The scripture reading from Acts begins in Joppa, a city 45 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Joppa was the main port in Israel. Does that name sound familiar to anyone? Some of you may remember it was the city to which the reluctant prophet Jonah went when he sought to escape his God given mission to bring God’s word to the non-Jewish citizens of the city of Nineveh, the capital of his enemies.
In Joppa, there is a woman whose Aramaic name was Tabitha, who is also known by her Greek name Dorcas (both names mean a Gazelle, graceful).
She was a highly regarded Christian in her community. Reading or hearing this scripture in the 21st century we can easily miss the radical nature of it in the first century. This is the only place in the New Testament where the feminine form of the Greek word for “disciple” is used. When you consider the nature of relations between men and women in the first century and how unequal they were; meaning women did not have equal rights to men, this is another example of how in the new community that developed around Jesus no one is staying in his or her conventional place in which society is telling them they must belong.
Tabitha has a great reputation for all her good works and charity. Tabitha’s absence, by her death, would leave a big emptiness. The widows of her congregation cry out to Peter when he arrives showing him the clothes Tabitha had made for them. It’s hard for faith communities to lose key leaders, in Tabitha’s case, one who helped the church fulfill its responsibility to care for the needy widows. Widows without a man to care for them, had no rights and no financial status. A widow lived a marginal existence and usually in extreme poverty.
In the reading It is really easy to read past those few words “and then he knelt down and prayed.” But that is what Peter did, he showed humility to God by kneeling and he called on God to be with him. Tabitha was someone who put her time, resources and energy into helping those who needed it the most. She was an instrument of God’s love and she gave of herself, her time, skill and money in such a generous way that she was loved and respected. She “was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” As followers of Jesus we’re called to do the same to be “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Charity is not just giving a donation to a cause, for that is just an act, we know anyone with means can write a check but Charity involves having affection, and caring that reflect God’s love.
I recently overheard one of our female parishioners talking to another female parishioner and she was saying how someone had told her she is “a good woman”
Just by the tone of her voice I could tell how much the words “you are a good woman” meant to her. It meant that someone saw her actions in the church but also saw her love and commitment in her actions. Her heart and soul were deeply touched.
Tabitha’s faith impacted a whole community. Take a moment and think about the biggest challenge or problem or the most stressful situation in your life right now. Think about it and get it in your mind. Are we, like Peter, lifting that biggest challenge to God in prayer? It can be hard for us because many of us have been praying for people and situations and they don’t resolve immediately ,our loved one doesn’t rise up healed and restored. Yet, we’re called to stay in our faith when we’re faced with situations that seem too big for us and we’re to seek God’s help.
The final verse in the reading, may not seem like an important detail but it is.
Peter “stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” To Jewish people, a tanner was practically an outcast; Jewish law regarded the work as defiling, since it required working with animal carcasses, blood, and skins, which were ritually unclean. That Peter, who was born and raised a Jew, would stay with a tanner not just for a night but “for some time” shows that he had begun to disregard some of the practices and beliefs he had been taught and engrained in him that he’d practiced since he was a boy that he was learning were not essential to the type of personal relationship with God that Jesus had taught.
God’s Word comes to people like Peter and Tabitha and suddenly there’s a new reality that isn’t based on rigid logic, tradition, or cause and effect circumstances but on God’s love. Each of us can be used to make a difference in the lives of others, even with people or in situations we might not expect. Jesus taught that if you have faith, hope and love; if you have the courage to care and the humility to pray than things can always change, and we should believe that.
The 23rd psalm is the most beloved of the Psalms. It is a shame, that we tend to only hear sermons on Psalm 23 at funerals. It is a shame because Psalm 23 is a psalm for the living--it is a psalm for you and I to apply every day of our life.
What shall we say about the first line, "The Lord is my shepherd"? A phrase so familiar that we probably are missing the magnitude of those words. David, the writer, is saying that the eternal God of the Universe is his personal shepherd. David could have rightly said, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our shepherd', but he does not say this, he says, "The Lord is my shepherd". There is a personal relationship here.
This is a reminder that Christianity is not as much a religion as it is a relationship. Being a Christian means first, having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus calls Himself, "the good shepherd" in John 10, verse 11. The nature of Psalm 23 then, becomes even more personal. The Christian reads Psalm 23 this way, " (Jesus) is my shepherd, I shall not want".
Psalm 23 begins with rest and comfort. Psalm 23 does not begin with activity. This is a reminder of how the Christian life is to be lived. We begin by resting in Christ and out of the restoration of our soul comes activity and discerning our ministries.
Many Christians, and many churches, have this backwards. Many of us run around, busily doing ministry until we are too tired to continue. And only when we have no strength left do we stop and rest. This misses the point that Christianity is primarily a relationship, not a religion. To have activity without a relationship misses the entire point. What did Peter do first? “He knelt and prayed”
We run around attending church meetings, executing programs, planning budgets, teaching scripture from the Bible and we forget the reason we are here in the first place .We are primarily here to enjoy and strengthen our relationship with Jesus Christ
The book of Revelation, with its many visions and signs spends a lot of time talking about the end of time and heaven, but it also is talking about today, just like it was talking about the time that John lived in. These visions of John’s tell what God’s followers have to look forward to, these visions of John’s help us to live through the difficulties of today, because we know there is something great in store for us. We know that in the end, we will stand in God’s presence at the throne, surrounded by a great multitude, John sees a vision of the throne room of God.
God is at the center, as God should be at the center of our lives.
Jesus spoke those beautiful words that compared his followers love and trust for him to that wonderful relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. “My sheep hear my voice”, Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” [John 10: 27-28] You can count on that, Jesus seems to say.
“My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me.” Is this not the intimacy we seek? I think we all yearn to know and be known by the Good Shepherd. This Fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday because our texts and the psalm
lift up for us this magnificent hope of a personal relationship with Jesus.
I think this means that not only is the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd a source of emotional joy and visual pleasure, but it just may give us a valuable insight into what it means to be a Christian. We are the sheep who know the Shepherd’s voice and from that knowledge we gain confidence, purpose, and hope. This means that faith is more than intellectual acceptance. Faith is trust. Faith is a willingness to follow and not always be in charge. Faith is the ability to remain calm in those moments when maybe you cannot hear the Shepherd’s voice as clearly as you might like.
This image of the Good Shepherd also reminds us that we cannot follow by ourselves. We have the assurance of a love that will pursue us if we go astray, but the intention is for us to be connected, a part of the flock, if you will. So we are urged today to remain in community because it is here with others that we have the best chance to know the joy of Jesus who loves us. Amen.