I had decided that I would focus on this story from Acts this morning – especially since it is one of those stories that gets little attention. As I began to research, to read reflections and interpretations, I thought that maybe there’s a good reason it doesn’t get much attention. Unlike other healing stories in Acts, there is no sermon accompanying this story – no sermon that explains what had happened. We don’t hear anything further about Tabitha (or Dorcas) so we don’t know how this healing had an impact on her life or her community.
In fact, this story may create some problems.
I was startled to learn that Tabitha is the only female who is called a disciple – the only one in the entire New Testament. Mary Magdalene isn’t called a disciple. Lydia isn’t called a disciple. The women that Paul names in some of his letters aren’t called disciples. Tabitha, Dorcas, is the only woman who is given that designation! One scholar noted that there is always a temptation to take one example and make it the pre-eminent model by which we are to live. So, Tabitha, the woman of good works and acts of charity, became the model for all Christian women. They were expected to fit this mold – to be Tabithas whose lives demonstrated good works and acts of charity – and nothing else. Another problem is that we begin to see this healing as a merited healing. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity – so she deserved God’s healing presence.
Joseph Harvard points out that Acts does not fit the modern world very well. So, to enter its story we have to live with the “assumption that God is still working through God’s Spirit in the lives of people and in human society to restore this broken world.” That is the faith assumption. It does not mean we leave our minds at the door. It does not mean we reject science and medicine – and all the good gifts of technology – as anti-God or anti-faith. But we do need to let our faith “challenge our assumptions that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments – or…that our predicaments are not fixable at all.”
“Faith challenges our assumptions that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments.” One of God’s good gifts to us is the gift of community. Stephen Jones notes that this story tells us about a community in pain – a community torn by loss. The community in Joppa had lost one of its beloved members – a pillar of the community – a disciple--whose discipleship bore witness in concrete acts that had an impact on others, that touched their needs and their hurts.
Jones disagrees with other interpreters and suggests that the emphasis in this story is not on Peter, but on the community. The community reached out to Peter on behalf of one of its members.
“Christians today are more aware than ever of the power of holistic healing – the intersection of prayer, hopeful attitude, and the resources of medicine. We are more aware than ever that no one should face disease alone. Prayer partners and spiritual advocates (and I would add advocates in a more general sense) can support us, complementing medical treatment. Communities are powerful healing partners in helping us overcome illness and brokenness.”
Jones points out that this approach is counter-cultural in our world which stresses self-reliance, individualism, and the intense privacy that is often seen as a virtue when it comes to illness. He quotes Frederick Buechner:
“When it comes to putting broken lives back together – when it comes, in religious terms, to the saving of souls – the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best. To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do – to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from.”
The chapter on Healing in the book Practicing Our Faith says that as Christians we are called to be healers in a variety of ways. There are those who work in medical fields – as caregivers and researchers and technicians and chaplains. Others are healers as they walk with the other wounded in organizations like Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous. People volunteer in hospices. A growing field is one of therapeutic touch – a ministry offered to those who are ill and receiving treatment, but feel that they have been lost. I’ve often thought of the real need for people to serve as advocates for those who are sick – asking questions in hospitals or doctors’ offices to help the patient understand what’s happening.
If we understand that the root understanding of healing is broader than physical health – that for Christians it means wholeness, we remember that creation itself is in need of healing – so we can be healers as we choose to live more responsibly in our environment and as we seek new ways of bringing wholeness to the earth.
I think it’s easier to talk about “doing” than to talk about the vulnerability of “receiving.” Our service today includes the invitation to ask for prayers. One church, that developed a healing ministry, said that when they pray for healing something always happens even if it wasn’t what they had asked for. They remember that it is God’s power working through them. They remember that, by God’s grace, we are not left to our own devices. Other church communities have developed support groups for those struggling with chronic illnesses. These groups gather to share stories and offer prayers for each other.
A United Methodist pastor, serving as a spiritual healer and teacher, says that the healing ministry of Jesus is still continuing in the community of faith. In that community we remember that healing includes the whole person – spiritual, physical and emotional. And, God wills our wholeness and is actively involved in our growth.
Tabitha was healed. She was restored to the community that loved her and that had interceded on her behalf. They sought out the resource that offered her the best hope. They did not abandon her, even in death. In her story, we are reminded that the church carries Jesus’ own ministry of healing into each other’s lives and into the world.