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; text for Sunday, May 12, 2019
Tabitha is a disciple, the only woman in the New Testament so called. Other women are described in ways that connect them with discipleship, but only Tabitha is explicitly titled. She is introduced as ‘disciple’ before she is even introduced by name. ‘Disciple’ identifies her as one who belongs to the Way (Acts 9:2), who ‘calls upon’ the name of Christ (Acts 9:14). Before we know anything else about Tabitha, we know the most important thing: Tabitha is one who lives the claim of resurrection, of new life in Christ. And Tabitha dies.
Tabitha is dead. She ‘became ill and died.’ She was washed and laid out. Her fellow-disciples know she is dead, and they send for Peter. Maybe they send as if in urgent query — how could death have taken one who claimed life? Maybe they send in hope of comfort. Maybe they send for witness — see, this disciple, this life given to good works, is ended. ‘Attention must be paid.’ And, yes, maybe they send for Peter as if to collect on his proclamation that in Christ death is not the end of life.
By the close of the passage, Tabitha’s life is returned to her. Peter prays and speaks her to rise, he helps her from her deathbed to her feet. Peter shows Tabitha alive, and the report of her living spreads beyond the saints and widows to whom first she is shown until many in Joppa believe in the Lord.
I read the story for Tabitha, as Tabitha. How do I show myself alive? How do we, who already claim identity as disciples, show new life? After all, the story ends in the report that transforms. If the report of Tabitha’s raising does not transform, perhaps it is because we who tell it need, first, to be waked by it ourselves. To hear its voice saying, ‘Get up,’ and to open our eyes to its truth in our lives, to take its hand and be lifted to our feet, to realize that our own new life must be repeatedly renewed, so that our own renewed-newness can be the report that is told.
All Tabitha has to do to prove new life is show up alive. Maybe that’s all that would have been visible: Tabitha still a disciple and devoted to good works and charity. But surely even the most ardent disciple would have been transformed by this bodily experience of God’s reviving power. I imagine wonder leaping morning by morning at the sight of day, and even in the night joy deepening in the realization that nothing, nothing, is beyond God’s reach nor God’s desire to hold. Tabitha’s new life must have embodied that shock in ways beyond the daily renewal of faithful discipleship, but in expectation of further and otherwise unimaginable transformation. It may not have looked much different, but it cannot have felt the same, and surely, even subtly, that showed.
How do I live resurrection? How do I embody not just the daily renewal of faithful discipleship but the conviction of further transformation in ways beyond my imagining?
Partly, perhaps, continuing to practice discipleship as ever: feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, care for the sick. Bear the name of Christ as if cupping in my hand a precious gift. But somehow at the same time, expect to be borne by that name into relationship that may discomfit as well as delight, into newness I cannot yet know but only discover. Or be discovered by.