After church, Johnny tells his parents he has to go and talk to the minister right away. They agree and the pastor greets the family. “Pastor,” Johnny says, “I heard you say today that our
bodies came from the dust.” “That’s right, Johnny, I did.” “And I heard you say that when we die, our bodies go back to dust.” “Yes, I’m glad you were listening. Why do you ask?” “Well you better come over to our house right away and look under my bed ’cause there’s someone either comin’ or goin’!”
Great heroes, both men and women of faith, have been recorded throughout the Bible. However, there are many Biblical characters who can be easily overlooked and yet should be regarded as heroes, not necessarily because of their extraordinary feats but because they simply chose to align themselves with God. Week 1, we started with Old Testament unsung hero Rahab of Jericho. Week 2, we looked at another Old Testament unsung hero- Jethro. Week 3, we considered yet one more Old Testament character who had the courage to say, “If only”- Naaman’s Wife’s Maid. Last week, we moved into the New Testament and we considered the Thief on the Cross. Today, we stay in the New Testament and look at a dedicated disciple who dies…and comes back.
Acts 9:36-42 36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.
So, we have this disciple named Tabitha- which is her Hebrew name. We are told that, in Greek, her name was Dorcas. And trust me- I get it. Dorcas is a funny name in our day and ago. But in the Ancient Near Eastern world, Dorcas was a perfectly acceptable name. But because of that different, 21st Century connotation, we’ll call her by her Hebrew name- Tabitha- to try and avoid the snickers every time I say “Dorcas”!
Tabitha is an unsung hero. She’s a great example of what a Christian should be. The Bible tells us that “she was always doing good and helping the poor”. The original Greek text describes her as “mathetria”, which translates to a female disciple. It is the ONLY time the New Testament uses this word. So that tells is that she was a well-known woman of good reputation.
Sadly, she gets sick and dies. It was the women’s task to prepare a dead body for burial. So, they washed the body and trimmed her hair and nails. Then her body would have been gently wiped down with a mixture of spices and wrapped in linen strips. While this was being done, prayers from what we now know as the Old Testament would have been chanted.
Notice where they put the body- in an upper room. It may or may not be THE Upper Room. Either way, however, why is that mentioned? Well, first off, upper rooms have special significance in the Christian story. The Last Supper took place in an upper room and the Holy Spirit’s visit at Pentecost took place in an upper room. It was historically a space that was somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of the ground-floor courtyard and public rooms. It was a relatively quiet place where contact with God might be easier.
Once the body was laid out in that upper room, ritual mourning would have followed. All of her friends would want to show their respect and affection by openly grieving. Mourning was not a restrained activity in the ancient Middle East. People showed their grief by wailing, crying, and tearing the upper part of their woven garment. The more noise, the more it showed that the dead person was loved.
Then, somebody has an idea. The people gathered to pay their respects to Tabitha, also described as ‘disciples’, had hear that Peter was in nearby Lydda. They send a group to go and get him. Peter is taken to Tabitha’s body, laid out in the upper room. Her friends are gathered around her body. They show Peter the garments she made for the poor- the evidence of a well-lived life is there for all to see.
Peter is moved by their grief. He has everybody leave the room, making it very peaceful and quiet. He is now alone with Tabitha’s body- prepared for burial. He kneels and prays. But did you notice? He so faces AWAY from the body. Why? Maybe he wanted to make sure he was focusing entirely on God. Then, he turns TOWARD her body. And, drawing on the same power that Jesus had, he commands her to get up. And…she DOES! She opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up. He offers his hand raises her into a standing position. Then he calls her friends back in from outside- they can now see with their own eyes what’s happened. she is restored to life and she is returned to her friends and her community!
Why is the raising of Tabitha so important? And what makes her an unsung hero? This story is a pivotal moment in Peter’s life. It establishes him as a miracle-worker who’s been empowered by Jesus- one worthy to lead the emerging Christian church. Early Christians were inspired and heartened by her story. And the fledgling Christian Church spread and grew because of the miracle of Tabitha being brought back from the dead.
Tabitha was a model of good sense, modest behavior, care for those less fortunate, and courage in the face of adversity. She was a model to the Christian community, admired for her dedication to helping others- for her good works. And her story is part of the dynamic growth that followed Pentecost. More people believed in God because of Tabitha’s miracle.
It’s somewhat odd that Tabitha’s death led to Peter being the leader of the Church and a general renewal of growing faith in the early Christian church. But think that through. She was known for her strong faith and good works. That knowledge led to MANY people gather in an upper room, openly mourning her death. That led to them fetch Peter, who was touched by her death and the grief of those gathered there. He restored her to life. And the Church grew, in faith AND in numbers, because of all that.
Notice it all hinges on Tabitha’s faith and her work with the poor and those in need. Most of us couldn’t have said WHO Tabitha was when we started this morning. But, in her own way, her impact is still felt today.
As we recognize lost loved ones this Memorial Day weekend, it can be very hard to do, very emotional. And there is NOTHING wrong or inappropriate with the grief you might be feeling. But have you looked for the silver lining in that loss? And I don’t mean “God needed one more angel” or anything trite like that. For example, as terrible as it was to lose my mom, it brought me and my dad closer than we ever were. As terrible as it was to lose my wife’s dad, he suffers no longer and left behind a strong legacy. As horrific as it is when a child dies, that life and death often touches many other lives. And many groups, foundations and organizations have been founded because of the tragic death of a child and many of them have gone on to do amazing things. This Memorial Day, remember to men and women who gave their lives in service to their country- to us. Remember those loved ones we have lost who had such and impact. And remember the saints who have gone before us- folks we never knew- unsung heroes whose lives impact us to this day. Tabitha teaches us that faith leads to good works and God’s blessing.