Awakening Services -- Sunday April 7, 2019
Text: Acts 9:32-43 -- Title: Tabitha, Get Up!
Speaker: Daniel Rudy
Throughout my seven plus years as the pastor of Ninth Street Church of the Brethren, Awakening services have been one of my favorite times of the year. They provide us an opportunity to reconnect with Sisters and Brothers from around the district. They generally allow us to hear, in our local area, gifted leaders from around the denomination who come to share the gospel message with us. This gathering is one of the great gifts of our area, something that in my formative years in the Mid-Atlantic district that we could only dream about.
But for all of the gifts and graces of the Awakening services, I suspect that there are some shadow sides that go beyond the added time commitments to an already hectic season of the church year. While we celebrate the gathering of so many Sisters and Brothers in Christ in one place, there is a bittersweet nature to that celebration. Many of the older members here at Ninth Street can remember a time when the attendance this evening would not have been out of place on a regular Sunday morning, never mind something like Easter Sunday. I suspect that many other congregations represented this evening are reminded of similar declines and the challenges that go with them. Even in the seven years that I have participated in Awakening, I have seen with my own eyes the diminishing number of people who are attending and the tilt, like many of our church services toward the older generations.
I acknowledge these facts, not to set a mood of depression to what is an otherwise joyous occasion, but rather as a reminder that in the Bible and in our lived experience, resurrection and restoration are always preceded by death and calamity. Many of us like to gloss over this fact, just like many of us like to jump from the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday straight to the celebration of Resurrection morning without stopping to consider what comes in between. Our God has a habit of breaking into the human condition at the very moment when we least expect it, when we have given up hope that things could ever be better. So as we walk this journey of resurrection this week, let us once more be renewed in the power of God, even if we are struggling to trust that there is more than what we can see.
As we turn to this evening’s scripture passage, we confront a curious little story that is often overshadowed by the two major turning point stories that surround it. Earlier in Acts nine, Saul the persecutor, the one whose venom against the new believers had scattered them from Jerusalem and led them to establish churches elsewhere was struck down on the Damascus Road and would in time become Paul the evangelist. After tonight’s passage, Peter has his vision and is ultimately lead to bring the good news to Cornelius the centurion, opening the doors of the church to gentile believers. But while we might gloss right over what happens in between, God did not stop moving during that time.
Luke, the writer of Acts, tells us that the Apostle Peter “went here and there among the believers.” Luke doesn’t tell us that Peter had some grand mission that undergirded his travels, but I suspect that as he went from place to place; he was led by the spirit to do what he could to strengthen the faith of the new believers throughout Judea, Samaria and Galilee. One of my mentors, Robbie Miller, used to say that “your ministry happens in the interruptions,” and Peter’s experience in Acts nine certainly bears that out. As he was healing a sick man in Lydda, Luke tells us that the believers in Joppa sent for Peter and asked him to come without delay.
One of the key leaders in the church in Joppa, Tabitha, whom Luke describes as “a disciple” who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” had become ill and died. And as we do in modern times, the believers in Joppa responded to Tabitha’s death by observing established rituals and funeral customs that surround the death of a loved one. They washed her body, laid her in a room and then let the community know what had happened. As I studied this passage, I am intrigued as much by what Luke does not tell us as I am by what he does. When the Christians in Joppa summon Peter, Luke does not give us any indication of what they want him to do. It is clear that they want him to get there as soon as possible, but I suspect that upon hearing that the beloved apostle was nearby, they wanted nothing more and nothing less than someone to care for them as they grieved and help them as they adjusted to a new normal.
How often are we, as God’s people just like I suspect the believers in Joppa were with Peter? How often do we, if we seek help from the larger church at all, simply want someone who is going to come and support us as we lament what once was and no longer is, with no sense whatsoever that things might somehow be different? And when we approach the larger denomination, how often are we content to fight over crumbs, passing blame for how we got here, without any sense that God might have something different in store? I suspect that the answers to both of those questions, not only for you but also for me, are far more often than we care to admit. Far more often than we care to admit, God’s people behave as if the survival of our faith as individuals and of the church as the corporate body of Christ, is dependent on our wits, our schemes, our wisdom, and our gifts rather than on God’s power and grace with bring life to the dead.
In addition to remaining silent on the question of what the church in Joppa was expecting of Peter, Luke is also rather silent about what Peter expected to do once he arrived. While Luke does not confirm that the two men sent to Peter told him what was going on as they journeyed together, I have a hard time imagining that they withheld that information from him. With that said, I believe that Peter had some idea of the situation that he was walking into, but I doubt the fullness of it hit him until he entered that room. Even still, Peter had the wherewithal after listening to the grieving widows weep and tell stories about Tabitha to put them out of the room and pray. Luke does not tell us what exactly happened, but I believe that God revealed something to Peter in that prayer. While Peter had certainly healed folks before by the power of the Holy Spirit, he had never before raised someone from the dead, nor to the best of my knowledge would he do so again. Peter, the vessel of God’s power through the Holy Spirit, I believe was just as surprised by resurrection as everyone else would be. And yet, there was something that gave him a confidence that went beyond his own power, his own authority and his own wits. And in that confidence, he boldly proclaimed, “Tabitha, get us!” and up from the sleep of death she arose.
Luke concludes his report of these events by telling the reader that many came to believe as the report of what God had done through Peter spread around the community. But more than the immediate effects, I want to focus in on the implications of this story for us as God’s people twenty centuries removed from these events in Joppa. As we go about our lives as individual believers, and our lives together as congregations, as a district and as the Church of the Brethren, do we honestly and earnestly believe that our God is still in the business of bringing the dead to life, both figuratively and literally? Do we trust that God’s resurrection power can move in our midst breathing new life into tiered and worn out souls, giving new purpose and power to weary congregations and bringing his message through this gathered body of believers known as the Church of the Brethren? Are we willing to suspend our need to control, to manipulate, and to shape events long enough to allow God to do things that we can barely even begin to dream of? Even though some of the folks in Joppa had likely witnessed Jesus rising from the dead, even though Peter was among the first witnesses to the resurrection, it seems likely that they did not expect God to do it again. Will we as God’s people open ourselves, through prayer and silence, through willingness to go when called even if we do not quite understand what we are to do when we get there, to the possibilities of God that are far beyond what our human minds can even imagine? Sisters and Brothers, the scriptures are full of stories where God breaks into situations that all human wisdom and knowledge said were lost causes. If we are to truly be God’s people in our time and in this place, if we are to bear the message of Jesus Christ in this hurting world, if we are to be agents of healing in our churches, in our communities and beyond, then we must dare to trust that our God who has done the impossible throughout the scriptures will once again pour out his power bringing his people from death to life. For if we trust that God can bring from death to life, we will rise up, just like Tabitha did and embrace the gift of resurrection. Amen.
 Acts 9:32
 Acts 9:38
 Acts 9:37