Sunday, September 29, 2019
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha.” Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, does not go out of his way to explain why a woman could be a disciple. Yes, he knew that the 12 were all men. But we know, because we’ve read his two works, Luke and Acts, that there were many women who followed Jesus with devotion and at great personal cost. They were among the most crucial in his circle. It was this way from the very beginning. Luke offers no qualifiers or any word that minimizes what he’s said. There was a disciple; a passionately devoted follower of Jesus. Her name was Tabitha.
Luke does tell us she was “devoted to acts of charity.” When I started at HillSong, our mission statement was “we exist to make passionately devoted followers of Jesus.” We understand devotion. The word Luke used that is translated “charity” literally means “good works;” works that help people who need help.
The picture comes into focus. In Joppa, this disciple stood out for her care for people, especially the most needy of people. She did not do it to be recognized and admired. No one seeks glory by devoting their time to serving the poor. No, Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, followed where Jesus led. Jesus led her to poor widows, among the most vulnerable people in a society without any form of social welfare. Once Jesus led her there, she loved with action, out of her own abilities.
Then, the story takes a drastic, unwelcome turn. Dorcas the Jesus-following caregiver died. The heartsick community so blessed by this disciple did what we’d expect them to do. They washed her body and prepared her. The women who followed Jesus intended to do the same thing with his body upon his death. They went to the tomb with spices to clean him and bury him properly. These women around Dorcas, the Jesus follower did the same – except, they knew the story. They knew Jesus rose from the grave. So, after the washed Dorcas, they didn’t bury her. They laid her body in an upper room.
Then they sent for the disciple, one of the 12, Peter, the miracle worker. They knew Peter’s power came from the Holy Spirit. These Joppa Christians had been in Jerusalem and seen the Spirit’s power themselves. Or, if they weren’t present at Pentecost, they came to faith in Jesus through the preaching of some who were. Either way, they knew Peter was connected to the Spirit of God. And they knew whatever Peter did came not from himself but from the power of God. So they sent for Peter.
He was, Luke tells us, going here and there among the believers. His agenda was whatever God set before him. Oh, a disciple devoted to acts of love for the poor has died and the grieving community wants me to come? Peter went.
He was greeted by weeping widows. The text says they showed Peter the tunics and clothes Dorcas made with her own hands. The English doesn’t indicate as clearly as does the Greek: the women were wearing these clothes. They reason they could be dressed in nice garments instead of filthy rags was Dorcas made the clothes herself. They didn’t show the wardrobe to Peter. They displayed it on their bodies thus giving witness to how much Dorcas had blessed their lives.
Having taken in the scene and absorbed the sorrow, he put the mourners outside. Then Peter did what he had seen his Lord do. He knelt by the body of the deceased woman and channeled the life-giving breath, the Holy Spirit of God. “Tabitha, get up,” he said. She opened her eyes and he helped her to her feet. When he expelled the weeping widows from the room, it was not done out of insensitivity. He had to do God’s work, just as Dorcas had done God’s work by caring for them, and they had done God’s work by calling him.
The final act in the drama is verse 42. The raising of Dorcas, verse 42 says, became known throughout Joppa. We tell stories from scripture to testify that the power of God saves us. The church has been testifying in this way from day 1 of its existence. As followers of Jesus, as his church, we are a story-telling, testifying people.
In recent weeks, we have looked at the S.H.A.P.E acronym, originally found in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life. S= spiritual gifts; H = your heart’s passion (what really motivates you); A = is your abilities; P = personality; E = experience; it all comes together to describe each of us as disciples. Furthermore, as we live into our shape and then out of our ministry shape, we serve God and love people and do so working out of our strengths.
Peter possessed spiritual gifts that are easy to see. In Acts 2 – 5, he preaches with transforming power. He exhibits leadership and clarity of vision. Now, here in Acts 9, he demonstrates miracle-working in the most dramatic way, bringing someone back to life. Spiritual gifts are very important. We can see Peter’s easily. Yet, Spiritual Gifts are just one facet of the S.H.A.P.E. picture.
Peter’s experience also comes into play. He was willing to hang around the city Lydda, being present to the nascent church there. He was then available when believers from Joppa called him. We know Peter was married. We don’t know if he had children. We don’t know if his wife was back in Jerusalem or traveled with him. Whatever happened in that aspect of his life, his experience made him available to God.
What excites me more than just Peter in this story is the way God speaks through Tabitha’s shape. Tabitha, Dorcas, had a heart for God. We become devoted to something when it grabs us. That was Dorcas when it came to caring for the needy. She was a disciple, active in the church. When she met poor members, she didn’t need the pastor or anybody to tell her how to care for them. She just knew and jumped in. There’s some aspect of church life or ministry or community life that just comes naturally to you. Susan Dunn and record-keeping and history is something that immediately comes to mind for me. She just knows how to keep the minutes and keep track of the church’s story. If I had a dime for every time I tapped into her institutional knowledge, I’d pay off our mortgage. That’s one example of a passion matching a ministry need. I could offer many other examples. And that it certainly not Susan’s only passion. Dorcas was passionate about helping the poor. That’s the ‘H’ in her shape.
We also see the ‘A’ displayed on the bodies of the women who loved her so much. Can you sew and make your own clothes? Some of you absolutely can. You can identify with Dorcas better than me. She used her ability to meet a very practical need for impoverished people.
The story of Dorcas is not important because she was raised by Peter’s miracle. She would go on to die again and, then, like all of us who are in Christ, be raised when Christ returns at the end of time. The importance of this story is the way we are invited to retell it in the living of our lives.
Acting out of her heart’s passion, Dorcas offered what she had and God’s church was blessed. What do you have to offer? What is your ministry shape? This summer on the youth mission trip, some of our teens were exceptionally outgoing. They easily befriended kids from other groups. Others in our group were shy and falling into isolation. I am glad I was there to witness what happened. The kids with the outgoing personalities almost literally dragged the shy kids into interactions with other students. By the end of the week, those shy students sat at the center of the crowd, enjoying the ministry. They got there because their fellow students loved them enough, acting out of their outgoing personalities to include them.
Recently, we had families with teenagers visit and our youth group went out of their way to welcome these families. One of our members commented to me, “I was so glad to see our youth go over and speak to those visitors.” That’s an example of a young person leading the way by living out of his ministry shape, specifically his personality.
So, what do you have to offer? What are your spiritual gifts, your heart’s passions, abilities you’ve developed in your life, your personality, and your experience? Put this all together. It’s not for the sake of you or me brilliantly leading people to Christ and building up the kingdom. It is God’s kingdom and God doesn’t need us. We bring our ministry shape to God as an offering. The story of Dorcas invites us to do what she did. We offer ourselves to God for God’s use in the kingdom. In Philippians 2:17 Paul writes “Even if I am poured out as a drink offering … I rejoice.” We offer our very selves to God to be poured or used as God sees fit.
One of the ways churches are critiqued is with this question: if the church disappeared would anyone notice? If HillSong suddenly stopped existing as a church, would Chapel Hill notice? I think so. When Dorcas died, the people around her noticed. Dorcas was caught up in serving God and people wept at her passing. Our Chinese Pastor, Hong Zhou puts it this way. When she’s trying to get people involved in ministry, she incredulously asks, “Don’t they realize this work of God is the most amazing thing they’ll ever be part of?”
Do we see that? Do we see that when we serve God, especially when we serve out of our shape, who we truly are, we will know the greatest joy that can be known? They noticed when Dorcas was gone. God worked through her. She was passionate. And lives changed.
Her story begins “A disciple whose name was Tabitha.”
Now, it’s time for your story and mine. What we’ve read in the Bible comes to life when we walk of here following Jesus, serving him out of our shape. We are passionate. God works through us and people are blessed. And lives are changed as they turn to Jesus.
The opening lines of this story are “A disciple whose name was _________.”
Your name fills in that blank .