Readings: Acts 9:36-43; Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
Last week, in a somewhat different morning service, we had a look back on Luke and our journey of Lent and were reminded that in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, the followers of Christ continue their journey in their sharing of belongings and breaking of bread, in their devotion to scripture, prayer and fellowship.
“And awe came upon everyone,” Luke told us, “because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.”
Seven chapters and seven days later, in today’s lectionary reading, Luke tells us of another such miracle. We hear that a widow, called Tabitha in Aramaic or Dorcas in Greek, has died and her body has been laid in an upper room. Now Dorcas was a charitable sort with a gift for dressmaking and her death naturally causes her friends much distress so, hearing of the miraculous deeds that were happening around the apostles, they send for Peter, who travels to Joppa, prays, calls Dorcas to ‘get up’ and shows her to be alive. Her friends rejoice, word spreads and people believe. Good news all round.
And I wonder how you heard that story when Doreen read it just now, what you felt. I wonder whether the story of Dorcas’ resurrection sounded familiar, hopeful, jarring…?
For some of us, the account of Dorcas’ life, death and resurrection might well spur us on to have faith, to remember the promise of new life, to believe in the power of prayer. And yet, for others of us, the same account might make us think of loved ones we’ve lost who didn’t come back to life. Perhaps the story feels like an insult to our grief. Perhaps it makes us think of another generous widow that this community recently lost, and so picks at the fresh wounds or stirs feelings of anger over why she couldn’t hang on just a few days more to allow us to have one final goodbye. Or perhaps the story might make us think of family for whom death is not something to be evaded at all but might instead represent a sweet release from current suffering.
And it’s not just the personal resonances that can make this story challenging for some of us, as the account is full of theological difficulties too. Why were dramatic miracles so abundant in the early church when it can feel like they’re in short supply today? Why is there no real context or message concerning this miracle? Why does it mention Dorcas’ good works…surely she wasn’t raised because of them – surely the message can’t be ‘do enough good and you’ll get special privileges’?! All in all, I am tempted to agree with the writer Lewis Mudge and his judgment on this passage, that ‘If we read it just as it stands and in isolation, its yield is both meager and confusing.”
And yet we cannot simply bypass this story or skip on to the more obviously edifying passage from Ephesians, for there is, of course, good news contained within the story of Dorcas, the beloved tailor. There are reasons why her name lives on in societies, projects and charities which serve the poor today, why her image is found in fourth century frescoes and in the stained glass of Llandaff Cathedral. Perhaps, then, like an expert dressmaker, we might need to iron out the creases and unpick the seams of this tale in order to clothe ourselves with the gospel this Vocations Sunday.
First then, let us consider Peter – the rock upon which the Church was built. By the time we’ve got to his dealings with Dorcas, Luke has established Peter as a pretty impressive servant of God. In Acts, so far he’s helped his fellow disciples understand Judas’ betrayal, preached the first Christian sermon, overseen several healings, stood up against the authorities, made tough leadership decisions and led prayer through times of adversity. As we consider the role of elders, as the nominations process for new elders begins, does such action tell us anything about eldership? Does the current crop of elders display similar characteristics to Peter? Well…yes, actually, they do! In amongst our elders – both serving and non-serving – we have teachers and preachers; we have those who have witnessed healings and those who visit the sick; those who can make tough but pragmatic decisions and those who are pastorally gifted; those who continue to challenge the authorities and those whose prayers sustain this community. Yes, then, Peter might stand as a model for an elder. Yes, this church is built upon several rocks.
But before we get carried away with things; before the current elders feel too overwhelmed by our expectations or potential others mentally tear up their nominations, this is not the full picture we have of Peter.
For in Luke’s books, Peter is also shown to be confused about Jesus’ way, to have misunderstandings about power and suffering; he is shown to have impulsive tendencies, to deny his friend and, on one occasion, to be standing right in the way of Jesus’ mission. So might Peter really be a model for an elder, with all his character flaws? Once again, we must say yes because we remember that elders are not a separate sect of special saints who are smarter, braver or holier than the rest of us. They are, instead a brilliant and broken brood who bring their faith and foibles to the role; their wonder and weakness; gifts and gaffes. They, like each and every one of us, are pilgrims who sprint, skip and stumble along God’s way – who need others to journey alongside them, to discern the future path together, to strengthen one another when times are hard and celebrate with each other when they are good. Like Peter then, elders enliven this community by offering support and by being supported, by speaking out and listening to others, by serving and being served. As our elder elections are open, we might ask, who, here, do you think might thrive in such a role?
Of course, being an elder is by no means the only way that members serve this community and Dorcas is a great reminder of that. Chapter 9 of Acts might be best known for the great and miraculous conversion of Paul – for visions and blinding, ground shaking and dramatic escapes – or even for the ministry of Peter – for the healing of the paralysed man, raising of Dorcas and journey to Joppa where the mission to the gentiles really took off – and yet it is Dorcas who joins the ranks of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter and even Jesus as one of the very few resurrected from the dead in this life; it is Dorcas whose loss is met with weeping, whose rising inspires many to come to faith; it is Dorcas who is the first and only person in the whole New Testament who is ascribed the feminine form of the word disciple.
No wonder then, that her legacy lives on today. And so what, we might well ask, made this woman so beloved? What great and prophetic acts did she perform in an age of mighty deeds and awesome healings? “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” We are told. She made clothes for others.
The early church, as the church today, needs Peter and Pauls. It needs charismatic leaders, dedicated elders, it needs prayer leaders, prophets and preachers…but it also desperately needs the dressmakers. It needs the women and men who reflect God’s love in gentle, often unseen ways. It needs the weavers and washer-uppers; the workers who help make the visionary’s ideas into reality; the widows and widowers whose acts are loving, whose presence in this church is a mighty blessing, whose loss is keenly felt.
As we work out how best we can show and share God’s love in this community, we need a dynasty of Dorcases…and so I thank God there is many a Dorcas in this church. I thank God that this week I’ve seen Dorcas count money and peel spuds. I’ve seen her offer lifts and pick up keys; move chairs, wash plates, hold hands, make tea, turn on sound systems and give a welcoming smile. I’ve seen her turn the world upside down in her quiet acts of radical love.
Is it possible, then, that the good news of today’s passage can’t be reduced to the power of the miraculous but is actually more about the sharing of our gifts and the wonder of community? In this season after Easter, we of course want to proclaim the joy of resurrection – we want to declare that no life is forgotten, no situation hopeless, no loss that won’t be redeemed, and this might well be the message that some of us need to hear today – and yet could it also be that the story of the raising of Dorcas is the story of Dorcas and Peter, of the messengers and the widows and the whole community in Joppa? For they were a community who, when faced with loss, stood together, wept together, hoped and prayed and celebrated together. They were unafraid to share their tears and their time, their gifts, vulnerabilities, their very selves with one another.
Perhaps then, the passage is not so much about the resurrection and the life that is to come but about the life that we encounter right here. Perhaps it’s not about what God will do but about what God is doing in and with this community; what God might do through us when we love one another, serve one another, forgive one another…when we share our gifts and dreams, our stories and our lives with one another.
Perhaps the story of Dorcas is the story of who we might strive to be – a community of elders and dressmakers, mathematicians and musicians, of dreamers and doers with different abilities, backgrounds and beliefs yet a community which laughs and cries together, breaks bread and shares cake together; one which sings of the glory of the Father, the hope of the risen son, the mischievousness of the spirit, as one body, diverse in gifting, united in love. Amen.
Hymn: 73 – Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.