The Voice of the Shepherd
The fourth Sunday in Easter is considered “Shepherd Sunday” in the Christian Church. But when Shepherd Sunday gives us a rare story in the Book of Acts (Acts 9:36-43) about a woman who is named in the Bible, this female preacher can’t help but pick up the story of Dorcas, aka. Tabatha, as the tale to preach on as we continue in the season of Easter. This woman listened to Jesus’ voice. She is one of whom our Good Shepherd, Jesus, said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” As Dorcas is a Greek name that sounds so funny it gives us the giggles, for most of this sermon I’m going to refer to Dorcas by her given name, Tabatha. However, you should know that to this day, Dorcas Circles and Dorcas Societies exist of women throughout the world who help the poor and are named in memory of her. At this time, I’d like to ask that you open your bulletin to our story from Acts so we can do a bit of Bible study together. A few facts from this story can be our inspiration….
The most extraordinary fact about Tabitha is made known by one little word in the first verse. (Acts 9:36) She is called a DISCIPLE. Do you see that? We hear the word “disciple” or read it all the time in the Bible. But your jaw should drop when you see it here. Why? Because, the Greek word for disciple used here to describe Tabatha is mathetria, a female disciple. This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. We never hear this word linked to Mary Magdalene or Mary, Jesus’ Mom, or other women like Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha. It is an extraordinary honor that Tabitha is named a disciple. She is a true a follower of Christ. In early Christianity her name and her life’s story were written down so that thousands of years later we, who also believe, would learn of her inspiration.
Tabatha is a disciple who walks the walk. As we look again at the first verse of this story (Acts 9:36), we also learn that Tabitha has a distinct devotion to doing good works and performing acts of charity. She is committed to helping others. She doesn’t do that just on holidays or when her workplace offers her the day off to do community service. Tabitha’s devotion is constant. This consistent devotion makes an impact on the lives of those around her. Tabitha seems like someone we’d all like, even though we’ve hardly met her. What’s heartbreaking is that she suddenly dies.
Then look at the next verses in our story. (Acts 9:37-41) When Tabitha died, the loss of her life was felt so strongly – that the people in her city of Joppa sent two men – on the 12 mile walk – to the town of Lydda – to get a far more well-known disciple of Jesus, Peter. When Peter arrived back in Joppa, the widows cried and showed him the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made while she was with them. Do you see that in Acts 9:39? Those who grieve for Tabitha didn’t have to tell Peter how much she had done for them. They could show what she had done. Think of that extraordinary ministry Tabitha had been doing – making clothing for the poorest of the poor – the widows in her community! Tabitha certainly had followed her Lord’s voice – she had truly been a disciple of Jesus!
A Walking Miracle
Although making clothes for poor widows wasn’t as glamorous as Peter’s mission, Tabitha was honored by one of the greatest miracles in the New Testament. Just as Jesus raised a man’s daughter from death with the words, “Little girl, get up!” now Peter raises Tabitha up with the same words, saying, “Tabitha, get up!” After Peter raised Tabatha, her influence increased. The book of Acts says “then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, Peter showed her to be alive. “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” (Acts 9:42)
Tabitha was a witness to Jesus by her charity BEFORE her death. Now, having been raised from the dead, she’s a walking miracle! A great number of people came to believe in Jesus merely because they learned, through word of mouth, that this beloved woman Tabitha, who once was dead, was now made alive again through another disciple of Jesus and the power of God. Tabitha has been an imitator of Jesus in her life, and now, in her death and resurrection, her life also echoes Jesus’! Both Tabitha and Peter imitate Jesus. And so too, we are to imitate Jesus! We are to listen to his voice. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” – our Lord says. As disciples, as active Christians, we are to know, to follow, to imitate Jesus, and in so doing, we bear witness to our risen Lord!
A delightful illustration I found this week compared our imitation of Jesus as his disciples, to the work that great artists put into practicing something over and over again until they get a final piece just right. “One of the techniques artists have learned over the years to improve on their talent, is the art of imitation. Harper’s Weekly ran an article in the late 1800s about Americans flocking to the famous Louvre Museum in Paris to copy the work of the masters found there. The article claimed that “the true artist, the real one, COPIES the picture of some GREAT MASTER, and follows it out not only with his eyes and hands, but with HIS HEART AND SOUL.” (“An Astonishing Immitation”, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Jessica LaGrone, p208-209)
Our story today from the book of Acts tells about a time when two people’s lives were profoundly changed by their imitation of Christ because they followed Him with their heart and soul. Tabitha was a disciple, a follower of Jesus, because she imitated him in love and service to others. Peter spent so much time with Jesus that he couldn’t help but imitate what he’d seen Jesus do – even to the point of raising someone from the dead. This story of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead is told in such a way that we can’t help but see the parallels to the time when Jesus himself raised a little girl. Like Jesus, Peter was summoned by messengers and found weeping bystanders. He identically imitated Jesus when he asked mourners to leave the room, commanded Tabitha to arise in the same language Jesus was used, and took her by the hand. The parallels are unmistakable.
You and I may not ever witness a resurrection, but it’s clear that Jesus wants us to imitate him, to do what he did, on a daily basis. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the Bible instructs us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrificed to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) “Our lives should be imitations, not cheap ones, but imitations that show off the glory of the original as we work on copying the master.” (“An Astonishing Immitation”, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, Jessica LaGrone, p208-209) Last Sunday, in an afternoon worship service, 53 middle school youth in our congregation were confirmed. As a statement of faith written by each young person was read, our audience of 525 people clearly learned that our young people have been hearing the call to imitate Christ through our church’s AMPED/Confirmation Ministry. These youth have been building relationships with adults and one another, for the purpose of listening to Jesus’ voice and emulating him.
Last Sunday, over and over these individual youth named our staff members Sarah, Becca and Laura as inspirational Christians. Wow! Over and over they named that their small group adult leaders and their small group friends had become safe people in their lives, who they had come to learn would be there for them when they’d bring their truest selves into conversation. Wow! They could safely talk about what means to intentionally follow Jesus in a daily walk. They could honestly talk about the messy places of their lives, trusting over and over again, that as followers of Jesus, they are forgiven and made new by the cross of Christ. Wow! These remarkable, awkward, glorious young people spoke of learning that a few hours set aside each week for church allowed them to learn and reflect on their doubts and hopes, which was leading to a growing prayer life and a stirring of their faith. As we heard their individual faith statements, a number of these young people said they are ready to be used by God for God’s good purposes. Others said they now trust God will be with them even through difficulties and things they don’t understand. Still others said that through church friendships, they’ve learned what its like to participate in a community of faith where imperfect, broken people help one another remember God is with us every step of the way.
Our confirmands gave words to their experience, naming that adults of faith and their own church peers are helping them to grow into learning to imitate Jesus. Jesus says that we are his sheep. He says we know his voice and follow him. Tabitha and Peter discovered and witnessed to what God’s power can do when we do imitate the risen Jesus. May our ways imitate his! Thanks be to God! AMEN.