A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2004
Text: Acts 9:36-43
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It was difficult to hear the first lesson today, wasn’t it? I’m not talking about the microphone being on the fritz and I’m not saying that your neighbor in the next pew over was too noisy or fidgety – What I mean is this: With all of the losses our communities have suffered these last two weeks, wasn’t it honestly difficult to hear these words from God?
Down the road a way in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, “Gazelle” in our language. She was well-known for doing good and helping out. During the time Peter was in the area she became sick and died. Her friends prepared her body for burial and put her in a cool room.
Some of the disciples had heard that Peter was visiting in nearby Lydda and sent two men to ask if he would be so kind as to come over. Peter got right up and went with them. They took him into the room where Tabitha’s body was laid out. Her old friends, most of them widows, were in the room mourning. They showed Peter pieces of clothing the Gazelle had made while she was with them. Peter put the widows all out of the room. He knelt and prayed. Then he spoke directly to the body: “Tabitha, get up.”
She opened her eyes. When she saw Peter, she sat up. He took her hand and helped her up. Then he called in the believers and widows, and presented her to them alive.
When this became known all over Joppa, many put their trust in the Master. Peter stayed on a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.
It was difficult to hear these words having lost Johnny not two weeks ago. It got harder to hear them when Sharon, Terri and their families lost Don this weekend. When I got the word that Eleanor had died, too, I knew I was going to be up early this morning writing – we need help, today, to hear these words from God.
By my count the little towns along the rail from Kathryn to Marion have lost half a dozen folks these two weeks. Paul is the only pastor around whose hands haven’t been darkened by black cemetery soil, and he must be getting pretty nervous right about now. We’ve lost so many people, and we have so few to lose…what could God be thinking?
When we hear about how Peter came right over to Joppa and raised Tabitha back up to her life of good works, we can’t help but wonder: Why Tabitha? Why not John, or Don, or Eleanor, or any of the other loved ones we’ve lost? Why does God send our towns only pastors who are good for burying the dead and comforting the bereaved? Why doesn’t God instead send us a Peter – someone who will come right over and raise up our dead before they’ve barely grown cold?
I know that you sometimes ask these questions. Your pastors know that, deep in your hearts, sometimes you wonder why apostles of old did this kind of thing, but the modern-day versions don’t seem to have it in us. You’re kind, and you never say these things out loud, but the truth is that we pastors ask the same question ourselves. Why should Tabitha be raised, but not our own people? We would love to wave our hands or say a prayer, and miraculously wipe away the sting of death that cuts down our people.
There are no easy answers to the questions and the longings this passage calls forth in us. But that is not to say that there are no answers at all – just that they are difficult ones for people in grief to hear.
First of all, we need to know that even in Tabitha’s own congregation, many people died before she did, and many died after, and – as far as we know – Tabitha is the only one of those countless faithful people who was called back to life. When Peter arrived in town, he did not empty the city cemeteries by the power of the Holy Spirit, and though he stayed in town for some time, it doesn’t seem that he ever raised another person from the dead there. Only Tabitha. It appears that Peter’s ministry was not really about miracles like this one, even if they sometimes were appropriate.
In fact, Peter was in good company – Jesus himself only raised a few people from the dead during the three years of his ministry on earth. Think of how many people he met who had lost loved ones, and yet Jesus did not go from town to town raising up an army of followers who had once filled the graves. Though it might seem good to us, the truth is that Jesus had other things in mind.
So we must remember first of all that even in her own day, what happened to Tabitha was exceptional – a wonderful, remarkable exception, but an exception just the same. All the people of Tabitha’s community eventually died in the ordinary manner.
Another thing we must keep in mind is that Tabitha herself died in the ordinary manner. She is not still with us; one day, perhaps long after Peter left Joppa, or maybe not so long, Tabitha returned to the grave. It was an odd gift Peter gave her – he raised Tabitha up so that she might die again someday.
Before her first death, Tabitha had been a woman full of good works and kindness. Who knows how many people had shirts on their back because the hands of this good woman had made them? Without a doubt she continued her ministry with renewed vigor after looking in Peter’s eyes and sitting up from death at his command. She must have worked that much harder – why? Because she knew that she had only been given a reprieve. She had tasted death once, and as overjoyed as Tabitha must have been to have life given back to her, she knew that she would taste death again. The life that Peter had raised her back up to was only for a short while.
Tabitha never forgot that fact, and neither should we – even the greatest miracle of a great apostle like Peter could give her no more than a few years. Death came to Tabitha again, as it came to Peter and to all the others.
So, then, where is our hope in all this? If Tabitha was a rare exception, and even the great miracle in her life was short-lived, what hope do we have, we who have pastors who only comfort and bury, and do not raise anyone up?
Our hope is the hope of Peter. It’s the hope of Tabitha. It’s the hope of Johnny, Don, Eleanor and all the other faithful who have gone before us. Our hope is Easter morn.
It is only in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we can receive not just a longer lifetime, but eternal life. Jesus didn’t raise every poor wretch who died during his ministry because Jesus himself intended to die for them, so that they and every other sinner of this world might be given a new life with him. Those who are raised back to this life of sin will die once again, but our hope is that Jesus Christ was raised to the new life, and that we will live also, because he lives and he has promised it.
I said there are not easy answers, and I mean it. Hoping for a resurrection that we have promised but no one has seen – that’s hard. Facing the days ahead without our loved ones and knowing we must wait a while yet to once again be with them – that’s hard. Burying our dead and trusting the good news that our pastors give to us about Jesus and his Resurrection – that’s hard, too. No easy answers this morning.
But they are good answers. They are good because they are the truth. We Christians are an Easter people, and our faith is rooted in Easter morn. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, once for all time, and that he will never die again. We believe that what God did for Jesus, he will also do for each of us children who follow in Jesus’ name. We believe that death will not have the last word – not for Tabitha, not for Peter, not for John and Don and Eleanor. Not for you or for me, either.
Jesus told his followers that no one could ever snatch from his hand the people that he called his own. May our comfort and hope always rest in Jesus; whether in life or in death, we will always be safely within his firm grasp. Amen.