Scripture Readings: John 10:22-30
Psalm 23 (sung)
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Yesterday we started on Christian Aid Week, and once again we had a terrific coffee morning, with a plant stall outside in the lovely sunshine. And many of you will go round the streets collecting door to door this week. Campaigning for people in countries blighted by poverty could be a disheartening affair. But we do so because we are Easter people: we believe that life can come out of death.
We have just heard the story from the Book of Acts about the healing of Tabitha (also known as Dorcas). We are not told very much about Tabitha, but we are told that she was ‘a believer’. For Christians, belief is not just assent to a few doctrines. It is really about trust. When we sing, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’, we’re singing about some 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: he says,
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
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, and put our trust in.
To believe in Christ is to hear his voice through all the noise and nonsense of today’s world. For the voice of Christ is 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. And he still brings resurrection hope.
A story from Sierra Leone, brought to us by Christian Aid:
Tenneh plays with her precious baby Ansumana. She blows raspberries on his belly. Lifting her baby up high she beams with joy. Tenneh gave birth to Ansumana three months ago. Thankfully, he’s a happy, bouncy baby. But Tenneh has lost and loved another baby before.
When Tenneh’s labour started during her first pregnancy, there was no health centre in the village. Her mum took her to a traditional birth attendant. For the two days of her labour, Tenneh was in agony. She fell unconscious and was bleeding heavily. With very little medical training, the birth attendant was way out of her depth.
In the days and months after her labour, Tenneh felt very weak and her baby wouldn’t breastfeed. Tragically, her baby died when he was three months old.
‘That day I will never forget,’ she recalls. ‘I felt sick like I’ve never been sick before. ‘If God would not have saved me, I would not be alive today.’
Even in midst of tragedy, a woman like Tenneh can speak of God saving her- the good shepherd taking her through the valley of the shadow of death.
A few months ago, I attended a Christian Aid Supporters’ Gathering at Inshes Church, here in Inverness, and heard what can do to try to ensure more women do not have to undergo what happened to Tenneh. It was fascinating to hear from Jeanne Kamara, who works as Christian Aid’s country manager in Sierra Leone, a country of 7 million people in west Africa. She highlighted Christian Aid Week 2019’s central theme of maternal health. Jeanne told us that Sierra Leone is a nation with no safety net for those in poverty or health issues. Indeed, during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, 10% of healthcare workers in Sierra Leone had died. So healthcare is very basic, and there is a high number of deaths in pregnancy and childbirth, and 10% of children die before their first birthday. Jeanne said:
‘Last year, I know four or five women who died giving birth, leaving toddlers. These are not statistics. This is real to us.’
Often, women in rural ages wouldn’t access health centres when they were pregnant, preferring to rely on unsafe local traditional birth practices. But Christian Aid is helping to fund simple facilities where women can give birth safely. Local health centres sometimes don’t even have electricity, so midwives have to use torches to see by, delivery rooms double as check-up facilities, and there might not be a refrigerator for drugs. Yet small things can make a difference: £300 could provide a delivery bed for a new health centre.
More of Tenneh’s story:
Through our partner RADA (Rehabilitation and Development Agency), Christian Aid saw how difficult the situation in Sawula village was and began working to ensure that mums and babies have fullness of life.
RADA has been working locally to help vulnerable women access healthcare, improve hygiene with simple interventions like handwashing and, with your support, build a bigger, better health care centre.
Thankfully, when Tenneh was pregnant a second time, things had changed for good. This time, she had nurse Judith by her side. With her expert love and care, Judith helped Tenneh deliver her baby safely.
Tenneh said: ‘During my second labour, I was scared. But nurse Judith was with me, assuring me of everything. When I delivered, I felt so good.’
‘With the coming of Judith, so many lives have changed,’ Tenneh continued. ‘We know that with Judith, as long as we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll be OK.’
That’s a story about how Christian Aid’s work can bring a resurrection of hope. For we are Christians: we won’t let death have the last word. We believe in Christ, so we believe in renewal and resurrection, life springing up out of seeming death.
‘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). 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.
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’. Tabitha was a believer who put here faith into action.
So 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 out Christ’s command to clothe the poor- literally! She put her belief into practice in a practical way.
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 own 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. Many of the clients of foodbanks are there because they haven’t received government benefits for one reason or another. It’s as if the government is leaving the Church to look after the poor once again. And nations like Sierra Leone suffer under debts to rich countries, are subject to unfair trade practices, and often have their natural wealth taken from them by multinational companies which hide their profits in tax havens. Result: women and children die because they are living in poverty.
Tabitha’s led her to do practical things for the poor, like making clothes for them. She lived out her faith by doing what she could. For us, taking part in Christian Aid Week is a way we can put our resurrection belief into action. But another way we can do so is to speak up about the injustices which condemn people to poverty. In a democracy, we have the power to do that. That can bring new life, too.
The Spirit of God is at work when faith develops and blossoms, when resurrection happens in the midst of death, when renewal comes in times of despair, when people love their neighbour because they love their God. Our neighbours may be here in Inverness or in places like Sierra Leone. But to them, believers can bring the touch of Christ, which calls us back to life and resurrects us from despair, in this Christian Aid Week and whenever we get the opportunity.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2019 Peter W Nimmo
 John 12:23-24
 CH4 417: John Macleod Campbell Crum. http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-now-the-green-blade-riseth
 James 2.17
 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/