Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37 At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” 39 So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40 Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42 This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43 Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
We had the rare joy last weekend of having both my mother and my mother-in-law in town. They had made the trip from Missouri to see our daughter, Morgan, in the Bixby Middle School production of Footloose. It was a marvelous show and brought back all the feels for me as I enjoyed being in school musicals back in the day. I laughed with my mom as we remembered each role I had played and all the shows she took in over the years… always with joy. She’d laugh and shout and clap at all the right times whether it was the first performance of Guys and Dolls I was in or the twelfth. Mom has always been my biggest fan and I’ll admit it has always been sweet to have her in my corner. She and dad left for home on Saturday but my mother-in-law was with us in worship last Sunday. She sat right near the front with Carolyn Buchan (who has always been so kind to my mother-in-law who also happens to be named Carolyne). At the end of my sermon at The Rising, I heard this loud, “Amen!” shouted from the congregation. You have this immediate sense of, “Okay – someone’s convicted today – the Spirit’s really working it today,” but of course, you quickly realize it’s your mother-in-law. I could have cracked fortune cookies and read fortunes all morning and she would have shouted, “Amen!” after every one. Many moms have a way of seeing the best in their kids.
My wife, Carrie, often gets a little excited when we’re in the stands watching our own kids do whatever their thing is in that moment. She’s still learning the rules of baseball but not knowing all of the details hasn’t stopped her from throwing herself into play after play. Hayes is seven and his team is figuring out all the ins and outs of the rules of baseball themselves. A play will develop and Carrie’s hooting and hollering, “Get ‘em!” “Throw it!” “Hold it!” “Tag him!” and sometimes she’ll offer her advice without knowing for sure if that’s a legal move. She’ll yell “Get him!” and then whisper to me, “Can he do that?” and I’ll just slowly shake my head from side to side. Nonetheless, I love the passion of a mother for her kids. I suspect that there’s no greater love on this side of heaven than a mother has for her children and also no greater heartbreak.
I’ve been with those becoming mothers for the first time and held with them that deep awe and wonder of this new bundle in their life. The connection is beyond explanation but they have an immeasurable depth of love for this being they’ve only just met. I’ve sat with mothers who’ve decided their child has strayed so far they don’t know if they’ll ever come back. I’ve sat with grown mothers caring for their own aging mother – sometimes pulling out their own hair in the process, sometimes stroking their ailing mother’s hair as she surely did for them when they were little. It’s a unique relationship – no other like it to be sure. One could never calculate the hours and soul poured into mothering well and so we seldom do. But when we’ve received such care and guidance – selfless and steady – we grieve it when it’s gone.
We meet a woman today named Dorcas – Tabitha in English. It means “gazelle.” Not sure if that was the inspiration of her own parents when she was born or if she embodied such graceful and elegant movement in her life. A dancer perhaps… or hurdler. Who knows? But…here she is. She’s the first woman in the book of Acts specifically named as a disciple and she is beloved. Acts says, “She was devoted to good works and charity.” The actual expression of this phrase in Greek is more closely, “She was full of it!” It was often a way people referred to being full of the Holy Spirit. Dorcas was full of it… and her death hit the community hard.
Rachel Held Evans may be a name you’ve heard – and maybe not. She’s written a number of honest books about her journey in faith. Every year of middle school she was awarded “Best Christian Attitude” at her Christian school so she felt pretty full of it, herself. An over-achiever of the faith. But she had so many questions that easy, pat answers and Christian clichés just wouldn’t satisfy. She was in a church culture, however, that didn’t welcome the questions. “Memorize the standard answers and be satisfied with them,” was the sentiment. But she believed the Christ mystery held so much more.
As she wrote of the breadth and width and height of God’s love in Christ and the extraordinary grace of Jesus some said she went too far. She didn’t understand the fear.
“Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, this grace thing might get out of hand,” she said. “Well, guess what? It already has. Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.”
She would write these kinds of things. She imagined a church that was full of it. She dreamed:
“Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.” And her faith was tested. But she also said: “I am a Christian because the story of Jesus is still the story I’m willing to risk being wrong about.”
Rachel died this past week. 37 years old. Got the flu… had a reaction to the antibiotics. And gone. She and her husband Dan have two young kids – ages 3 and 1. And so many are grieving. I was with forty young ministers this week, leading them in retreat, and a number of them carried her books and held them in their grief, testimony to her impact, as if to say: “This is what she did. This is what we have. This mattered so much to my faith.” And there was grief.
This is the spirit of the room in our story from Acts today. Dorcas has died. And the people are grieving. For she was full of it… good works and acts of charity. She made things for the widows in particular – a forgotten contingent of society – for whom Jesus instructed to give care. Word was that Peter wasn’t far away. Word was also out that he’d done some healing and worked some miracles and it was worth a shot. Jewish tradition was to have the body prepared and buried by sundown, so time was of the essence. They cared for Dorcas’ body but took her upstairs (in a cold room as some translations say) and sent an entourage after Peter. This is a sweet maneuver of the faith movement in this town.
And we’ve all known that saint who we longed to hold onto… full of the spirit… so influential in our lives. It’s worth asking ourselves, “What are we full of?” You’ve got to be careful with your answer, but it is worth a thought. What is your spirit full of that the world would so miss if you weren’t here? Do you know? If you don’t, perhaps we need to think more intentionally about what we’re cultivating in our lives. Theologian Dallas Willard says,
“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”
Full of it. And this just isn’t the big stuff… it’s the daily stuff.
“for all those unsung heroines who have got on with what they can do best and have done it to the glory of God. Had it not been for Peter’s, she might never have made it into the pages of the New Testament, and we have to assume that there were dozens in the early years, and thousands in later years, who, like her, lived their lives in faith and hope, bearing the sorrows of life no doubt as well as celebrating its joys, and finding in the small acts of service to others a fulfillment of the gospel within their own sphere, using traditional skills to the glory of God. [N.T. Wright points out that…] Luke is right to draw our eyes down to the small-scale and immediate, in case we should ever forget that these are the people who form the heart of the church. [Their gifts to the whole go uncelebrated too often.] But when you have the pleasure of meeting a Dorcas, you greet them as what they are, the beating heart of the people of God.”
Last Sunday was a beautiful expression of church. One of our most seasoned couples had an issue at home and were introduced to one of our youngest couples of the church who went with them to help them with that issue… never met each other… came back knowing each other and remembering fully what it meant to be church. A greeter, took a first timer all the way into the Life Center which was full of youth and youth leaders and our community and our new friend looked intimidated until our greeter connected her with one of our people sitting close by who, as it turns out, she had known for years… and the joy? Church, my friends. Church. And the youth sponsors interviewed by two of our sharp high schoolers spilling the beans about why they serve and how it transforms their lives as much as it does for our young people. Church. And a young man… a high schooler… new to our community, steps up into the lectern and opens his mouth to belt out a song of the soul. My view was through the supportive admiration of our choir who beamed with pride for his courage and willingness to share his gift… church. A new couple, after worship… cooked a Cinco de Mayo dinner for our fourteen Family Promise guests so that they might feel loved and celebrated and a part. Church. This is what Dorcas was all about… unsung… but hero nonetheless.
So Peter is sought: “Come quickly,” they say. And whether Peter knew Dorcas or knew those who summoned him to come or he was simply moved to move… he does. And it’s a ten mile hike so we’re not talking a three-minute ride to St. Francis Hospital in his Ford F-150 Raptor… I see Peter driving a big truck, you know? Peter goes and as he climbs the stairs of this home, it is lined with widows who hold in their hands the legacy of this woman who touched their lives… steady and faithful. No pressure, Peter. So he clears the room. And I’m not sure how it really happens from there. We get a little bit from the text but let’s remember – Peter did not go to med school. He was a fisherman of all things. Sure he could pull a hook and clean a fish but this was a little different. He knelt and prayed. He doesn’t want to walk back down those stairs by those widows simply shrugging his shoulders, “Ma’am; ma’am. ‘Scuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He’s praying, “Lord, Lord, please.” And after his prayer… which may or may not have done the trick, he simply says, “Tabs? Get up.” She opens her eyes. He extends a hand. And finally… my favorite line and his greatest relief: “He presented her to them alive.” Isn’t that all Jesus wants? That we might be presented alive to the world – full of it – vibrant and active and doing our part for the kingdom.
Just imagine that’s the line for you today as the doors of this sanctuary are opened and you’re released back into the wild: “He presented her to the world, fully alive.” “He presented him to the world, vibrant, active, serving as only he uniquely could.” That’s church. That’s why we’re here. To catch another glimpse. To fill up with the Spirit again. To get back out there and be church for real. We don’t always catch it the first time around… or the second… or even a dozen years into it. But don’t quit calling for it. Don’t settle that it will never come for you. You never know when it’s gonna take.
There’s a great healing story (Mark 8) where Jesus heals a guy’s eyesight twice. After Jesus’ first try, he asked the man, “What can you see?” The man told Jesus, “I see people but they look like trees walking around.” Jesus tries again and says, “What about now?” It was only after the second time that the man could see things the way they really were. First attempts like first impressions can be great but many times we need that second touch, that second look, another try. This happens in the faith too. Many have bumped into Jesus along the way but it didn’t stick. It’s not a failure or anything any more than Jesus’ first attempt at the guys eyes was but God does long for us to be real about how we’re being transformed.
Bob Goff, lawyer, author, honorary counsel for the Republic of Uganda to the United States, says about this very biblical story:
“I’ll level with you; if I were the blind guy in the story, I would have been tempted to lie to Jesus after the first touch and tell him I was healed. You know, just so Jesus wouldn’t look bad.” He says, “but what Jesus is looking for are honest answers about what’s really going on in our lives, not a bunch of spin. If the guy without sight had faked it and said he could see everything just fine after the first touch, he wouldn’t have been actually healed.”
We don’t get to know how life always works. Sometimes, the miracles of God may happen in stages. You see a little more the next time and the next time and after the next grace, the next study, the next prayer, the next worship service, the next time you tear a little piece of bread from that common loaf. Even though we’ve been touched by God, we still don’t see people for who they are until something more happens in us. Goff says, “It’s not trees we confuse them for; it’s opinions and positions, social issues and status, titles and accomplishments and behaviors.” We won’t always get answers for these mysteries. Sometimes when we ask for an answer, God sends us a companion.
Has that happened to you? You’re struggling with an issue or you’re unsure of your faith or your childhood doctrine that has more holes than you’re now comfortable with – and then someone comes alongside and you can’t explain it but you just know that person is full of it – full of spirit – full of perspective and experience and wisdom and faith. It’s a prayer to see again and maybe that’s why mom got you to church today, who knows? Our stories are always unfolding and we can’t predict it all.
Just look at Dorcas. The text never says what happens to Dorcas next. Did she go on a speaking tour – “Come hear the woman who was raised!” — Maybe she cashed in on her new fame and became an illusionist on one of the side roads off the Branson strip. I mean, she’s got some notoriety now. The text even says, “many came to faith because of her.” But you know what I think? I think she made some more tunics for widows that had been forgotten. I think she did the tasks that many wouldn’t notice… she folded the bulletins for worship and cleaned up the communion cups after. She laughed about her second life joking, “I’m only 3 years old. I’m only 7.” However long she lived the second time around. You start to count time differently once you’ve been raised… once you start to see life more clearly. I think she oozed of the Holy Spirit and encouraged the others like a doting mother. I think she was beautiful. I think she was full of it. May that also be said of us.
 N.T. Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (SPCK. 2008), 154-55.
 This paragraph’s quotes and interpretation from Everybody Always by Bob Goff. (Thomas Nelson Publishing. Colorado Springs. 2018.)