Scripture Readings: John 10:22-30

Acts 9:36-43

The Easter Church

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ, and to be part of his church, in this day and age? We often feel we are up against awesome obstacles as we seek to be faithful to Christ today We know we have immense challenges as a church in faithfully witnessing to the love of Christ in our world today.
When Christians are faced with issues like those, we go back to the old stories. Today we read the story from the Book of Acts about the healing of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). It is a rather lovely story, and it seemed appropriate for this service today, just before our Annual Meeting, for it tells us some deep truths about what it means to be a Christian, and how the church ought to be- not just back in the first century, but today. And since we are still in the season after Easter, it’s a story which reminds us that we are Easter people.
We are not told very much about Tabitha, but we are told that she was ‘a believer’. If someone had to use one word to describe you, would that be the word, I wonder- are you a believer? When we join the church, we quite often have to say that we believe certain things- about God, Jesus, the Spirit etc. These matters of doctrine are important- and yet we know that faith is not simply a matter of saying you believe in certain facts. If I say that ‘I believe in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, that’s not like saying, ‘I believe in gravity’.
For a Christian to say they believe in God is a bit like a soldier who might say, ‘I believe in my commander. He may be taking me into danger, it might be risky- but I trust him’. When we say we believe, it’s really about trust. That’s why Christians can sing, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’- here’s someone we believe in enough to follow even through deep, dark valleys.
Jesus uses the language of sheep and shepherds in our Gospel reading today. ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me’ he says. Apparently that’s exactly how shepherds operated in ancient Israel. They didn’t have sheep dogs- the shepherds spoke to the sheep. Often a number of herds might be mixed up on a hillside, but sheep would follow the voice of the one they knew was their shepherd. The one who is known, the one who is trusted, the one whose voice we recognise- he is the one we believe in. For Christians, Jesus Christ is that shepherd, for he says, ‘The Father and I are one’- his word is the word of God for us.
We live in a cacophonous world. We are surrounded by voices- our friends, our family, colleagues, but also voices from the radio and TV and the Internet, entertainers, politicians, rogues and saints who all want us to listen to them and to follow them. To believe in Christ is to hear his voice through all the noise and nonsense- a voice we can trust to see us through life and even through death and into eternity, as he says to us, ‘I give [you] eternal life, and [you] shall never die’.
‘You shall never die’ is a strong statement to make. The Apostle Peter is visiting a nearby town when Tabitha dies, and her friends ask him to come and visit. What happens next is perhaps stretches our credulity, for this is a miracle story, and many of us find such stories hard to believe. But it is a story which is very touchingly told. When Peter arrives, he goes into her room, and just as Jesus did on similar occasions, he sends everyone out of the room. Then, he ‘knelt down and prayed; then he turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. Peter reached over and helped her get up’. Peter puts this terrible situation into God’s hands. He obviously thinks that God is not quite finished with Tabitha in this life. And when she does get up, he is there to very tenderly help her.
Whatever the origins of this odd story, it speaks strongly of the early Christians strong belief in resurrection. They remembered that Jesus promised eternal life: ‘You shall never die’. They knew that their faith was grounded in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection. Those first Christians were Easter people. When all else seems to have failed, Peter’s prayers and care bring resurrection- life from death. Just as Jesus did for the daughter of Jairus. For this Jesus, in whom we believe, is a resurrected Lord and Saviour.
‘You shall never die’, says Jesus. A promise of eternal life, but also a promise of new life in other ways, in times when we think we can see no life. The Christian church in Western Europe is having a very difficult time today. The world seems to be changing too fast for us to keep up. We are very challenged because patterns of church life, patterns of worship, ways of speaking about faith which seemed effective even very recently no longer cut the mustard. Our culture seemed, in the past, ready to at least pay lip-service to the voice of Jesus Christ. But now that cacophony I spoke of a moment ago, all those other voices, seem often to overwhelm, or contradict, the voice of the Good Shepherd.
There are plenty of people who will say the church is dying. But resurrection is at the heart of our faith. Death is never the end, for Christians. And so I believe that even if there are aspects of our familiar church life which seem to be ending, which seem to be dying, perhaps that’s because new things are being born. We believe in Christ, so we believe in renewal and resurrection, life springing up out of seeming death.
Wheat_At_Dawn‘Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain’, says a wonderful English hymn of the twentieth century (borrowing a metaphor which Jesus himself uses elsewhere in John’s Gospel (John 12:23-24). And the hymn writer notes that the resurrection is something which Christians can experience now:

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
Thy touch can call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.[1]

Tabitha, says the Book of Acts, was known as a believer. Believing is about trusting and hoping. But belief in Christ is also about doing. Another early Christian, who wrote the Letter of James in our New Testament, warned his fellow Christians that ‘faith without works is dead’. In other words, we cannot really claim to have faith unless our faith in Jesus is shown in how we live our lives.
Tabitha was known as a believer. Why did people think that? Not just because she told people she had faith, or because she went to the Christian’s worship services. But also, as we are told, Tabitha ‘spent all her time doing good and helping the poor’- a mark of a believer. And when Peter arrived at her house, the friends of Tabitha (or Dorcas) had physical evidence of the results of Tabitha’s belief. We are told that ‘When [Peter] arrived, he was taken to the room upstairs, where all the widows crowded around him, crying and showing him all the shirts and coats that Dorcas had made while she was alive’. These widows wept for Tabitha, or Dorcas, because she had done so much for them, and other poor people. They wanted to show Peter what sort of a woman she was- look what she did for us. She had lived our Christ’s command to clothe the poor- literally! She put her belief into practice in a practical way.
Christianity appeared when the Roman Empire was at its height. It was a very hierarchical society, with an Emperor and a nobility who lived in great wealth, all the way down to people who did not own any other property, because they were treated as other people’s property- slaves. The nearest there was to any form of help for the poor was whenever an Emperor or a noble wanted to look good and they provided ‘bread and circuses’- bread for the poor and big show for the population- chariot racing or gladiatorial combat. But Christians actually looked after the poor- their own poor and anyone else they could help. Their faith taught that doing good to the poor was like doing something for Jesus, their Lord and Saviour. This is what Tabitha was known for, and what the early Christians were known for. And it changed the world.
There are plenty of people today who will knock faith and claim that it is the cause of all the problems of the world. This is nonsense. Christians are very often at the forefront of trying to deal with the problems of the world. In our nation today there are people who cannot feed their children. But the food banks are provided by a Christian charity, and the food often comes from Christian people. When a columnist for The Herald visited the foodbank at Calton Church in the East End of Glasgow this week, he discovered that all their clients were there because they hadn’t received government benefits for one reason or another[2]. Just as in the Roman Empire, the government is leaving the Church to look after the poor once again. All the more reason for us to be doing our faith, just as Tabitha did.
The story of Tabitha or Dorcas speaks of faith and service, and of the continuing reality of resurrection in the life of Christians and of the church. For the Spirit of God is surely at work when faith develops and blossoms, when resurrection happens in the midst of death and renewal comes in times of despair, and when people love their neighbour because they love their God.
All of these things happen in this congregation. Beyond the financial results, or the annual report you have in your hand, are many stories happening in this congregation which go untold. Stories of people who bring hope, who share faith, who work hard both within and outwith the church, for the sake of their faith. We do it, even though it is hard work, even though it is not popular any more, because we are people who believe in resurrection. For we know we have a shepherd who walks with us even through the darkest valleys. And we know we have a risen Lord, who still, today, brings new life when we least expect it. His touch can bring us back to life again.
Tabitha’s story reminds us other Bible stories which speak of resurrection- of Jairus, whose daughter was brought back to life by Jesus. Or the story from the Old Testament of the son of a Shunammite woman whom the prophet Elisha brought back to life. Or the son of the widow of Zaraphath, whom another prophet, Elijah, brought back to life. They are all part of God’s resurrection story, as we will hear now:
Reflection from Spill the Beans, 21 April 2013:
Voice 1: I am Tabitha.                                               Linda Philip
I am a clothes maker,
a disciple of Jesus,
and resurrected one.
For I was dead,
but now I am alive.
I was on my bed surrounded
by mourning widows,
and Peter turned
and asked them to leave,
and he breathed life
into me again.
I am part of resurrection’s story,
but behind my story…
Voice 2: …is my story.                                                         Christine Mackenzie
I am Jairus’ daughter,
small friend of Jesus,
and resurrected one.
I was dead but now I am alive,
for I was in my room,
surrounded by grieving family,
and Jesus arrived too late for me.
He turned and asked them
all to leave,
and breathed life into me,
and then we ate together.
I am part of resurrection’s story,
but behind my story…
Voice 3: …is my story.                                                         Andy Pyott
I am the son of a
Shunammite woman
who called on Elisha to help.
But I was already dead
in my room
with a few companion mourners
which he asked to leave.
Then he laid hand to hand,
breath to breath with me,
and my body grew warm again,
and I sneezed and breathed
once more.
I am part of resurrection’s story,
but behind my story…
Voice 4: …is my story.                                                         Katharina
I am the son
of the widow of Zaraphath.
Elijah the prophet,
having run away,
had been staying with us.
We were poor with only enough
oil and flour for a day’s meal,
but they never ran out.
But I became ill,
and I died,
and Elijah stretched me out
on my bed,
and then stretched himself out,
and cried out to God,
and life returned to my body.
I am part of resurrection’s story,
but behind my story…
Voice 5: …is my story,                                                                   Heidi Hercus
the story that always moves
towards life.
I am God,
and I am the story of resurrection.
But within my story,
is every story
of someone truly subversive,
who believes in their capacity
to transform lives.
Yet this is your story too,
living life
among all that corrodes,
and endlessly dissenting
from death.
You are part of
resurrection’s story too,
Tell it again for me,
the story that always travels
towards life.
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo
NOTES
[1] CH4 417: John Macleod Campbell Crum. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-now-the-green-blade-riseth
[2] Kevin McKenna, The Herald, 16 April http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14431757.Conservatives_not_only_resent_the_existence_of_foodbanks_they_are_embarrassed_by_them/