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Acts 9:36-43 & John 10:22-30 (CEB)
The disciples, our stories tell us, were not saints from the outset. They made mistakes, sometimes HUGE mistakes. They tried, they failed, they learned. They learned by notknowing where they were going, what they needed to do, or how they would accomplish it…and going anyway. Peter – the one who was quick to deny Jesus when the pressure was on, and who was asked by Jesus if he loved him not once, but three times because of the uncertainty – that samePeter, in the Book of Acts, goes from, “Jesus? Never heard of him”, to performing miracles. He learns a lot.
In our passage today, Peter raises a woman named Tabitha. Tabitha is a woman of great prominence in Joppa, where Peter is residing at the time. She is a leader, and likely a woman of some means, for she is known for her charity and care for those in need. She is also the only woman in the New Testament referred to with the Greek wordmathetria, which is the term for a female disciple. This means that not only was she a leader and a model, she was a disciple, a term we don’t find used even for Mary Magdalene, though she is present with Jesus through the most difficult parts of his life and is the one person all our gospels agree was at the tomb on Easter morning. Tabitha, we can surmise, was kind of a big deal. But that’s not why she is raised. The women gathered around her deathbed, in their grief, pull out the clothing she made them, each tunic with a story of connection and support. Perhaps they told stories of her care during a crisis, or her willingness to give of herself, but it wasn’t because of anything that Tabitha had…it’s because of who she was.Tabitha used her privilegeto help people and that kind of willingness to be vulnerable, to stand in solidarity, that is what evokes God’s power, that is what gets “raised up,” bringing life beyond the life that we will all lead.
God raises her, our story tells us, through Peter, who calls her by name and tells her, quite literally, to get up. In Greek, it’s like asking her to go from a reclining position to a standing position. And it’s the same word that these Jesus followers in the Book of Acts will begin to use with one another, like in chapter 22 when they call on one another to “rise up, be baptized and call on the name of Jesus.” It’s the same word, in Greek, that you might yell to your teenager in the morning from the kitchen as you are trying to get all your stuff done and they’re still not up and you have to leave in three minutes so they won’t be late…I mean, I guess. So he says it, and Tabitha “gets up.” The text says that Peter presents her, “alive to them.” That word being translated “alive” iszao(dzah-o)and while it doesmean “not dead,” it’s not the same word you’d used to talk about something that is living. It’s the word that you’d use to talk about something that is active and powerful – something like what we might call the “essence” of life.
I’m not going to tell you what to think about resurrection here, whether or not Tabitha was dead and is now alive in a scientific kind of way like we insist on thinking about it. What I’m going to say instead is that the earliest followers of Jesus began to experience not only Jesus resurrected, but resurrection itself. Their post-Easter lives began to be marked by the sense of God resurrecting things. Tabitha is another thing on a growing list of evidence for the disciples that life is, in fact, stronger than death and that while someone – well, everyone, in fact – can die, the essence of their life can be quite alive. The real question about resurrection in these stories is not how does God raise things up, but rather, whatdoes God raise up?
In the Irish language there is a saying – Ar scath a cheile a mhaireas na daoine (er ska a chilay a mhar na deene’) – which means, loosely translated, “it is in the shelter of each other that the people live.” Yet Irish, an inherently loose language, much like ancient Hebrew, has more than one meaning for any given word. Scath can also be translated as “shadow,” meaning that it is just as accurate to translate this phrase as, “People live in each other’s shadows.” Either way, we are shielded from a hard sun by each other, we relyon each other for shelter, we live nextto one another…we do actually needeach other.
When Jesus is confronted by his disciples seeking confirmation, they ask him – just be straight with us, are you the messiah or not? It’s an understandable question, for at the core of theological questions is a comfort with the lack of answers…faith cannot be confirmed. That’s why it’s faith, not certainty. But we all want, in a very gray world, to have something solid on which to set our feet. Just tell us, Jesus – no parable, no zen koan, no deep, indecipherable moral lesson – just a yes or a no. And not only does Jesus refuse, he answers with what seems like a harsh response. “I have told you, and you do not believe,” the text says, and you can almost hear the frustration in his voice. And then the icy clincher: “You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
ButIbelong to your sheep, I can almost hear people crying out, from the disciples gathered around him to people right here in these pews, to this guy standing behind the pulpit. I’ve been baptized, I go to church every Sunday and know my Bible and love the liturgy and say my prayers. I’min the fold, right? At first glance, Jesus’s reply might appear to suggest that belonging to him depends on believing in him. But in fact, what Jesus says isexactly the opposite: you struggle to believe because you don’t respond to the belonging. In other words, belief doesn’t come first, belonging does. It’s as if realizing, really embracing that we need each other is the first step in our own personal wholeness.
Why is that? Well, I don’t know. I don’t makethe rules, I just slowly realize that I’m pretty sure that I think I possibly understand what they might be. But here’s what I think I know now – rightnow, as in 11 o’clock-ish on a Sunday morning in May: We do need each other. We belongto each other. And when we accept this little pearl of both curse and wisdom, it works on us. We begin to see things differently. Our responsibilities, our hopes, our dreams, our expectations, our possibilities – they all change. The deeper we accept it, the less we can categorize people away, the less we can dismiss them, the less we can dehumanize. Only if we belong to the idea that we belong can we actually trust in a Jesus who says that everyone belongs.
This past week I have been fortunate enough, along with some of you, to attend an interfaith iftar dinner, which is the ritual meal in Islam to break each day’s fast during the month of Ramadan, which is happening now for our Muslim siblings. It was another chance to sit in a room with a diversity of people from across our city – different faiths, different races, different genders and tribes and professions – and it was a stark reminder in days in which we see violence and hatred aimed directly at our differences, that we need one another…violence against one is violence against all. We belong to each other.
The aim of such interfaith dialogue and our own faith lives is not disconnected at all. In fact, they are one and the same. For learning to see our neighbor as our sibling, peeling back the scales of tribalism from our eyes to see that we are all God’s children is what our practice is all about. Jesus didn’t want to say “yes” to the messiah question because that would have put his followers right back in the same mindset – us versus them.
This is an important reminder as many of us will gather at the county commissioner’s meeting on Monday morning to voice our opposition to 287g, the contract that connects our county law enforcement to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of our federal government, deputizing our local deputies and incentivizing the kind of division and xenophobic policies that we have seen for decades in a broken immigration system. We do this because the borders we put up – this country, that country – are indicators of how we have not accepted that we need each other, beyond nationalities, beyond tribes. We do this because we know that we can no longer afford to see the world as us versus them. It is literally killing us all. The same is true of poverty, homelessness, education, mental health, immigration, crime and punishment and so much else– does our vision for those systems change when we begin with the belief that we belong to each other?
If Jesus had just answered “yes” to the messiah question, the gears would have begun spinning, because the people around him not only suspected strongly that he was the messiah, they also knew what a messiah does – and they would look to him to build an army, to fight the Romans and to sit on the throne in Jerusalem. And Jesus’ throne wasn’t like that at all. By refusing to “speak plainly” and simply claim that loaded title with all it’s implications, Jesus’ fuzziness instead asked them, and us, to look more deeply, to wonder about our role in the kin-dom, and to invest ourselves in this messy and uncertain thing called life. That’s the thin about the kin-dom that Jesus ushers in — one doesn’t simply profess belief in such a mysterious thing— one lives into it, questions into it…growsinto it.”
Sometimes it may seem like we’re more interested in a Christianity of certainty, with boundaries neatly drawn, protecting us from a world that seems strange or unfamiliar, where we don’t have to step into the muddy pasture, surrounded by these other sheep. But that’s not what Jesus offers. He offers us the holy work of inclusion and community, the work of the Gospel.
And it’s good work…especially when we do it in the shelter of one another.