Grief, Belief, and the Meaning of Life


A sermon on Acts 9:36-43

[an audio recording of the sermon is available here].

I have to be honest. Last Monday, when I read the lectionary texts for today, my heart sank a bit. Because our first reading this week was the story of a resurrection… not Jesus’ resurrection (which I cling to as a source of hope) but the resurrection of a disciple, a woman named Tabitha, or Dorcas – depending which language and community she was moving in. And while this faithful woman’s story is beautiful in many ways, it’s also painful to hear in the context of a world where that kind of resurrection doesn’t seem to happen.

A world where another week means another mass shooting, and Kendrick Castillo, the brave student who sacrificed himself to save his classmates, did not rise again.

A world where Rachel Held Evans, a thirty-seven-year-old mother and faithful Christian writer who has nourished the faith of hundreds of thousands – including mine, couldn’t be brought back from a coma despite a multitude of prayer.

A world where in our community, we just lost Ken Anderson, and where other members have recently lost family – suddenly, sorrowfully.

It’s hard to know what good news there is for us, today, in a story of one woman’s resurrection almost 2,000 years ago

And it’s hard not to ask the question: “why her, but not the ones we love and care about?” It’s hard not to ask that question even though I know it’s the wrong question. It’s a question the Bible refuses to answer, most clearly in the book of Job, which sets up the most extreme example possible of “bad things happening to a good person” and then proceeds to dismantle all our efforts to explain “why.”

We don’t get to know why. Not this side of eternity anyway.

But today’s reading from Acts gives us a story of resurrection this side of eternity. Resurrection in this earthly life, and not just the future resurrection that we preach, and pray, and sing about at funerals. So if this story CAN’T answer the question of “why her, but not these others?” If this story isn’t about giving us a formula for resurrection that we can leverage…. Then what new life does this story offer us?

To answer that question, I think we have to look at what this story is actually about. And when I let go of my questions about “why” and I look at what the story describes, I see two things: grief and belief.

Grief is to be expected in a story about an untimely death, of course, but in this story grief is not just present… it is on display. It takes up space in the narrative. It even forces the story to pause. When the Apostle Peter arrives and enters the room where the dead woman’s body is laid out, we expect action. Why else have the believers called him here, if it’s not to do something.

But the widows gathered around their friend and benefactor’s body don’t seem to expect him to do anything, other than to witness their grief. They stand beside him, weeping, and they show him the things she had made for them, the work of her hands, the objects of artistry and care that will show him – as words cannot – why they are so devastated by her death… because her life was about service to others.

Their grief is a witness to who she was. This woman who was remembered for her service. This woman who embodied the crossing of the boundaries we human beings set up to separate ourselves from other people – who had two names because she reached out in service to both Jewish and Greek communities.

The story pauses to express grief for this life. And I think is does so because this grief has something to teach us not only about death, but also about life. Dorcas, Tabitha, had truly lived, because she had lived for others. And while we may never get to experience a resurrection like hers, but we have a chance to live a life like hers.

We see a similar shift in focus away from the obvious thing in the second half of the story – the half where Peter prays, and raises her to life again, and shows her to be alive – and then the focus immediately shifts away from the resurrected woman to the consequence of her resurrection... just like the focus shifted from Peter’s action to the women’s grief a few verses earlier.

Basically as soon as Tabitha/Dorcas is raised from the dead, the story tells us, “this became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42). Grief in this story gives way to belief. The story isn’t about Tabitha/Dorcas anymore, it’s about the many nameless people who come to faith because of what they hear about her.

It seems a bit unfair for this paragon of faith and service – the only woman in scripture given the title “disciple” the same as Jesus’ inner circle. If the story could pause to highlight the widows’ grief for her death, why can it not pause to celebrate her restoration?

But, I don’t think Tabitha/Dorcas would have minded this telling. Because the life she lived before her death and resurrection was about others as well. So, of course, her resurrection was not just about restoring her one life. It was about bringing new life to her whole Jewish and Gentile community. It was about the life that comes from belief – from trust – in the God who has conquered death.

Princeton Seminary professor Eric Barreto reflects on the story this way:

When the residents of Joppa see Tabitha restored to life, they do not join this community of believers so much because they are stunned by this miraculous act of healing but because of what it might mean for them and for the world. If death is no longer a barrier between us, can we dare hope that the ills that plague us, our families, and our communities might also be healed by a God who cares so deeply for us?”[1]

The healing that I think Dr. Barreto is pondering is much bigger than the hope of individual resurrection… rather, it’s the hope of new life on THIS side of the grave. It’s the hope that the God who can defeat physical death can also defeat the many shadows of death in our lives and communities…

...The suspicion between racial or ethnic groups that close us off from each other;

...The inequities between those who have excess and those who have need;

...The power struggles between those who have honor and status and those who have been excluded;

... In other words: all the dividing lines that Tabitha/Dorcas had crossed in her life of service and faith, along with all the other dividing lines that human beings create because we fear death.

You see, when we fear death, we will always be trying to make ourselves feel safe, and one of the most common ways we do that is by drawing a line and saying that those on the other side deserve death more. But this story is about death being defeated. And not just in Tabitha’s resurrection… also in her life that crossed boundaries and reached out to others … also in the new life that came from the many who believed.

One of my colleagues in text study this week reminded me about the opening line of the Didache – one of the primary teaching books of the early church. This catechism resource begins:“There are two Ways, one of Life and one of Death, and there is a great difference between the two Ways.”[2]

Resurrection is about recognizing faith in Christ as the way of life, and living our lives accordingly, just as Tabitha/Dorcas did. Not so that we can get resurrection in the end, But so that we can share new life now!

As I dwelled with the story of this amazing disciple this week I came to realize that this story is not about the people we have lost and our longing to have them back, real and painful as those longings are. This story is for those of us who are still here. Because it teaches us more about LIFE than it teaches us about resurrection.

Life is about the impact we have on others.

Life is about the faith we inspire in others.

Life is about crossing boundaries that divide us.

Life is about not fearing death, because we already have new life.

Thanks be to God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1625

[2] http://thedidache.com/

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