An Easter Story
A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 8 May 2022 [Easter 4]:
Acts 9:36-43; Revelation 7:9-7; John 10:22-30
There are several signals coming from this Fourth Sunday of Easter. One signal is that we have now entering the second half of Eastertide. Four weeks from today will mark the completion of this liturgical season of Easter. Four weeks from today will be the fiftieth day: the Day of Pentecost, a time of graduation where through the gift of the Holy Spirit the followers of Jesus become more than students but representatives of the Risen One.
Also related to beginning Easter’s second half and starting today, our Eastertide gospel lessons will no longer contain stories about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. It is as if we are being prepared for what is next in the ongoing Jesus Movement.
Yet, before we move on toward what is next as followers of Jesus, I think it is still important for us to ask what resurrection is and what it generates; and today’s first lesson from Acts provides us with an opportunity to apply what we have learned and experienced about the nature of new life in Christ. So, what I want to say about the story of Tabitha is that while it is very much an Easter story, I don’t view it as a a resurrection story.
Here is my main point: The story of Tabitha’s death and revival touches upon the confusion many have about Jesus, risen from the dead. In particular, the reality of resurrection (that is, “awakening to” life on God’s terms – a new life that is not defined or confined by fear and death) – this Easter proclamation often gets overshadowed by our own painful experience of death. On an emotional level, faced personally with death, what we frequently want is for God to bring our loved ones back to life. While such a plea is quite understandable, it is not what resurrection is about.
It is my experience both as an individual and as a priest, the hardest aspect of resurrection’s new life -- the life we see in Jesus, crucified, buried, and raised from the dead – the most difficult aspect of resurrection is that death must first be confronted and (here’s the key) we must participate in overcoming death, not avoiding it.
In the immediate experience of death, if we had a choice, how often would we choose that the deceased be brought back to us? While this is a very understandable emotional reaction to the sense of loss that grief brings, bringing someone back from the dead is not resurrection. It is not what Easter is about.
This perspective moves me to say, therefore, that Tabitha’s story is a story of resuscitation, not resurrection. She is brought back to life, this life, her life. She will ultimately have to die again. She will have to confront and embody death’s reality in order that she may enter into the larger life of God that we see in the risen Jesus.
Tabitha’s life was restored; she was brought back to life in a similar way that Jesus’ dear friend, Lazarus was restored, brought back. (John 11). As relieved as Lazarus’s sisters were at his being restored to them, as overjoyed as the Joppa widows were to have their patroness Tabitha returned to them, the telling truth is that both Lazarus and Tabitha will unavoidably die once more. For them and for us, there will be a point at which resuscitation no longer fits the bill. Resuscitation is not enough. At some point, death must not only be honored and unavoidably confronted. Resurrection reveals that there is more to life, God’s life, than death. On this crucial point, resuscitation is very different from resurrection.
Many of us have had personal experience in this dilemma of finally letting someone we love die. Many of us have personal experience of the emotional conflict of wanting our loved one to “stay” with us; and yet, the efforts to keep them alive can often be worse than the threat of death. There comes a point where resuscitation is not helpful, a point at which the loving thing to do is to allow death to occur both as relief and release.
The story of Tabitha is a story of resuscitation. It is not a resurrection story. If there is one thing we have seen in the first half of Easter season, it is that (like each of us) Jesus’ body, Jesus’ life was struck down by death. But rather than his death being a tragic, heartbreaking end, the risen Christ’s life in God overcame the threatening confines of death to reveal something new, something transformed, something larger, a life completed and unleashed with God. The point is that Tabitha had yet to make her way through death to Easter’s new life.
Now having said this and while I view Tabitha’s story as not being a story of resurrection, nonetheless, I do believe it is an Easter story. And I think it helps to make what might appear to be a hair-splitting distinction by realizing that Tabitha’s story occurs after Jesus’ own resurrection. This is a story recorded by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. It occurs amid the initial tidal wave of gospel hope and liberating transformation that was spreading throughout the region in the immediate years after Jesus’ revealing triumph. Tabitha’s story is an Easter story because it is a story of Easter people, engaged in and reflecting Jesus’ resurrected life. Hers is a story of folks who in the wake of Jesus death and resurrection have willingly reoriented their lives to Christ’s call, to his service, his legacy. Tabitha’s story is an Easter story because it shows people living resurrection lives and the powerful difference these transformed lives make -- now.
Of the many aspects of Easter life that are visible in the lives of this story’s characters, the widows of Joppa are a prime example. The widows are grieving over the loss of Tabitha in their lives. Their connection to Tabitha lies in the fact that the text refers to her as “young believer”, which is what this specific use of “disciple” means here. (By the way, I am told that this usage is the only time in the New Testament that the Greek term “disciple” is expressed in its feminine form.) In any event, there obviously is something special about Tabitha.
The fact is that Tabitha is identified as a “young believer” – a disciple of Jesus who had the gift and the skills to make clothes – beautiful clothes. Luke tells us that Tabitha had crafted quite a collection of clothing, to the extent that when Peter arrived on the scene (having been recruited to come to the aid of the fledgling Christians in Joppa) – when Peter arrived, the widows showed him the full line of clothing that Tabitha had made. But I think it is safe to say that this was no mere mournful version of “Show and Tell”. Rather, I think that this demonstration of handmade goods was a sampling of what the widows and Tabitha had done together.
What I am getting at becomes clearer when we remember the lot of widows in the ancient world – a lot that is too often still the case in our modern world. By and large, women had three options given to them in life. The most prominent was to get married. No matter how fruitful and fulfilling marriage might be, the woman/wife was still her husband’s property. (Not great content for a “Mother’s Day” card; is it?). The second option for a woman, especially one who had become a widow, was either to beg for a living or to be taken in by family and friends. Failing these options, the third option was to sell herself. What we implicitly see in Joppa is a group of widows (women who had been married but lost their husbands and evidently having no family to rely on) banding together for a very new and real life. They have not become prostitutes but rather with a young believer’s skill and guidance, they formed a business that supported them all. That’s radical in our own time, much more in ancient times.
Tabitha evidently formed a kind of co-op of widows, and together they made clothing to sell to create an independent living, which in turn not only allowed the widows to have a new life but also put them in a position to contribute financially to the Joppa church.
I submit to you that it was not just that Peter brought Tabitha back to life that caused many to become believers. It was first the way the Joppa widows, followers of the Risen Lord, lived with new life’s hope and concrete confidence that also drew attention to the faith. The Joppa chronicle is an Easter story much in the same way that “Take & Eat” and the “Pioneer Valley Power Pack” are two of St. Philip’s expressions of Easter life, a new life based in the transforming reality of the resurrection.
None of those we St. Philip’s types serve are dying (as far as we know); but the sharing of our Easter life and our gratitude for the resurrection blessings God gives surely bring some back to life for another chance.
Resurrection is Good News: Good News that the larger life that belongs to God has been unleashed among us in the Risen Jesus. Yet, there is also challenging news to this Gospel News; and it is this: that death and our fear of death need not keep us at arm’s length, just recycling what we have but also lead us to what we need: new, transformed completed life – God’s life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Amen.