May 12, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter

Passage: Acts 9:36-end; John 10:22-30

Sermon 9.30am

12 May 2019

Reading: Acts 9.36-43

Peter took her and “showed her to be alive”. Words from the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.

May the words I speak and the words you hear be in the name of the triune God, who heals, restores and saves and is beyond all our imaginings. Amen.

(Slide 1) 95 year old Li Xiufeng shocked her neighbours by getting out of her coffin and starting to cook dinner. She had been in an unsealed coffin in her house for 6 days, in accordance with Chinese tradition, when she got up, and presumably found herself rather hungry!

(Slide 2) 37 year old Anthony Yale was found unresponsive in bed, rushed to hospital, and pronounced dead by the doctors. His son insisted he would stay alive and prayed with the pastor in his father’s room. Shortly after they left, his father showed signs of life and doctors were able to resuscitate him.

We still hear stories today of people being pronounced dead and then coming back to life. These are capable of a number of interpretations. We can be amazed, or we can say, the doctors made a mistake, they were never really dead.

And the story of Tabitha being raised from the dead by Peter (Slide 3) is equally susceptible to both kinds of interpretations. “The resuscitation of Tabitha is clearly based on a local tradition of the wonderful recovery of some leading member of the Church in connection with Peter’s visit”, the Rt Rev A.W.F. Blunt tells us.[1] This leaves us to decide whether it’s a helpful and happy coincidence or a miracle. The word “tradition” creates a certain distance – it is in the tradition, but is it true? (Slide 4)

But what does, ‘is it true’ mean anyway?

We are used to truth being scientifically testable today, to evidence and proof, and certainty. In our current rationalist age, modern believers can be decried for being “gullible, naïve, credulous” for believing without thinking sufficiently deeply about the story.[2] And it is appropriate that we test our stories against our modern knowledge, as the good news is both enduring and also something that needs to be re-visioned in every age.

And on the other hand, we are guilty of elevating our rationalist knowledge, as I have said here before, to the level of an idol, as if it can tell us everything we need to know about reality. We need also to retain some humility, some recognition of mystery, of the full nature of reality being beyond our ken.

And then there is the further reality that whatever I preach about a resuscitation from the dead, you will retain your own prior conviction as to whether this happened exactly as stated, and is unproblematic for you (in which case you might want to switch off and have a little rest now) or whether it did not. I read an interesting article on what sermons can and can’t achieve, which asserted that making people change their mind is not something a sermon can actually do. I found that slightly disappointing to be honest. In the face of differing interpretations I commend to you Paul’s wise advice to respect equally your own conscience, and the conscience of others.

But perhaps trying to decide whether we believe that Tabitha was raised from the dead in a way that would satisfy our scientific evidence today is taking us into a dead end. It is focusing on the wrong thing. Jeffrey John suggests that if we attend solely to whether we believe a particular formulation, we are in danger of entering into the realm of superstition.[3] And Harn counsels that “It is not to the point to pose issues of the literal and the figurative and then make the test of how one grasps these stories the test of faith itself”.[4] In other words, our faith does not stand or fall on how we interpret this or other particular passages. So what can we do instead?

Let’s look at the story in a little more detail. We find that Joppa, the port of Jerusalem, where it took place, has a fledgling Christian community of women and men. Tabitha, or Dorcas, which is the Greek version of this Aramaic name - both names mean ‘gazelle’[5] - had a charitable ministry among impoverished widows. Her clothing club is a prototype for the kind of practical aid which grew up in later churches. So, she was a good woman, and her death was mourned, she was missed.

Peter comes to her bedside and prays. His prayer uses the words “Tabitha qumi”, “Tabitha get up”, (Acts 9.40) which echoes Jesus’ words when he brought Jairus’ daughter back from the dead, “Talitha qumi”, “little girl, get up”.[6] There is a clear connection between what Peter has done and Jesus’ earlier act. Elijah and Elisha in 1st and 2nd Kings also raise the dead, the widow’s son and the Shunammite woman’s son, respectively,[7] so there are Old Testament echoes too.

And what do these stories tell us? Only God can raise from the dead. Thus, Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter and elsewhere, Lazarus from the dead is showing us he is the son of God. When Elijah, Elisha and Peter do it, it is to draw attention to God’s power, not their own. In a contemporary rabbinic proverb, raising from the dead is one of the three ‘keys’ in God’s hand that he gives to no other.[8] This story is about God.

And the raising, although it is a resuscitation to continued life, is a foreshadowing of the raising to eternal life which we see in Jesus, and we look forward to for ourselves. Jesus is not a one-off, he is the “first fruits”.

And this is the God in whom we put our faith, the God who defeated death, who raised Jesus from the dead, and whose divine nature cannot be defeated by death. We are given a foretaste of this, it breaks through, in these stories, and in miraculous stories which continue to surface today, stories of healing not explicable by science, not attributable to doctor error in prematurely diagnosing death. It is incarnated in our life here on earth. But mainly it is glimpsed, revealed briefly, to remind us that the suffering and death which is our normality on earth, is not the end.

So the story is about God, the nature of God, the power of God, and as such, it is also about our lives in God. But what matters after we hear these stories, is not that we obsess about whether there is a ‘natural’ explanation for them, and whether we can rationally be persuaded of their having happened as described, but how we act in the light of them and in the light of the God they are designed to reveal.

In the face of suffering and death which is not abated, what matters is not that we rationalize it, talk about it, explain it, but that we act, by getting alongside the suffering person, just as Tabitha did.[9]

And when we see the miraculous like Tabitha’s resuscitation, and most centrally for our faith, the resurrection of Jesus, what matters is not what we say, or how we justify our beliefs, but again, what we do. When Peter heals Tabitha it leads to great witnessing in the community, and to many coming to believe. It is the witness of lives transformed by faith in the living God that is the response that matters.[10]

Our God is greater than death. Our Bible is full of stories which witness to this.  What is your witness? Is it a life transformed? Peter took her and “showed her to be alive”. (Acts 9.41) Do you show the life that is in you?

Let us pray for lives transformed by the living God, who alone brings life out of death.


[1] The Rt. Rev. A.W.F. Blunt, B.D., Bishop of Bradford, The Acts of the Apostles, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931:175.

[2] Roger E. Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, The First Readings: the Old Testament and Acts, London and New York: Continuum, 2001:563.

[3] Jeffrey John, The Meaning of the Miracles, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2001: 107.

[4] Harn, Acts, 564.

[5] Blunt, Acts, 175; Loveday Alexander, “Acts”, in Barton J. & Muddiman, J., eds. The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 2014: 1040-1041.

[6] Mark 5.41; Harn, Acts, 564; John, The Meaning in the Miracles, 99.

[7] 1 Kings 17.17-24; 2 Kings 4.25-37.

[8] John, Miracles, 102.

[9] The Rt Rev Stephen Andrews, Bishop of Algoma, Day 183 in The Bible Challenge: Read the Bible in a Year, ed. Marek Zabriskie, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2012.

[10] Harn, Acts, 564-566.