candidate for the cover of the Joppa edition of Glamour magazine. But nevermind that.
Scroll down and you’ll see Dorcas Home, Dorcas Ministries, Dorcas Learning Center, etc. True, there are also hits for the “dorcas gazelle,” a sub-species of gazelle as well as any number of other websites that use the name Dorcas but with little or no connection to the New Testament story in Acts 9. But it’s clear that for a woman who never speaks in the Bible and whose only story in the Bible takes up all of seven verses (with her death being the centerpiece of the story at that), her name has survived quite remarkably.
It often strikes me how relatively few people in the Bible are actually named. Look up all the healing stories in the gospels and you only rarely discover that the name of the healed person was preserved. One of the longest healing/miracle stories in the entire Bible is in John 9 but never once are we told the name of the man who had been born blind. Hundreds, and occasionally thousands, of people appear in New Testament stories but out of all those throngs, few can be remembered by any of us by name.
It was Luke, however, who gave us the only parable character with a name: it was the poor man Lazarus in the parable Jesus told in Luke 16. Knowing Luke, it’s really no surprise that the only named figure ever to appear in a parable was a poor man. And so perhaps it’s also no surprise that Luke made sure we learned about Dorcas/Tabitha in Acts 9 because she, too, was a disciple who was clearly on the side of the poor. We do well to remember her name. But for Luke, we do even better to remember what she stood for and how that shaped her life and ministry.
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