Miracles: Aeneas and Tabitha

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway island Presbyterian Church

Acts 9:36-43

September 13, 2015

 

 

Today, as we continue working through the book known as Acts of the Apostles, we’re going to read about two individuals, Aeneas and Tabitha.  Both experience a blessing from God delivered through Peter. The first man, Aeneas, we don’t know much about.  We don’t even know if he was a believer, only that he’s paralyzed and been bedridden for eight years.  Peter, calling on the name of Jesus, commands him to get up and make up his bed and he does.  This miracle draws more people into the church.

The second is Tabitha, a pillar of the church in Joppa.  We know more about her.  When she dies, everyone grieves.  But then along comes Peter and we have an account of him raising her from the dead.  Tabitha wasn’t raised because she was a good person or even because those widows in Joppa needed her. In fact, we don’t know what she did afterwards. We don’t know if she continued helping those widows. She could have spent her remaining time on earth in stunned silence, for all we know…  But we do know that sooner or later, she again died and there was once again grieving by those left behind.  This miracle had nothing to do with her, her work or the need of the community; this miracle was only to demonstrate God’s power.  READ ACTS 9:32-43.

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I know a few of you have seen the movie that recently came out, “A Walk in the Woods.”  Let me tell you another story from my “walk in the woods” of over twenty-five years ago. It was mid-July. I set out alone this morning, hiking as the day was just breaking.  The trail ran alongside the Housatonic River in Connecticut. The air was heavy and filled with the rich scent of honeysuckle. Fog blanketed the river, but I knew it wouldn’t last. The day was going to be hot and humid, and I wanted to get in as many miles as possible before the heat became unbearable. When I began to get into the swing of hiking, after working out the soreness in my muscles, I lengthened my stride and by sunrise was making pretty good time.  I was looking forward to having breakfast at Cornwall Bridge.  The rising sun backlighted the trees along the east bank of the river, its rays bouncing across the water. Everything turned golden. While taking this in, a herd of deer, ten or twelve, broke out of the forest in front of me, jumped down the embankment into the water.  They forded the river with graceful leaps and then climbed the bank on the far side and disappeared into the woods.  I stood in awe of the deer and of God’s creation. It was a spiritual moment, a moment of joy, a blessing to be savored.

Deer and antelope and other such animals appear so graceful in nature that taking time to observe them can often be a mystical experience.  (The exception to this is when they are pigging out on our shrubby and flowers.)  “Now, what does the gracefulness of such animals have to do with our reading from Acts, you might be asking yourself? I have this image of Tabitha as an exhibit of grace. Her name, in Greek, was Dorcas which was a small gazelle, an animal related to the deer.[1]

In scripture, in the Song of Solomon as we heard read earlier, gazelles are a metaphor for the gracefulness of a lover.[2] It’s is a fitting metaphor. From her name and what we know about her, we can assume Tabitha was a graceful and loving woman. She obviously was a woman of some means and talent. She used her wealth and God-given ability to make clothing for widows—those who were most needy in the ancient world where there was no social security or pension plans. We can also assume Tabitha’s generosity extended beyond the local church since a distinction is made in the text between the saints and widows who gathered at her death.

Tabitha was a disciple. That is, she placed her faith in Jesus Christ and lived out her faith, doing her best to follow the example set by her Master.  And like Christ, her generosity was not limited to those who were followers or pious law abiders. A true follower of Jesus will help someone regardless of who they are. Tabitha must have been a pillar of the church in Joppa. From the very beginning, women have played an important role in the church, providing stability and keeping the church focused on what it’s to be about. We can almost imagine a church council meeting in Joppa—the men arguing about something important like how to fix the roof. In the heat of the discussion, Tabitha reminds them that the church is not a building and there are mission concerns they also need to address. Tabitha reminds them of what was important.

Consequently, when Tabitha dies, there’s lamenting. The church loses a true saint and all the faithful gather. Widows come sporting the tunics made by Tabitha. They’ve lost a friend and a supporter. Her death is mourned. Everyone is sad.

Now since Peter was nearby, some ten miles away in Lydda, where he had just participated in the healing of a man, they send for him. We are not told if they were expecting Peter to raise Tabitha from the dead.  Maybe they just wanted an Apostle to speak at the funeral. The raising of the dead, according to Scripture, was not a major focus of the early church and it was only a very small part of Jesus’ ministry.[3]  The focus of the church is not bringing the dead back to life (in this world), where they will die again, but to bring people into a new life that will continue on after the resurrection. But in this incident, Peter comes and raises Tabitha and people rejoice and many, we’re told, are saved.

There are, as you can imagine, some problems with how we interpret and deal with this passage. Instead of asking ourselves why Tabitha was raised from the dead, why not ask why she died in the first place. I’m sure all the faithful in Joppa were praying for her. Were their prayers less effective than Peter’s? Why was Peter able to strut into the room, kick out the mourners and kneel by the bed, pray and then say “Tabitha, get up” and have her respond? Why did Peter’s prayers, after the fact, work better than those offered at Tabitha’s bedside when she was breathing her last?  To be honest, I don’t know.

Roy and Velma were an elderly couple in the church I served in Utah.  Roy was a sheepherder and had been born in Utah shortly after the turn of the 20th Century.  When I arrived in Utah, he was 93 and still riding a horse.  It was a privilege to know them and I was honored to officiate at both of their funerals.  Visiting them early in my ministry there, Velma told me their story.  She was from California.  Roy had originally married Vera, Velma’s identical twin sister, but Vera died young.  Roy was left with two very small children and several thousand head of sheep to tend.  Velma had also been married, but was divorced and had a couple of children of her own and so Roy proposed and they married and Velma raised all the kids.  Roy and Velma had been married way over 50 years when I met them…

When Velma would tell the story, she’d always smile when she got to the part about coming home with Roy to Cedar City.  She said the first day she was there, the mailman came to the door and just about had a heart attack thinking her sister had come back to life.  I joked with Velma, telling her if she’d played the role of her sister, the Presbyterians would have been able to convert the whole city.  Think about the power and the prestige that would have given the church… But that’s not the purpose of the church and we really don’t have the power to save, anyway.  That belongs to God.

Perhaps this is why the early church didn’t go into the resuscitation business.  The power and prestige would have been too much and the faithful would have forgotten what they were to be about.  The church isn’t to brag about its abilities, for truly what we have comes only by the grace of God.

As the church, we have to be careful with how we use and interpret the power God has given us. We can humbly use it for the building up of the kingdom, or we can abuse the power and make a joke out of it and ourselves.  We’re not to focus on reclaiming those who have died, for that’s God’s work.  Instead we’re to work with Jesus, reclaiming those who are alive, yet dead. Afterwards, when the people of Joppa saw Tabitha in the marketplace, they believed in the power of God through Jesus Christ to forgive sins and to offer life. Tabitha’s resurrection was for them was a sign of God’s power.

What is it that we can take from this story of Tabitha?  First of all, I wonder if we look at miracles the wrong way.  Maybe miracles are not for the person who benefits from them, but for those who witness them.  Think of the witness to God’s power made through Aeneas jumping up and making his bed or Tabitha crawling out of the casket.  Secondly, when God answers our prayers, we should be humbled even more because we know we couldn’t have done it on our own.  We have to depend upon his power.  We see the humility in this story from Peter, who after raising Tabitha, assumes a humbled existence.

Think of this for a moment.  Peter could have capitalized on his miracle.  After all, he did what the doctors were unable to do.  He could have stayed in a fancy home overlooking the water and with servants seeing to his every need.  Instead, he stayed with a tanner, a man with a nasty job.  A tanner was one of the lowest positions in society.  The work stunk and since he mostly likely worked out of his home, his house stunk.  Dealing with dead carcasses was looked down on by law-abiding Jews.  Yet, Peter stayed there with Simon the Tanner.  He humbly did God’s work and didn’t claim any glory for himself.  This passage does not show us how to resuscitate the dead….  Instead, it reminds us of God’s power in life and death and gives us two role models: Tabitha’s gracefulness and Peter’s humility.

I wonder what Tabitha did with the rest of her life?  We don’t know, but we can imagine. But what we need to remember is that most of us won’t have a second chance like her, to continue on doing good deeds.  Therefore, we should examine our lives and ask ourselves, “Are we who we want to be?” Or more important, “Are we who God would want us to be?”  Another question, “Will the ‘saints and town folks’ praise us at our death?”  “Will we be known for kindness?  Will our good deeds follow us after our death, as promised in Revelation?[4]   Most likely we’re not going to get the chance to crawl out of a casket like Tabitha, but we do have a chance to change our lives and live gracefully like her in the future.

Tabitha is an example not only for women, but for all of us.  So take a moment today and think about Tabitha and how she was regarded by those in Joppa…  Sooner or later, we’re all going to be gone.  After we leave this life, what will people say?  What might we change to have the reputation of Tabitha?  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] There are two types of Gazelles in the Holy Lands.  Gazella dorcas are small, only about 2 feet tall.  Gazella subgutturosa are larger, about four feet in height.  Anchor Bible Dictionary entry under Zoology

[2] See Song of Solomon 2:9, 4:5, 7:3 and 8:14

[3] We have three stories of Jesus raising the dead:  Jarius’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-25, Mark 5:35-39, Luke 8:41-55), Widow’s son (Luke 7:12-15) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  In addition, when Jesus set out the 12, among a number of other powers, he gave them the commission to raise the dead (Matthew 10:8)

[4] Revelation 14:13.


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