One of the unique and, for me, frustrating things about the weeks after Easter is the absence of an Old Testament reading in our lectionary. Personally, I love the Old Testament, its stories of action, adventure, mystery, the in-depth back story to the Gospel. It’s like those episodes in your favorite TV series; the “where did Our Hero come from” episode that always reveals something cryptic and yet something key to the character of all the people who are most important in the show. The Old Testament reveals to us the world in which Jesus lived, the prophecies that preceded him, the depth and detail of the faith and promise he came to fulfill and expand upon.
But for now, until we get to Trinity Sunday, we have stories from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. An interesting thing about Acts that many do not know is that it is actually Luke Volume 2. It was written by the same author and he, most likely, meant for the two books to go together and not have them separated by the Gospel of John. If the Old Testament is the back story, the prequel to the Gospels, then Acts is the sequel to Luke.
Every author, screen writer and story teller has their own little tricks or predictable lines they use. Something like “Long ago in a galaxy far, far away” or “Once upon a time” or “Don’t look now but we’ve got company” or “Nothing can stop us now!” You kind of know what’s coming next. When someone in a book or tv show or movie says, “This is going to be the best Christmas EVER!” then you know something is about to go horribly wrong! The author of Luke/Acts, being a great writer, has similar things and one of his predictable lines is: “And it came to pass in those days” or simply “In those days…”
Think about when we’ve heard that before. “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” That is the beginning of Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and right after those words, we are launched into the miraculous story of the Messiah’s coming into the world. Another version of this phrase: “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias.” That’s the beginning of the story of the birth of John the Baptist and here, right after that sentence, we are launched again into a story of hope and the amazing life changing actions of God. Or how about this: “And on my menservants and on my maidservants I will pour out my Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy.” That’s the beginning of the Pentecost story which we will hear in one month. With all of these, you know something big is coming! Some story of success and promise and hope. And it is always a big story!
In today’s text from Acts, the author uses his special phrase. It’s translated as “At that time” in this version. But it says “In those days she became sick and died.” Now, we’ve just been introduced to a disciple named Tabitha, and he even goes to the trouble to tell us some details about her name and about her great devotion to good works and charity. And then, “In those days, she died.” What? It’s kind of like a fairy tale that started with “Once upon a time,” nothing in particular happened. Or “don’t look now but we’ve got company” and instead of a big fight or chase scene, everyone sits down in the living room to have coffee. It’s just not what you expect to happen. Perhaps that is what we are meant to feel. Maybe we are supposed to have the feeling that this isn’t the usual kind of story.
In those days it is clearly a time of great loss and deep grief for the community around Tabitha. The women of the community wash her and lay out her body in an upper room. This shows the care and mourning of the loss of this lady. It is not that these actions are unique to the way people of the time dealt with death; it’s actually quite typical behavior. Rather, it is that the author recounts the details, giving us a window into this specific community’s pain, this specific woman’s death. In those days there is a feeling of desperation at the loss of her life and they, in their desperation, call for Peter to come. They send two men to bring him there. That’s another indication of the gravity of the situation. And so, without delay, he comes to them.
When Peter arrives in the upper room, where Tabitha’s lifeless body has so lovingly been laid, the widows there begin to present him with all the many kinds of garments she had made for the community while she was with them—symbols of her charity and loving ministry—and their pain is obvious. Peter puts them all outside, kneels down and prays. Then he says Tabitha get up.
And she does.
That never ceases to amaze me. Jesus says to the little girl who was being mourned by the whole community: Talitha cum—little girl get up. And she does. Jesus calls out to Lazarus, already wrapped in cloths, already lying cold in his tomb: Lazarus, come out. And he does.
Tabitha, get up. And she does. And just as Peter was presented with all the examples of Tabitha’s good works, he then presents the whole community with the great work of God: life. They see, we see, that death does not win. God turns mourning into dancing, darkness into light, loss into promise, death to life.
There is one very hard question that surfaces when we hear these stories. Why Tabitha and not anyone else? Why the little girl, why Lazarus and not all the others who died? Surely, they were not the only faithful ones! If that were they case, there would be far more written about them, perhaps even entire books in the bible dedicated to describing their lives. But there aren’t any books like that. In fact, it is clear that all of Tabitha’s good works were not saving works. She is described as a disciple who was always doing good things and acts of charity, her hand work and craftsmanship was displayed with pride, but none of these things were able to save her. No good work, no matter how good, could save her from death. It was God alone who could do that. But why only these few people and not everyone? Why not all who suffer and die? All the faithful disciples, even Peter himself, died and were not brought back to life in this way. Good people, people we all love, people who are going about their daily lives and are caught up in someone’s extreme political agenda. People die every day. Why not any of them?
The truth is I do not know the answer to this question. At least, as far as this kind of being brought back from the dead is concerned. I do not know why they were brought back to life and not others. But what I do know is that they are examples of the power of God to give life. When we read these stories we can know that God’s promise of life for us is not a hollow one. It is not so much that these people were brought back to life because they had done something to earn this gift but that their restored life is an example, a touchstone for us to hold on to and know that God means what he says when he tells us that he will give us new and everlasting life. Just like the people showed Peter some of Tabitha’s handiwork to show what beautiful and amazing work she could do, we are shown these glimpses of God’s amazing ability to give life to show what beautiful and amazing work God promises to do with us.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus says, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No One will snatch them out of my hand.” When we see the miracles like that of Tabitha, we are seeing a flash of the future. Just like we say that communion is a foretaste of the feast to come, a tiny taste of the great banquet of heaven, the full and complete communion with God we will experience in the resurrection, so too are these restorations of life tiny tastes of eternal life. Tabitha, like all the others who are brought back from the dead in scripture, are not resurrected to a new life yet, in the way that Jesus was on that first Easter morning. They are brought back to this life. But, as such, they are examples—reasons to believe—that when Jesus says NO ONE will snatch us from his hand, he really means no one. Even death itself cannot steal us from him.
The story of Tabitha is part of a sequel to the Gospels. While that Old Testament backstory may tell us where our Hero, Jesus, came from, this tells us where We are going. Tabitha’s story may not seem like a big story or one that is worthy of Luke’s majestic announcement phrase ‘in those days’ because it is not as big as those others.
Or is it? Her story is an illustration of part of the way in which the world is different because of Jesus. Her life is a sign of Jesus’ defeat of our enemy death. But she is also a piece, a flash forward, a glimpse of the full Kingdom of Heaven that is to come. Tabitha’s story shows us that Jesus’ promise of eternal life is worth believing in. The eternal life that we can hope for and believe in for all those we love who we have lost, that we can believe in for ourselves is worth our faith.
We may have lost some of those we love to death for now and we may have great fear of death, but Jesus does not lose them and will not lose us. Ever. No One can snatch us out of his hands. No One, not even death itself. For in those days we will live with him forever.
*The image above is from a quilter named Granny Fran and her blog of quilting is Toadhaven Annex. The quilt block was designed in honor of Dorcas (also known as Tabitha). Granny Fran designed several quilt blocks in honor of biblical characters and themes. It is quite appropriate that there is a Tabitha block since she was known for her fine handiwork.