This talk was given at a service of Communion with baptism of baby Jack in St John’s Itchen Abbas
We have just heard a story from the Bible, from the Acts of the Apostles, about a death: the death of Dorcas. Sudden sickness and death is really tough. Many of us will have experienced the terrible pain of bereavement and, of course, whilst death in old age is very, very, sad for those of us close to the person concerned, people tend to say ‘well he or she had a good long life’ or ‘it was time’.
But then from time to time we experience someone who dies young at the full height of their faculties, incredibly tragic and the situation seems even worse when that young person has devoted their life to looking after others. It seems so unfair that a person who lives a good life should die young. And that sense of injustice is even more apparent if you are a Christian. How many Christians must have prayed: ‘God, how could you allow this to happen?’
So the story of Tabitha (or ‘Dorcas’ in Ancient Greek) that we have just had read in the Acts of the Apostles speaks to us as relevant today as it was when it was written 2000 years ago.
Dorcas was talented (verse 39) her friends are keen to show off the wonderful needlework that she had done. But she was also good; a good Christian disciple (verse 36) she is described as ‘always doing good’ and ‘helping the poor’. They must have thought it was so unfair that she had died. It wouldn’t have been very surprising if they had been angry; angry with God.
I sense in verse 39 in showing off the work that Dorcas did, the frustration ‘how could God have let this happen to this wonderful disciple?’
So why do her friends call for Peter to come and help?
Peter, who is described in Acts 4:13 as an ‘unschooled ordinary man’.
St. Peter is no St.Paul with his massive intellect and education.
St. Peter is no St Luke with his medical training.
No, Peter is an ordinary man; a practical man; a fisherman.
But, not only that, he is someone who had denied Christ three times before the crucifixion.
So Peter was known to have been unreliable in a crisis. A man who blurted out silly things at the transfiguration in Luke 9:33….a man so inadequate; a man so like each of us…..why call him in a crisis? Why call the guy who let Jesus down? And, in any case, why call him when it is too late?
I find it so fascinating, that the disciples in Joppa call for Peter after Dorcas has died. You might expect them to call for him when she was dying. Perhaps because they thought that he might be able to pray for her and she might get better. But no – usually when someone is dead you call for someone in Martin’s line of business: you call for an undertaker, not a fisherman.
It doesn’t matter how practical you are when someone is dead, they are dead and the disciples knew that she was dead, because the widows had washed her (verse 37). If she was going to revive, she would have revived during that process, surely.
So why call Peter to walk from Lydda, about 12 miles to Joppa, a round trip of at least 8 hours to come and see a dead disciple? As if there was something that he could do about it?
Because, when Peter answered their call, he was not coming alone.
He was not coming alone.
They called for Peter, but he came with the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit with whom he had been filled at Pentecost.
They called for Peter, but he came with the third person of the trinity (with the Father and the Son), the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and by Jesus to the disciples after he ascended to the Father. And it was by the Holy Spirit’s power alone that Peter could bring Dorcas back to life.
Of course, Peter could not restore Dorcas’ life by himself: he was an unschooled man a practical fisherman. He didn’t know medicine, like Luke; he didn’t know philosophy, like Paul but he had the Holy Spirit living in him.
The Holy Spirit, one of the three persons of the creator God who made the whole universe.
Who made you and who made me.
The Holy Spirit was living in him and, through the Holy Spirit, Christ was living in him as Paul says in Galatians 2:20 ‘I have been crucified with Christ; It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’
It was Christ, by the Holy Spirit who was living in Peter. And if the person through whom the universe was created wants to raise from the dead a good needleworker from Joppa then it is without doubt possible for him to do whatever he chooses to do and if he chooses to do it through inadequate people, like Peter; through inadequate people like us, then what a privilege!
But it is the Holy Spirit who is doing it. Not Peter, not us.
I find it so interesting that Peter sends everyone out of the room before he prays by Dorcas’ body. You see we can easily think that Peter is alone in that upper room with Dorcas’ body. But Peter is not alone in that room. The Holy Spirit is with him.
So why does he send the others out?
We need to see the Holy Spirit like a shy dove resting on the shoulder. He can easily be grieved or vexed. Spook him and he will fly away. Perhaps Peter realised that the anger of the widows at the injustice of Dorcas’s death, at the death of this good person, would have spooked the Holy Spirit and undermined what the Spirit wanted to do in that situation. Peter needed to change the atmosphere to let the Holy Spirit work. So he sends the widows out of the room. For more information on the sensitivity of the spirit please read RT Kendall’s book by that name The Sensitivity of the Spirit by RT Kendall
Peter uses words so similar to Jesus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead ‘Tabitha Cumi’ Or ‘Tabitha get up!’ And a dead person is brought back to life.
How could this be done by inadequate Peter apparently alone in a room with a dead body?
This is where I come back to Jack who we are baptising today.
It is very common now to think that a baptism is really no more than a naming ceremony, a ‘welcome to the world’ for a new infant. But baptism is a bit like an iceberg: there is more to it under the surface than you can see.
God is today, by this simple act of baptism, lighting a little light in Jack. A light of the Holy Spirit a light of Christ living in him; a light of faith which, if it is protected by Martin and Kylie and by Jack’s godparents by bringing him up as a Christian until he is old enough to decide for himself; if that little light of the Holy Spirit is encouraged to grow and is not stamped all over by cynicism and discouragement; if that light of the Holy Spirit is not grieved or vexed; that little light will in time fire up like the pilot light of a gas boiler and Jack will be able to do incredible things which will transform the lives of the people around him in a way which can only be done through the Holy Spirit, through the Creator of the Universe living in him.
Martin and Kylie, I know that you will really care about Jack’s education and that you will bring him up to work hard and do well at school and that’s really good, of course, but actually the most significant things that we do in our lives are the acts which are inspired and led by the Holy Spirit living in us. This begins at baptism.
If an unschooled ordinary man, a fisherman, can be used by Jesus Christ living in him to bring back someone back from the dead then we all can be used to do incredible things; things which transform our world and the lives of the people around us, if only we are willing to listen to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit, lit in us at baptism.
Peter in Lydda and Joppa
36 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.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ac 9:36–43). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.