Before I started seminary, my pastor informed me that he saw his role as “Making disciples”.
I thought – “Speak English! What does that even mean?” It seemed a little pompous and very churchy. In my world, the word “disciple” conjures up images of men in sandals and robes making aggressive eye contact and talking in intense voices – maybe in the service of a cult. Making disciples sounded awfully hard-core and true believer-y. It made me want to back away..
But- what is a disciple? What does a disciple look like? How does a disciple act?What does it mean to be one? What would it look like to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? To live out his vision and live into the promise revealed through his resurrection?
Addressing these questions is a major concern in the Book of Acts, and it is chock full of big bold examples – people thrown into jail, martyred, ship wrecked – exciting stuff! Reading in early church history reveals tales of those martyrs meeting their various unpleasantly messy ends as a consequence of their faith. But for we who were raised with the New England virtual of minding our own business and giving folks the space to live their own lives the notion of proclaiming and declaiming is an uncomfortable fit. I always wondered why dying for our beliefs was better than living for our beliefs.
Today’s reading reveals a different model for discipleship. We are told of Tabitha whose “life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.” She cared for widows, those with no resources, apparently out of her own resources. She was not a preacher, great theologian or writer. She took care of people and persuaded her friends to help, putting a human face on the compassion of Christ and embodying that love for the village of Joppa.
Her name ( which is so often absent when women are mentioned in scripture) was given in both Aramaic and Greek, most likely because she was bi-lingual. We get the picture of a woman who was powerful, wealthy and generous. A disciple of Jesus Christ – who walked in Jesus’ footsteps – the only woman so designated in the Gospels.
When she became ill and died her death creating such a crisis that that the community sent for Peter. Together the women mourned their dear friend, remembered her and prepared her body, putting her in an upper room. They sent for Peter as they prayed for a miracle, for more time with their friend. When Peter arrived, he found a community of women surrounding her body sharing memories. These widows had brought garments that Tabitha had made for them to share with each other. In their world a piece of clothing was very valuable: spinning by hand, weaving by hand, sewing by hand. The poorest people might have owned only two or three garments. Tabitha had provided clothing for her entire community.
They began to show these garments to Peter and explain. You can image the sharing of memories: “She wove this cloak for me two winters ago when it was so cold, and I could never get warm.”
“Look at the fine small stitches she made on this gown Tabitha made for my grandchild when she was baptized. Feel how soft it is..”
“I remember when this fit my son – he is so tall now. He wore this tunic day in and day out until he outgrew it..”
It was a fashion show of her life.
As the stories flowed, stories of spinning and weaving and sewing were wrapped up with the spinning and weaving and sewing of the women’s lives into a community of caring.
Then Peter sent all of the women out of the room and raised Tabitha to new life. It is at this point, writes Thomas Troeger, that he comes suspicious of Luke, who acts as if Peter were the sole vessel of God’s restoring power.
“ I do not believe it” Troeger writes, “ I believe the women had already released the power of new life into the room because when they touched those garments they touched the spinning and weavings and sewing of a life that was dedicated to Jesus Christ – so dedicated that she was called “disciple” even by a patriarchal writer like Luke”
Touching those clothes, Tabitha’s community touched the fabric of their existence and reclaimed their connection to a lovely generous woman who was connected to Jesus Christ. When they brought out those stories of the spinning and weaving and sewing of their life together the Risen Christ joined them, the Christ that had lived in this woman, the Christ by whose power Peter said “Tabitha, get up”.
I suspect that Luke’s interest in the story was in how the power of healing had been passed from Jesus to his apostles. But the story is as much about the new life woven by these women as they came together to share their pain, their weeping, their memories and their celebrations. It is about a community of mutual compassion, kindness and healing stitched together through the life of this woman.
Yesterday my friend Julie traveled from San Diego to Norwich for the funeral mass of her friend Paula. Paula was a faithful woman, who lived within walking distance of her church. She never owned a car and spent her life reaching out to others, connecting them with each other. She was a ‘wheeler-dealer’ on behalf of those in need – helping one person raise the money to buy the car they needed for work, another find housing and medical supplies. Decades ago, when Julie’s family lived in Norwich, her husband faced the humiliation of arrest and a very public trial on tax related issues. It was a painful isolating and disorienting time, especially as Julie was suddenly left to support herself and their small children.
Paula sought out Julie and her children offering her love and friendship, her home a place of refuge and support for them all. When Julie’s husband was released from prison, Paula approached him an offered to loan him $20,000 to restart his business. Through the years, Julie’s now grown children regularly came back from the West Coast to check in with Paula and to provide support for the new people that Paula befriended. Yesterday Julie and countless others traveled from across the country to honor this woman who susptained a community with her acts of compassion. Julie told me “I was raised a Catholic and most times I am not sure how I feel about that. But I know Paula was who and what it is to be a Christian”. Paula created a community of carrying not bound by geography or blood.
Who are the hidden disciples in our congregations? In yours and mine – those who do small things with great love in quiet ways?Those whose acts of goodness and love stay with us transforming our lives in ways that we never discuss?
Tabitha’s story shows us that that we don’t have to be crusaders for Christ or behave in some awfully big and dramatic way. She expressed in her life the compassion that Christians, women and men, are called to embody. Because Tabitha lived the widows were not left alone. But this rebirth bears witness to another truth. If death is not the final word, then reality is not bounded by what has been. Reality is bound to God’s promise that all things are made new.
Maybe we can be disciples – but without the sandals, beard and attitude. Perhaps we simply begin by being kind, by life lived as an outpost of God’s outrageous love. In this way we too may weave together the power of new life. Amen