So what do we know about Dorcas… See Acts 9:32-43
- She is known by two names. Dorcas is Greek and Tabitha is Aramaic and it means ‘gazelle’.
- She lived in Joppa now called Jaffa on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. I imagine there was a small group of Jewish followers of Jesus there may be about 15.
- She is called a disciple – the Greek form of the word for disciple is the only time it’s used in the New Testament. It has the connotation of someone with authority. She is I think someone who is still very active and who has died not of old age but of some other issue.
- She is revered among the widows of Joppa. She seems to have a ministry of looking after widows who were often people on the edge. In a patriarchal society where women had little financial independence widows especially immigrants were very vulnerable and without a husband were often in a precarious situation. Without a husband they had no breadwinner and no protector.
- Dorcas was known for making clothing. The widows who mourned her death showed Peter some of the fine clothing she had made for them. She was a woman who had a ministry in caring for others. The term used at the beginning of the reading to denote the Jesus followers at Lydda is saints or hagios. It means the holy ones. Holiness was about being different, and the difference is about being chosen for special purposes of God. We are saints too but it’s not about greater honour or prestige in God’s eyes it’s about being chosen to fulfil the special purpose of God. For Dorcas this was about caring for others.
- She was the only person raised from the dead by an apostle and the story of this miracle obviously did the rounds of Joppa and some joined the small band of Christ followers there.
Miracles in the ancient world were important and a sign of God’s activity. The ability to perform miracles was a sign that God was working in someone, and the elevation to sainthood in the Catholic Church still has this requirement. You have to show the person has performed a miracle. True to my protestant roots I would name Dorcas as a saint because she has discovered her God purpose and is living it out to great effect in caring for others. There are wondrous things happening in this story and it’s easy to overlook the wonder of someone who has discovered their calling in life and who is living this out in the service of God.
The resuscitation of Dorcas after her body has been washed in preparation for burial however is also wondrous. What happened and why. If it happened then wouldn’t it be cool to get access to this power today. I confess I have never prayed for someone who was dead to start breathing again – a resuscitation of the deceased. I have of course prayed that they will return to be at home in God. But I find myself wondering about all sorts of things. How was Dorcas resuscitated and how could cells in her brain starved of oxygen survive? Mysterious things sometimes happen with dead bodies which is why they used attach strings to dead people’s wrists when they put them in a coffin and run the string up to a bell above ground. If the person came alive again the bell would ring and hence we get the term saved by the bell. We also get the term graveyard shift because someone was appointed to listen through the night in graveyards for any bells. Something obviously happened to Dorcas and she came alive again and Peter got some credibility. But what does this tell us about God’s activity. If only there were a few more Peter’s around could we solve the health system overload…..
Imagine this. The Lion Air Boeing 777Max plane full of passengers crashes because the pilots were unable to override the software that continually pushed the nose down. Arriving at the pearly gates the passengers are informed by God, ‘sorry I would have loved to intervene and save you but not enough of you were praying.’ Or the alternative, as the pilots struggled to regain control the people on board were totally united in prayer asking God to save them. God intervened and turned off the software causing the problem and the plane touched down safely. ‘Phew, good thing we all prayed’ said the passengers. Both scenarios raise some pretty big questions about the place of prayer.
But so does this. Some double blind studies have shown that people who pray and who are prayed for heal more quickly than those not prayed for. I have to say such research is inevitably dodgy, because the variables are impossible to tie down, but it makes sense to me that this could be the case. What doesn’t make much sense is the picture of God waiting somewhere for enough prayer to as it were to twist God’s arm to act. I believe there is a power of healing alive within our world which can be enhanced and freed to move through prayer so I want to encourage prayer for healing. I believe also this power can be enhanced through other ways… love and knowing we are loved, but also through other means like medical science and good medical practice. I don’t picture God intervening from the outside, from up there somewhere, but God acting through the healing power that is in us, in others, and in the world.
I also believe that healing is not just about physical restoration, but is a body, mind, relational thing. Often it’s about being strengthened to face the reality of what is. I have a friend in a wheelchair who had many prayers prayed for physical healing which never happened, but she would say she and her husband have been strengthened to face their situation. Their tragedy has seen much outpouring of love and actually their lives have touched many others and given them strength too. For Dorcas resuscitation may have been for a couple of years or whatever but she still faced death. It’s human to pray that the mountains we face be taken away. Even Jesus asked in prayer for the cross to be taken away from him. But the reality is that our faith is not an insurance policy that prevents tragedy and loss. As I have said prayer does sometimes open doors for healing power to flow in all sorts of forms but the covenant or deal God has made with us is not to protect us from all pain, but to be with us no matter what. There is I think a common temptation to believe that if we are good God will give us special favours, but being in relationship with God strengthens us and guides us in living life, whatever comes. This also is not always apparent. Jesus cried from the cross, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me. It’s human to see just a small part of the big picture and we have to learn to trust in something bigger than us.
The Psalm that is our lectionary Psalm for today proclaims this. It is a psalm you know well, Psalm 23 and I invite you to join with me in singing it now.