Be careful how you imagine your world
Epistle: Acts 9:36-43
32 Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, [Gk all of them] he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. 33There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralysed. 34Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up. 35And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. [The name Tabitha in Aramaic and the name Dorcas in Greek mean a gazelle] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since 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.’ 39So 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. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ (Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι.) Then she opened her eyes, (ἡ δὲ ἤνοιξεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῆς,) and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up (ὐτῇ χεῖρα ἀνέστησεν αὐτήν). Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Be careful how you imagine your world
I let this text interview me: "Why are you so sceptical?" it asked. Well, there was an auntie who was always getting cured, but never was. There were always rumours of people raised from the dead on remote Indonesian islands but never of people sitting up after prayer in a funeral home. (It is clear that Tabitha was 'proper dead,' for they had washed her and laid her out.) We know this sort of event doesn't happen in real life. And I know I hear claims of such events in gatherings where people's interpretations of other things are equally... well... hopeful, and... unlikely.
Do we think the church at the time was any less sceptical than we are? In the tribal society where I once lived, a man had died, his clothes were burned, and then he sat up among the mourners and asked for his hat. The town was alive with jokes about people being raised from the dead, because everyone knew he had not been 'proper dead.' (I shall return to this story.)
What if the stories of Acts have a purpose other than requiring literal belief from us; what if our categories about 'real,' 'fact,' and 'fiction,' simply do not fit the world of the writer? (See here for an extended footnote.) What if the Acts stories mean to show us that in the new age of the resurrection, God breaks in to our reality in unexpected and surprising ways? Speaking about the season of Easter, which goes much longer than our long weekend, Richard Beck says
Easter isn't just the shock of the empty tomb.
Easter is also a forty day season of surprising, unexpected encounters with the Risen Lord. What is the spirituality that keeps us watchful and expectant for where Jesus might turn up next?
What if we read the story of Tabitha, and even the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) as something like Johannine signs: as events and stories pointing us to the deeper realities of resurrection life? In John, it is not the sign itself that matters, but what it points to. At the end of my street there is a sign which, of itself, means nothing. It just points. But it points to a street where there is an astonishing blend of culture and compassion, if one cares to see it— if one is able to see it. In this street, humanity is blossoming in a soil which is also full of violence, resentment, and the failed dreams of poverty. You could come driving down my street to look because it was said that Mrs Dangelo was raised from the dead at Number 40, and yet utterly fail to see the glory which is happening among us. A sign only points; it is not the thing to see. The thing to see, and to desire and to long for, is encounter with the risen lord. Desire too, the eyes to recognise such an encounter when it is given to us.
My auntie knew to look where the sign pointed: She knew the presence of God. It shaped her, made her gentle, and healed her, even though she was never cured. It gave her hope. She was a good Auntie. But, like much of her religious community, she confused the sign with the reality.
She was captive to the idea that:
the presence now of certain events
assumed to be the same as the events of Acts,
and of the same significance as the events of Acts,
would be a guarantee and assurance
that God was present now.
This idea always has at the back of it the fear that if the signs among us are not visibly similar to the signs of Acts, or some other 'golden age,' then perhaps it means that God is not present. In this environment, if a person does not report certain experiences then, clearly, there is something lacking in their spirituality.
This may appear relatively harmless and something at which we may smile wryly: a college lecturer told us how he began to realise that the conversion stories in his youth group growing up all sounded suspiciously similar. "We modified our experience to fit the norm without even noticing." But it can be an abuse: "You were not healed because you did not have enough faith." Or, "there must be sin present in your life." And even in youth group, my lecturer was being encouraged to report certain experiences which he did not encounter. In such a place, we are taught to lie to ourselves.
I have called this a captivity, and it is. My Auntie would have agreed that it is impossible for God not to be present, but in such an environment it does not occur to us to apply this logic to our fears that God is absent. As the truism goes: be careful how you imagine the world, for that is how it will be.
Even if a community works hard to avoid the egregious abuse I have outlined, captivity to the idea that the events listed in Acts are necessary or normative for us, will reinforce our natural fears that what we are seeing and experiencing in our life is not as good or as deep as it should be. The idea that we must have the Acts experience as it was in Acts, will reinforce our fear that we are 'not good enough Christians.' And it encourages us to see this fear not as an ordinary human fear but as a sign that we have failed. So we try to prove ourselves by proclaiming 'in faith' that we are healed... and we require our healing to fit our desires and our prejudices; that is, to fit our pre-judging and assumptions about what healing is, or should be. And then, perhaps, we stop taking our drugs... which can kill us. The tragedy is that such a course of action may be more from community pressure than any desire of our own.
When we are in this mindset, we may not see the amazing healings we are given because we are not looking, and because we have been taught by our environment to underrate and dismiss such things, because they are not the touchstone events our group has chosen from the Acts of the Apostles.
I have a friend who has suffered the most appalling abuse, and who still suffers its effects. I have often wondered how it is they are still alive. The answer is the miracle Uniting Church Sunday School teacher who could see beyond the prejudice of the moment and recognise a child needing love. And how is it that I am a scarred and 'bit twisted' minister instead of a mean and bitter bastard handing on the abuse done to me? The answer is the miracle of some very ordinary flawed folks and parents who were a little country church living the resurrection, and transcending the soil in which they had been planted. I wear the tunics and clothing which they made for a hurting little boy.
The question is what might enable us to see the deep healing of a resurrection life. What will enable us to see goodness and small hints of the kingdom of heaven in a world which is addicted to large hoopla? What will enable us to trust the small healings and realise and feel their great profundity in a world which is beginning to panic as its stability is falling apart?
I think we see a hint of an answer in the narrative of Acts. Luke uses connecting events to tie his story together. Peter heals a man in Lydda. Lydda just happens to be near Joppa. At Joppa he stays with Simon the Tanner. It's at Simon's house that he has the great spiritual insight of the Church which he takes to Caesarea: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." Acts 10:15-16
The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.
The events of Caesarea are so important that they are recounted in full in Chapter 11. The verses I quoted above are repeated almost word for word: But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. (Acts 11:9-10)
The linking of the stories by the use of Lydda and Joppa is good literary technique. But it is a technique not for its own sake, or for a witticism, or even as a rhetorical mnemonic. I called Tabitha Mrs Dangelo from Number 40, which is a little joke for its own sake, and of no further significance. By contrast, Luke is doing narrative theology with names, geography, and movement.
Peter does not stay at the end of the street hugging the first sign he sees. He has long ago left Temple Jerusalem and followed where the resurrection story leads him. And he meets a woman who already prefigures the events in Caesarea: in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek, is Dorcas.
Here is a woman, says the narrative, who is already a questioning of the wall (cf Eph 2:15) between Jew and Gentile. So politely that we do not notice it— I suspect it was like fluoro-highlighted text for the original readers, we are told that Tabitha has Greek friends— gasp!— who call her Dorcas! We do the same today; as I straddled two cultures people would sometimes call me Mitikiki. Greek lover Dorcas was not only "devoted to good works and acts of charity," but she is named as a disciple. It is the only time a woman is called a disciple in the entire New Testament. Luke— man of his time— has to make this concession; he is telling the brothers that disciples are devoted to good works and acts of charity, and he wants us to see another link to the next story:
Luke goes on to say precisely why Dorcas is called "disciple": "she was generous in her good works and in her giving of alms" (Acts 9:36b). Precisely the same attribute will be designated for Cornelius, the famous Gentile convert of chapter 10 that soon follows. (John Holbert)
This link is not imaginary, for Peter is staying with Simon the Tanner. Simon is
unclean something of an outcast in society; being a tanner ensures this. In his following where the resurrection story leads him, in heeding the little prompts to stay with this unclean disdained man whom he would once have avoided, Peter is opened to a dream of animals coming down from heaven; "all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air," which clearly means including those which were unclean. (10:12,14, 11:6-8)
What made this experience a vision rather than a weird dream that came because he was lodged in the smelly house of a tanner? How is it that Simon the Rock (Simon who is called Peter 10:18, 10:32, 11:13) did not wake up from an afternoon doze and think, "That was weird!" and forget it? Indeed, what meant that he did not think the dream meant he should move out from living with the
unclean Simon and go to a proper Jewish house instead?
It took me 50 years to realise I have visions: clear, unambiguous sightings of what the resurrection life is, and could be. But for 50 years I thought visions had to somehow emulate Peter's vision, that they should fit what various people in churches I had attended called a vision. So, mistaking one particular sign reported to me as being the thing to desire, rather than the thing to which it pointed, I remained blind to all the other signs which were given to me.
Peter went where the signs pointed. He followed the sign of spirit poured out on all flesh, sons and daughters, young men, old men, even slaves, both men and women. (Acts 2:17-18) He did not demand of God that the events fitted his preconceptions, or he would never have left the house of Simon the unclean and gone as an unclean Simon with the worst of the unclean, the Romans. In fact, he invites the Roman messengers in and gives them lodging! (10:23)
"The circumcised criticized [Peter], 3saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'" (Acts 11:1-3) They were clinging to the signs of the past rather than looking for the things to which those signs had been pointing. Peter looked beyond the signs.
So... what happened to Tabitha? Our age, and my atheist self, demands an answer that is based in 'facts.' The answer is that I do not know how such a story began. We are meant to understand that she has been dead for some time. People were convinced she was dead; they washed her and laid her out. And then, like that old man up north, she sat up; we should note that Luke uses a word similar to the word for resurrection. Perhaps she was not 'proper dead.' Or perhaps there really are more things in heaven and earth in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. (Hamlet) Who knows?
I can only answer what happened to Tabitha by looking where she points. The old man sat up and that event pointed to being careful before we assume people are dead, not to mention highlighting a rich vein of Pitjantjatjara humour. Tabitha points beyond herself to good works which transcend race and creed, which give of compassion regardless of convention, and points onwards towards the truth that what God has made clean, we must not call profane. To my atheist self which crows about proof and incredulity and intellectual superiority I say, "You have not even begun to understand what Tabitha is about." And the miracle is that even my rigid and wooden view of the world has begun to see something else. I only hope that even though we were asleep when my neighbour texted an invitation last night, there will be some of that glorious Hazara food left for us! Christ is risen: May it be that I will never use my reason against truth. (Rebbe Michal of Zlotchev)
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
I struggle to put into simple words what I am talking about here. It's a bit like trying to communicate to a world in which there are only oranges, what it is like to eat an apple. The orange eating people can only think of the apple in orange terms; everything is seen and can only be seen in terms of eating an orange because apples are simply... unknown. It is almost impossible to think of a world where apples 'rule' and oranges can only be thought of as rather deficient apple!
But when you live in another culture quite different to your own— if you let it speak on its own terms rather than insist of judging it by your own categories, (an aspect of racism, by the way,) then you become aware, or begin to suspect, that there is another reality right alongside; that there really are apples, after all! This other culture or reality is looking at, and experiencing, the same objects in quite a different manner.
After a some time in such a situation, I began to suspect that some things I could see were invisible to the majority culture of the place— almost unable to be discerned by it, and that some other things which that culture could see were invisible to me!
So I wonder if when I am challenged by my atheist friends, and my atheist self, about the veracity of certain things described in a biblical text, whether I am applying to that text categories in which it was disinterested, and not written to answer. And if I judge and reject the text on my categories, I suspect this cultural chauvinism means I may not be able to see the hints at the greater reality to which the text is pointing.
We know that we need to think in terms of the culture of the author. We use biblical commentaries to attempt this. But I note that then... we judge, and often reject the culture. We effectively say it was an inferior way to understand the world, and that we know better! (The difficulty with this, and what gives the lie to this and shows it is a cultural chauvinism, is that that culture worked very well as a way to survive and flourish, and that we would not survive and flourish in that place, for despite all our vaunted knowledge, we would be the inferior ones. To make this plain, look at the Pitjantjatjara lands: we westerners see desert. We would starve; we do. We die of thirst. The Pitjantjatjara stories of the 'superior' white 'explorers' laugh at their inability to survive without the help of Pitjantjatjara people. As my friend Lucy says of growing up as a little girl, "There was food everywhere. Lots of food."
If, claiming to scientific and objective, we force our categories upon a text, we are being anything but scientific and objective. We are being superstitious and thinking magically so that our worldview can remain unchallenged.
It is almost impossible to describe or give an example of two independent (or even overlapping) paradigms or worldviews because, almost by definition, our worldviews tend to shut us out of other world views. But I have a thought experiment which may help us see how two worldviews come together in the presence of God.
To the east of Pukajta-Ernabella, there is a steep and high ridge. We will climb this ridge, although already, the Pitjantjatjara people with whom I lived would wonder why anyone would do such a thing. Imagine that this ridge is all you know of the world.
I can tell you that this afternoon, on the west side, it is stifling hot. It is dry. There is a town and a creek valley far below; you can see the influence of people. You can see roads. If you pause to rest, you will see ridge upon ridge disappearing into the haze.
But if your existence is on the east side of the ridge, there is endless plain, with the odd low hill. There is no sign of people. Much of your climb is in shade. The wind is endless, and often cold. And constantly, you will see the eagles floating upon the wind and rising on the thermals out over the plains in a constant circle around the great curve of the ridge.
On the west side, the eagles are rarely visible except for an occasional glimpse as you near the top. There is no hint that the ridge runs in a curve!
And at the top I lie on my back among the tussocks; perhaps you, coming up from the east side, lie next to me. When I did this once, a Wedge Tailed Eagle paused above me in its slide on the wind, barely ten feet above me, the air chopping over its wings like a chattering fan. Wingspan of seven feet. And the bright, intelligent eye looked into mine— I knew fear. I was in the presence of an intelligence quite different to my own. I was out-of-place, utterly vulnerable. Here was a reality quite unlike that which I knew, even if it was floating in the same physical world.
This is could a picture of God; people from two cultures, people who know only one side of the hill, hot and still, or cold and windy, meet something which transcends them all. And even at that moment of atavistic fear and revelation, they are not seeing quite the same thing. They cannot. But they can speak of wonder, of transcendence, even— if we move back in the direction of the biblical text— of love and compassion, even though the Jesus they see is, and never can be, quite the same Jesus as the Jesus I see. We can look together at what this experience does to us, how it heals us, how we become more human, how we learn to respect and appreciate and value each other. There is something here far richer than the categories of western scientism, richer even than the truly scientific mind, which recognises it is not competent to fully understand what has passed over it and rejoices with poetry.
What counts here, if we must make judgements, is how much looking into the eagle's eye has changed us. How much more do we love all people just the same. It is in these actions that we begin to be able to read across the edges of our cultural fences. Or is it in these actions that we begin to be changed beyond our culture and led into Kingdom?Back to the text.
Notes from my reading
Mitzi J Smith is worth reading in full for a sharp look at the place of women in the church, especially women of colour.
Her life was full good (agathos) works (erga) and necessities for the poor (eleemosunon), which she herself provided” (Acts 9:36, my translation). Cornelius, the Roman centurion, also generously donated items to the people, which God noticed together with his prayers (Acts 10:2, 4). Both Tabitha and Cornelius understood, it seems, the flip side of privilege to be responsibility to those less privileged, including the colonized and marginalized.
The echoes of Jesus' raising of the dead girl in Mark 5 are striking, not least in Jesus' works, "Talitha com" (Little girl arise), which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"
In the narratives of Scripture, they had reason to hope. This and other scenes in Luke-Acts purposefully echo previous stories of God’s sustenance and grace. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37) pray for God to bring the dead back to life. In this same pattern, Jesus himself brings breath back to the dead (Luke 7:11-17; 8:41-42, 49-56). This miracle is thus perhaps unexpected but not unparalleled. Nearly invariably, death can claim a victory, but throughout the stories of God’s involvement with God’s people, that rule is broken in spectacular fashion...
The last verse of our passage would be easy to miss as it seems like a simple aside that mentions Peter’s next destination as Simon the tanner’s home. But here once again, Luke’s literary artistry creates a vibrant transition. After all, it is on the roof of Simon’s house where Peter will see a vision that will lead him to welcome Cornelius and his retinue. This encounter will then lead to Peter’s realization that God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), welcoming individuals and communities from every corner of the world.
Read this for thoughts on Simon, scapegoating and exclusion...
If Joppa rings a bell, you're not mistaken. About 800 years earlier, Joppa was the seaport city where Jonah "fled from the Lord" because as a Jew he was repulsed at God's call to preach to the pagan Ninevites (Jonah 1:30). Luke puts Peter in this same city. He gives him a similar call. Only Peter didn't make the same mistake as Jonah...
Simon was a socio-economic outcast. He lived on the margins of society. He was a "dirty" man in both a literal and figurative sense. Tanners worked with dead animals. The filth and the stench were awful. Just imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. He would have been the object of social disdain. Almost anyone would have felt superior to him. But Simon the tanner had joined the Jesus movement, and found acceptance there that society never gave him.
Simon was also a religious outcast. His story shows how the early believers struggled with Jewish laws about ritual purity as Gentiles joined their movement.
Dorcas is called a "female disciple," mathetria in Greek, the only time that term is used in the entire New Testament. Luke implies by that usage that Dorcas is fully the equivalent of the male disciples who are named with the masculine form of the noun in 9:38 and in numerous times in the early literature of the New Testament. And Luke goes on to say precisely why Dorcas is called "disciple": "she was generous in her good works and in her giving of alms" (Acts 9:36b). Precisely the same attribute will be designated for Cornelius, the famous Gentile convert of chapter 10 that soon follows....
Even a cursory look at the Gospel of Luke will discover similar accounts [to the story of Dorcas]. The verb, "arise" (anistemi in Greek) is Luke's preferred term for the resurrection of Jesus (Lk. 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 46; Acts 2:24, 32, 3:26, 13:32). More specifically, in the Gospel story of the raising of a little girl by Jesus (Lk. 8:49-56), we find the use of messengers, weeping bystanders, exclusion of people from the room of the miracle, the call to rise, and the taking of the hand. It is clear that Luke wants his readers to be certain that the power demonstrated by the risen Lord is now manifest in those who follow him in the early community of faith...