Let’s stay in the book of Acts this week for our focus lectionary reading. Acts is not always a place where some Christians are comfortable, perhaps because it describes situations within the emerging Christian fellowship quite different from what we ordinarily experience today. Our focus scripture bears this out:
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner. –Acts 9:36-43 NRSV
Even though Jesus had told his closest disciples they eventually would do even greater acts of ministry than had he, this passage may make us squirm a bit. You mean, we perhaps wonder, that Jesus should be taken literally at his word about all that?
Yes, maybe we should. But even if we take this story as metaphor (and that’s also an appropriate way to read ancient scripture) it’s pretty powerful stuff. Peter, by the power of the Holy Spirit, brought a woman back from the dead–just like Jesus had done with Lazarus! There is no power greater than divine power.
With this passage in mind, consider what our typical experience is on Sunday morning or in “normal” congregational life. If your congregation is anything like mine, you don’t regularly (or ever!) see people raised from the dead. The closest we might get is a riveting testimony from someone whose life was, in one way or another, lost–but now they are experiencing new life.
I can share my own experience, eighteen years ago this month by the way, when what should have been my life-saving liver transplant failed. Fortunately for me (and my family), a second transplant three days later was ultimately successful. My recovery was not without its ups and downs. But here I am today, quite healthy and able this weekend to celebrate my granddaughter’s third birthday. (Oh, and less than three months ago my grandson was born.) Next month my wife and I will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. In July our son will be married. I could go on and on, but you probably get the idea.
Even if we view “raised from the dead” metaphorically, though, this kind of “death to life” transformation as recounted in Acts is still something rather out of the ordinary. Why is that, do you suppose?
Ask that question often enough and you’ll probably come right back to this passage in Acts. That, in turn, raises another question: Have we domesticated the church, or has the church domesticated us? Either way it’s an uncomfortable question but one that calls for an answer as we all attempt to live out our discipleship in the early years of the 21st century.
What if, either literally or metaphorically, we were experiencing in our discipleship what Peter and his contemporaries were experiencing in theirs? Sounds like trouble, or the start of something really, really big.
*Portions adapted from a previous ForeWords blog post.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</em