29 April 2007

I have to admit that I find today's readings rather difficult, and I'm not quite sure how they fit together. The Gospel reading seems to be slightly one of those bits that come in the middle of nowhere, if you see what I mean, but the point of it is where Jesus says:

"I have told you, and you do not believe.
The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
but you do not believe,
because you do not belong to my sheep.
My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.
What my Father has given me is greater than all else,
and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one."

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me." That is important to bear in mind when we think of our other reading, from Acts, which is mainly what I want to focus on this morning.

Dorcas, the heroine of that reading, was certainly one of Jesus' sheep. Her name, incidentally, means "Gazelle"; Dorcas is the Greek rendering of it, and in Aramaic, it's Tabitha.

Dorcas was one of the first of a multitude of women who have spent their lives in and around the Church, doing great works. I find it interesting that she's described as a disciple - all too often, we think of the disciples as having been just men. At least, the men in the church have all too often thought that, and have told us women to think it, too! But no, Dorcas was a disciple. She was great at sewing and knitting, or at any rate weaving, too - she made all sorts of clothes for people, and nobody in need was turned away without a fresh tunic or other piece of clothing. Indeed many churches have called their sewing circles or clothing clubs, "Dorcas societies" in memory of her.

You know what's really unusual about Dorcas, though? The Bible has told us her name! And so many women in scripture don't have names, if you think about it. Think of Jairus' daughter, which some of the themes in this passage echo. We don't know her name, nor do we know the name of the woman with a haemorrhage, or Peter's mother-in-law, nor a great many other women. But we do know Dorcas' name.

And Dorcas becomes ill, and dies. And Peter, in a passage very similar to the one describing the raising of Jairus' daughter, raises her from the dead. And she is restored, and gets up, and gets on with things.

There are many echoes of the story of Jairus' daughter. This is part of Luke's account - Luke, because it's thought that the same person or team wrote both Luke and Acts:

"When Jesus came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child's father and mother.
They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, `Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.'
And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.
But he took her by the hand and called out, `Child, get up!'
Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat.
Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened."

There you have several very similar elements: the dead body on its bed upstairs, the mourners, even the words, as some translations tell us that Jesus called her "Talitha", little girl - as opposed to "Tabitha", gazelle.

But, of course, there are differences. It is Peter who raises Dorcas, not Jesus. And he doesn't tell them not to tell anybody - after all, this isn't a little kid who really doesn't need the pressure, but a mature woman who is a serious disciple.

And, of course, in both cases God gets the glory. Peter isn't raising Dorcas in his own strength - by himself, he could no more bring back someone from the dead than you or I could - but in God's strength, in the power of the Spirit.


And that, of course, is what the story is all about. At this distance it's impossible to know if this was a real happening, or whether it was a story that was told in the church in the area - you know, my friend's cousin's wife's sister-in-law knew a person who..... It's very unlikely that Luke, or whoever wrote Acts, made it up; indeed, it might well have actually happened. But why? After all, even in the early church, bringing someone back to life was rare enough to be recorded. Why Dorcas?

We'll never know why Dorcas and why not Mrs Somebody Else from the same church. At that, why not Stephen, who had recently been stoned to death for being a Christian? Why not many of the others who had been being put to death for their faith?
But there are issues in this passage which stand out. To start with, the incident really showed God's power at work in the Church. Remember that this was very, very soon after Pentecost - the story happens at more or less the same time that Saul's being converted. Saul, not yet Paul, is in Damascus, still blind, while this is going on, so you see how early it is, how soon after Pentecost. Peter hasn't even yet learnt that it's okay to eat whatever food is offered to him; he still thinks Jesus came for Jewish people, rather than for the whole world. It's a really early story.

And it shows God's power. People aren't praising Peter for raising Dorcas, they're praising God. They have seen God's power at work. This is what it means to live in the power of the resurrected Christ. This is what Pentecost was all about.

If you heard the Gospel last week, you will have heard once more the story of Jesus' commissioning Peter: "Feed my sheep; feed my lambs". Peter, here, is clearly the leader of the Church - isn't it great to see how he was enabled to fulfil Jesus' commission after such dreadful failures and mistakes! Peter has also been raised to a new life.

But the Church itself is carrying out Christ's mission to the world, too. The hungry are being fed and the naked most certainly are being clothed, largely thanks to Dorcas and, I imagine, the sewing-circle at her church. We know that the sick were visited, and very often healed. I expect prisoners were visited, too - and occasionally escaped, you remember that very splendid story of when Peter was in prison and an angel came and let him out, so he went straight back to headquarters where they were in the middle of praying for him - and the girl who answered the door was so shattered she was quite convinced she'd seen a ghost and left him standing there while she had hysterics!

I do rather love the book of Acts. The people in the early church weren't brilliant Christians or holy saints, no more than we are. They had their factions and their quarrels, their upsets and their disagreements. They did silly things like praying for people and then not quite believing it when their prayers were answered. They fell asleep during the sermon - remember the boy Eutychus, who fell asleep and fell out of the window?

But within and through all the little details that make up the story of the first Christians, that make them real people, one thing shines through: they lived in the power of the Spirit. Being a Christian, for them, wasn't just about believing certain facts. They lived them! They weren't just living for themselves, most of the time, they were living in the power of God's spirit, and living out the good news of Christ.

Now, maybe we couldn't restore people from the death - although all things are possible with God - but we can still bring new life to people and live out the Gospel ourselves. We know that we, who are called by Jesus, who are in his flock, have eternal life. Are we living like that? Is our Church like that? Are we supporting each other as a Church, or as a Circuit? Are we bringing others into fellowship with us?

Is our own personal Christian faith just about a set of beliefs, or are we, too living in the power of God's Spirit? Does it make a difference to the way we live? Is what we do here on Sundays lived out in the way we behave between Monday and Saturday?

I'm asking a lot of questions here. The idea isn't to make you feel guilty; the idea is to make you stop and think. Because, you see, we can't do any of this by ourselves. It simply isn't possible without the Holy Spirit. God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwells us and makes it possible for us to live a resurrection life. I can't preach without the Holy Spirit - oh, sure, I can drone on for ten or fifteen minutes, but all I have is words - if what I say is to make a difference, the Holy Spirit needs to take my words and transform them. I can't do it on my own.

None of us can. We're not all called to preach; we're not all called to be evangelists. But we are all called to live out the resurrection in the power of the Spirit. And the only way to do that is to pray for God to fill us with the Holy Spirit, and to enable us to live in the power of the Resurrection.

"My sheep," said Jesus "know my voice." And if we are truly Jesus' sheep, then we, too, will know his voice. And, like Peter, we will live in the power of the risen Christ. Our Christianity won't be about facts, but about a Person; it won't be about believing things, but about a relationship.

You know this, of course, and so do I. But we need to remind ourselves of it every so often - and stories that show how it worked in the early church, like this story of the raising of Dorcas, are a good reminder. Amen.

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