Today we consider God’s word coming to us through the Newer Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a companion book to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same author, and it continues the story of the followers of Jesus after his resurrection and ascension into heaven. It is the story of the early church’s great growth.
In today’s passage, we encounter a community in desolation, a community of Jesus’ followers who have lost their leader, the disciple Dorcas, also called Tabitha, through whom many of her fellow disciples and church members felt loved, cared for, and a sense of belonging. The author tells us she overflowed with good deeds of compassion and kindness – deeds of power for they were deeds of love. She has died and the community is grieving.
In our own faith community of Knox, we may be able to relate to the grief and loss felt by Dorcas’ community since we too have experienced the deaths of beloved church members recently – those who lived out their discipleship loving-kindness and compassion, as Dorcas did. The grief is real, raw, and painful.
We’re told that the widows and other disciples of that church washed Tabitha’s lifeless body and laid her in an upstairs room – the air of that room now filled with the anguish and cries of those mourning this great loss.
At the time of Tabitha’s death, the apostle Peter was in the nearby town of Lydda. As an apostle of Jesus, Peter was at work carrying out deeds of power by the Holy Spirit. One of his primary gifts was healing. While in Lydda, preaching the Good News of Jesus, he encountered a man named Aeneas who had been paralyzed and bedridden for years,. Peter draw near to him and said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up!” And he got up at once (Acts 9:34). When the widows and other disciples in Joppa learned of this miracle and that Peter was still nearby, they sent for him to come immediately.
Peter came at once. When he arrived to the home where Tabitha’s body was, they brought him to that upper room. He met all the widows that Tabitha had helped and loved. They were weeping bitterly; they showed Peter all the clothing Dorcas had made for them.
In this season of Easter, we recall another reference to an “upper room,” – a room in Jerusalem, also full of Jesus’ disciples who were in deep anguish, grief and fear. Jesus had just been crucified. As the disciples huddled together behind a locked door, suddenly the risen Jesus appeared and stood before them. John 20:21-22 tells us, “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The disciples can suddenly breathe again, new life fills the room and their hearts and minds. Sadness turns to joy, despair to hope, fear to courage. From there, the disciples would go into the world to tell the good news that death does not have the last word – that the God of Jesus, the God of all Creation’s first and final word is Life.
And in that upper room in Jerusalem, we learn that Jesus’ primary ministry if that of consoler, meaning one who alleviates sorrow or disappointment, one who gives solace or comfort. With every word and act, Jesus consoles: through showing hospitality to all, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, healing the sick, declaring God’s forgiveness of sins for all, praying for his disciples and those who are lost, raising the dead.
In the upper room at the home of the believers in Joppa, Peter sent everyone out of the room. And then, he prayed. Before he did anything else, he prayed for he knew it was not he himself carrying out miraculous deeds of power, but it was Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The author tells us, “After praying, Peter turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha get up.’ And she sat up, Peter gave her his hand, helped her up and then presented her to her community, alive.” Life through Jesus now filled the air of that upper room, replacing the air of death. A deed of power had been done in Jesus’ name, leading to consolation and new life for the whole community.
Biblical scholar Matt Skinner points out that traditionally the book of Acts has been largely considered by the Christian missionary movement and missional theologians to be a book about church growth, expansion, and numbers, suggesting that churches should be especially outward focused and about increasing the number of members (workingpreacher.org, Sermon Brainwave podcast, 5/8/22). In Luke 14:23, in the context of a parable, Jesus says, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.” This was one verse that helped inspire the global missionary movement.
Skinner points out that, yes, in Acts we see an explosion of church growth as the disciples of Jesus teach, preach and perform deeds of power in Jesus’ name, through which many more come to believe and become disciples. But it is this story about Tabitha, Skinner suggests, that is vital to our discipleship because she is a disciple of Jesus who holds the whole enterprise of God together by “making sure that those who come into the church find security and connection there,” that they are consoled in the name of the Consoling One, Jesus.
Tabitha teaches us how we are to be the church for those who do come into our churches, whether they come in on fire with belief, with unbelief, curiosity, yearning, or with any need – body mind, or spirit.
In the book of James (2:14-17), a letter written to the early church, we hear, “Faith without works is dead: What good is it if people have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? Imagine a sister or brother who is naked and never has enough to eat. What if you said, “Go in peace, Stay warm! Have a nice meal! What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.” James argues for faith to be alive, to stay alive, it must be expressed in good works, which by nature leads to consolation for the one receiving and one doing offering those good works (The CEB Study Bible).
Tabitha loved those she served and they loved her. Her works of loving care were deeds of power in the way they consoled the hearts and minds of the despairing. Some of those she cared for were widows, who at that time in history were some of the most vulnerable of the population. Through Tabitha’s Holy Spirit empowered deeds, the widows and others in her congregation knew they were not alone, ever.
James Finley, a Christian mystic and theologian teaches on the mystics of old, such as the 14th-century anonymous author of the book, The Cloud of Unknowing, who teaches us about contemplative prayer, how we come to know God through contemplation – noticing God in all things. The author teaches that our “spiritual work is not limited to any particular place” (Finley, James, Turning to the Mystics podcast, 4/18/2022).
Each Sunday in our worship we sing ancient hymns and songs composed in another time and place, we read the ancient scriptures of the bible, pray the ancient Lord’s Prayer, and participate in the ancient sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All are worship components Christians have been engaging in for centuries. This was part of their spiritual work as it is ours and it’s not limited to any time or place or community. Spiritual work continues, helping those who come afterward, on their own journey of faith. The spiritual work of Tabitha – her sharing her resources for the Common Good, making clothing and otherwise caring for those without the means to care for themselves, showing and telling the Good News of Jesus Christ (God’s Light and Salvation) – will never be limited to first-century Palestine. Her work continues to inform, bless, and encourage our own faith journeys today.
The same is true for those deeds of power done in and through us by the Holy Spirit – their blessing lives on beyond the moment it occurs. Consider in your own life the deeds of power you have experienced. Think of a time when God’s love moved through you to bless another through a loving act, word, thought or prayer for another? What happened? How did that person feel? How did you feel?
I went for a walk in my neighborhood the other day. I pass by a home whose yard I particularly love. Every inch is occupied by a plant or tree, something blooming, green, and beautiful in some way. The moment I passed, the owner, whom I had never met, came out the front door. I took the opportunity to tell her that I loved her yard. She thanked me and confessed that it needs a lot of attention – weeding, planting the potted plants that were strewn around, etc. She doesn’t have time, though, she told me. She’s a landscape designer so is always in other people’s yards, which leaves no time for her own! We shared a laugh. Then I asked her about what appear to be chives that I often see growing in tufts on curbsides, in people’s yards, in the woods. I described them and she told me they were, in fact, edible chives. Sensing my delight, she then said, “Would you like an oregano plant?” I was even more delighted. I followed her into her backyard, where there were many more planted and unplanted plants, shrubs, flowers, trees – beautiful. She handed me a potted oregano plant and gave me instruction on how to plant and care for it. I thanked you and headed for home with a much springier step to my gate, a huge smile on my face, joy in my heart for the connection made with this kind neighbor. I arrived home feeling less lonely, more a-part-of, more live through a deed of power – an oregano plant given and received.
I’ve had the privilege of witnessing and experiencing deeds of power great and small shared among you of the Knox community. Some of you have suffered the death of a loved one – a parent, child, spouse, or beloved friend. You have reached out to others who suffered the same tragedy and grief, offering your listening ears and heart, a loving presence, a unique understanding because you’ve experienced the same kind of loss and you know something about the depths of sorrow. In sharing your experience, strength, and hope – yourself – with others on the same journey, you served as a vessel of Christ’s healing and consolation. Deeds of power.
Next weekend at Knox: Through the Tailgate for Mission to collect items for those in need; through the Spring Cleaning event to collect household items for the homeless transitioning into permanent housing; through the all-church Welcome (Back) Brunch, where spirit-lifting connections will be made, hospitality shared, and bread broken with friends old and new will happen in Knox Commons, deeds of power will be experienced – givers and receivers consoled by Christlike generosity, hope, community.
On May 22, Knox kicks off a series called Let Your Light Shine, where members will share their stories of how God has helped them live out their faith at Knox and the community, inspiring stories of God’s transforming love at work. Deeds of power.
Today in our worship, we ordained deacons and baptized two little ones – the Holy Spirit washing over these members through our laying on of hands, the waters of baptism, our presence and prayers of encouragement and commitment to share in their journey. The discipleship of all of us is inspired and strengthened. Deeds of power.
James Finley shares a story about Thomas Merton, the 20th Century Christian mystic, monk and theologian, who writes about an experience he had one night: “[Merton is] lying in his cell, in the monastery, and he has insomnia. He is lying there in the dark and he gives himself to God in his powerlessness to go to sleep. And as he gives himself to God, ‘Suddenly,’ [Merton writes,] ‘the bed becomes an altar. And in a distant city, somewhere, someone is suddenly able to pray.’ Merton says, ‘Perhaps some people whose lives we will affect the most deeply are people we will not meet until after we are dead.’”
For some of us the day has come or will come when we can’t move about very easily anymore, we may not be able to physically leave home, or use our bodies as we once could. We may not be able to offer deeds of love and compassion the way we used to or wish to. But we can still pray. We never know how any prayer we offer to God will serve to console a soul next door, in a neighboring state, across the sea; or, how our prayers will serve to mend creation on earth, sea and sky. Prayer – a deed of power when otherwise we may be powerless.
For Jesus Christ, God worked the most powerful deed of power through him at the moment he was most powerless – as he hung, dying, on the cross. Finely describes that moment as “infinite love” and God’s mercy pouring itself out through Jesus. God’s mercy is poured out through Jesus’ dying prayer of “Abba, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do. Help them.” Through the suffering, crucified Jesus Christ, the infinite mercy of God is pouring itself out, wholly pervading – then and now and for all time – all the world, all creation, all of us.
The Holy Spirit’s deeds of power – small in size, great in size – through, in and for us, are never limited in space and time. Their effects continue on, and on, and on – blessing, healing, consoling. In the name of Jesus our Consoler, thanks be to God.