Every day is filled with transcendent joys and profound tragedies which have absolutely no effect on most of us whatsoever. If you see a bride and groom coming out form a church, you may vaguely wish them well, but unless you know them, you cannot feel the joy that is, hopefully, in their hearts. Since this service began, many people around the world will have died but, not knowing about them, or about their deaths, we are not even slightly saddened. And that’s fine. We humans could not bear the emotion of every joy and every sadness. Only God can do that.
I find the story of Tabitha somewhat curious. Who is she? A woman long since dead of whom we know almost nothing. Like innumerable others, her life brought joy to those who knew her and her death brought grief to those who loved her. But why should it affect us? We cannot enter into those feeling s for we have not loved her and we do not mourn her. So what is this story doing in the Bible?
To answer that, we need to look more closely at it. And when we do that, we find it to be a singularly unusual story. It is a miracle story – that much is obvious – but it is not told like other miracle stories. There are elements found in this story which are no found in others and normal elements which are missing too.
The first thing which is unusual is what it says about Tabitha. She is described as a disciple, Luke using the only occurrence in the New Testament of the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple. That makes her quite special. Then there is the description of the good works she did and the display of her fine handiwork. All this would seem to indicate that her death was a particular tragedy, that she was particularly deserving of a miracle. But think of the other miracle stories in the Gospels and in Acts. Sometimes reference is made to the faith of the person seeking healing, but not always. Jesus never discriminated. He never healed or raised or fed anyone because he judged them worthy. He acted only out of compassion and ministered to people without regard to their moral character. We have to conclude that Tabitha’s virtues are entirely incidental to this story.
Then there is the manner in which the miracle takes place. It is not asked for. Peter was called, not to raise dead Tabitha, but to comfort her grieving friends. What he did was a surprise. And it is surprising too that there is no mention of him calling on the name of Jesus in performing this miracle, unlike in all the other accounts of apostles performing miracles in Acts. In Acts 3, there is a story of Peter healing a lame man, during which he makes plain the fact that he did not do this in his own power, for he had none, but only in the power of the Lord Jesus. Here, though, he offers no explanation of what he has done.
This leaves the reader in a difficult position. What are we to make of this story? It leads to a fundamental questioning of the nature and purpose of the miraculous.
We live in a rightly sceptical age. We are told that those who saw Tabitha alive after her death believed, but no what they believed. Were we to witness an event such as this, it is unlikely that our response would be unquestioning faith. We’d look for a rational explanation. That kind of miracle simply does not do it for most people now.
So is this story just a relic of a different, now largely lost, way of thinking? Did Luke perhaps include it just because he found the story affecting? I suppose these are possible, but not sufficient. I think Tabitha’s story still has the power to speak to us, but in quite subtle ways.
It is there in Acts to tell us that God through Jesus was still at work in the world, but now that Jesus was no longer physically present, he was, in fact, embodied in his disciples. Jesus, through his disciples, is bringing healing to the diseased, hope to those who are in despair, and even life to those places where death seems to have been triumphant.
How often do we think things just can’t be fixed, that that’s the way they are and nothing can be done? So often people are more afraid of the process of change than they are intolerant of the situation they are in and which needs changing. Effecting change is costly, which is why it is hard to do. But the fledgling Christian community described in Acts was ready to bear the cost. They felt they were empowered to turn the whole world upside down. That’s why Acts keeps telling us stories of healings, conversions and even of life after death. Stories like Tabitha’s.
Stories which seem to be very far from our experience. But they are not, not if we see them in symbolic, metaphorical terms. There are lots of examples of how the seemingly unfixable has been repaired, of how desperate situations have been turned around, about how life has emerged where all around was death. And often the Christian church has been in there, where worshipping people have dared to believe in a world in which God was at work to set the oppressed free. African American slaves worshipped a God who freed captives and their descendants in the 1960s worshipped a God who lifted up the oppressed. People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer worshipped a God who stood for life, even amidst the killing machine that was Nazi Germany. Christians in communist Poland and Russia and Hungary worshipped a God who offered liberty. Christians in Britain led the fight to abolish slavery, an institution which, throughout history, had been just the way things were. Christians today are quietly at the forefront of the fight against hunger, through running food banks, and against homelessness through running night shelters and helping people establish themselves in new homes. We are most active in offering welcome and sanctuary to refugees. For centuries Christians laboured to provide education, healthcare and social services, and we will be required to do so again if the caring society many of us value continues to be dismantled by ideologues and profiteers.
We could let the story of Tabitha remain an anomalous miracle story or we could read it as I suspect Luke intended it to be read – as a parable for Christian life. If we let it, it teaches us this – we worship and serve a God who is not content with the way things are, with corruption and suffering, a God who seeks to enlist us in his mission of turning the world upside down, so the suffering are relieved, the hungry fed, the grieving comforted, the oppressed freed and death does not have the last word. We are people of the resurrection. Our lives, our work, must show this. The work God calls us to do, the work Tabitha did, is too important to be allowed to die. Our work, our God-given work, is to do his will in the world, to serve all without discrimination, for God loves all and longs for all to return to him.
The point of Tabitha’s story is that it can be and is being repeated in the world today, not in terms of individual physical resurrections but in terms of challenging the status quo, or righting wrongs, of restoring the broken. The point is that Christ can be and is still at work in us, his body on earth.