From Death to Life (Isaiah 25:6-20 a; Acts 9:36-43; John 10:22-30)
Through the years I’ve had the privilege of forming relationships with people who, for one reason or another, although they’d grown up in church as Christian young people, in later years became disinterested in identifying themselves as Christians. My experience is that many of these people had been taught a most simplistic view of Christian history and the Bible, and, when they grew up, discovered that life was more complex that these views allowed. Mistaking that childish form of Christianity for the only true version of it, they chose to sacrifice it rather than their intellect in science or history, or many other things. To engage such people in dialogue by insisting that Christians don’t have to be simplistic has been rewarding for me.
Others I have found have mistaken Christian faith for the confession of a whole lot of what are called “orthodox doctrines” that, to be honest, they, as life went on, simply found incomprehensible: the incarnation, the Trinity, the atonement of Jesus, the resurrection, and many others, even baptism by immersion. They have assumed, because they have been taught, that being Christian meant affirming a list of doctrines, “just so” and when they couldn’t they assumed they had to give up being a Christian. It was not so much so in the earliest Christian days, however, before the faith went out into the world to deal with Greek philosophy and culture. Then, Christianity was not so much a system to be affirmed, but a life to be lived in relationship with God in Christ. It is true that some ways of thinking about God, Christ, the world, and the Bible, I think, are more constructive and helpful than others, but it is even truer that Christianity’s genius is not to be found in its doctrines, but in the way of life it affirms as enabled by God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. One never finds Jesus, for example, saying that following him is equivalent to affirming certain doctrines.
For example, in our Gospel Lesson, There were some folks that most English translations call “Jews.” That’s a mistranslation. The correct English for this word is “Judeans,” which is a geographical term, among other things – they came from Judea, the area in and around Jerusalem. They had political, religious and economic power. They also had their faith set in certain categories. In any case, these folks had been trying to listen to what Jesus said about himself to find out whether he was what many of the common people of the land claimed him to be – the promised anointed one (or Messiah) that would bring glory and peace to Israel. To these folk, to be the Messiah also meant being the one who would destroy the Roman Empire as a world power and end foreign domination of the Jewish people, and bring justice, which meant returning Jerusalem as the centre of the world and its people to political (and spiritual) prominence. They believed the Messiah would do all these things.
These folk came to Jesus one December as he was celebrating the Feast of Hanukkah. Hanukkah celebrated the cleansing of the Temple from one foreign dictator in 164 BCE, so their thoughts would have already been focused on all this Messiah business and God’s reign of justice. They wanted to know without any religious double-talk whether Jesus was this Messiah or not. What Jesus said to them was that he had already answered their question by what he’d been doing in his ministry, but they wouldn’t believe it because “they weren’t his sheep.” I don’t think Jesus was alluding to some being saved and some damned here. He was simply being descriptive. In the wider context of John 10, Jesus had called himself the Good Shepherd. One thing Good Shepherds do is know their sheep. Their sheep also know them. What Jesus is saying is that they weren’t able to see that he was the Messiah because they had the wrong standpoint. They had their ideas of what the Messiah had to be, and, if they didn’t see those things, they couldn’t see the Messiah. And, given change in times and language, which of us is different? We all have ways that we insist on seeing Jesus (saviour, sacrificial victim, superstar, wisdom teacher, guarantor of our security, wealth, and health, and many other culturally comfortable categories). If we can’t see Jesus in our categories, we have trouble seeing him at all. But, if we don’t see him for who he is, we will misunderstand what Jesus is about. Jesus’ own identity was shaped by his Bible and his reading of characters such as the servant of the Lord, the Son of Man, and the Shepherd of Israel. What Jesus says here, is “Look at what I do,” for I am what I do.” More to that he says, “What I am doing, God is doing.” or, as John puts it, “The Father and I are one.” This really means that Jesus’ actions and God’s actions are a unity. What are some of those actions?
There are many choices in Jesus Bible (what we call the Old Testament) to describe what God was up to in the world, but it was fairly common for the Bible to describe the presence of God with people as a big party to which God has invited us. The Old Testament Lesson pictures God’s final presence with people as a sumptuous banquet where everyone has enough and more than enough to eat. Such an image may have limited appeal in our world where the latest science shows that most people have an excess of calories but a dearth of nutrition. Most of have never been very hungry, though undernourished, but in the ancient world where very few had ever been anything else, it was very attractive. The image unfolds from one of a great dinner where the guests swallow up great quantities of good food to the image of God swallowing up what is called “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, and the sheet that is spread over all nations” (Isa. 25:7). Now shrouds and sheets have to do with death and graves – and that is clearly part of it: “God will swallow up death forever,” it adds (v. 7). The other part, however, may be to see the shroud and the sheet as describing that which divides people from God much as the curtain in the tabernacle and, later, in the Jerusalem Temple separated the Holy Place where at least a priest could go, and the Holiest Place that was reserved for the Presence of God alone. So, in that day when God invites us to the party, the dividing curtain between God and “all peoples” as it says in verse 6 will be swallowed up. In Isaiah 25 God invited the whole human race to a time when God will dwell with us, and take away tears, and disgrace from us all. This picture became a common description of what would happen when God’s Messiah – the anointed one who would usher in the divine “kingship” – came to the earth. Everyone who was invited to the banquet would have a superabundance of everything good. God’s final purpose for all people on earth, is inclusion, openness, acceptance.
If that’s the goal, what steps are God’s people invited to take to move toward it? It’s a hard question because in our time, we are encouraged at the highest levels to be exclusive, closed off, and fearful of differences, and going in the direction God is moving would seem to doom God’s people to travel into a headwind of propaganda and policy.
But, our Acts Lesson comes along to give us a story that suggests how followers of God in Christ might move in imitation of the actions of God and Jesus blossom into inclusion and grace to the different in our world. Here’s the story: Tabitha, the Aramaic word for Gazelle, the Greek for which is Dorcas, was an early Christian woman who was involved in the ministry of social action. She provided clothing for widows in her community. But, one day she died. Peter, in a way that modelled Jesus’ raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5, Matthew 9 and Luke 8, which in turn modelled work done by Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament, brought Tabitha/Dorcas back to life. He said, “Tabitha, arise,” and she did. At this point many of us here today begin to get uncomfortable,. Does this story suggests that, in order to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to start grabbing dead people by the hand, saying, “so and so, arise” and jerking them to their feet alive? What are we to make of this passage of scripture, especially in the light of our other two? Our Acts Lesson this morning suggests a truth for us, but, of course, it’s in the culturally specific language of New Testament times. I remind you that the Bible always speaks in such culturally specific language. It’s just that the culturally specific language of the New Testament is many centuries removed from ours, and here it is a little more foreign to us than at other times. Our whole standpoint on life and death is radically different from that of Peter’s day. And that’s OK.
I know that there are some Christians who will think the only way to be faithful to this biblical story is to follow it directly as Peter did just months or at most a year after Jesus’ resurrection. I have met some of these people and frankly, some of them are a little creepy in my book. I do not think that we have to adopt a stance that says that we must be 1st century Christian people, as if we really could, in order to be a Christian in the 21st century. I do not believe that God expects us to be anything but 21st century people to be Christians in the 21st century.
So, what do the words of the Acts Lesson teach us today, not about Tabitha and Peter, but about us and our ministries? Does the Resurrection power of Jesus still make life out of death now? Can we still hear the words “Tabitha arise, and If so, how? Through the centuries, Christians have responded, “Yes,” taking the Bible seriously, if not in a woodenly literalistic way. The old hymn: “I know my redeemer lives, and because he lives, I too shall live” says it all. Jesus takes old life, and as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 makes it, “a new creation, everything old passing away, everything becoming new.” Our standpoint is radically altered to act in ways that God acts in contemporary terms, which, Isaiah 25 says open up the barrier between God and the world, that offer abundance to everyone, and work to make it happen. These kinds of things still bring new life out of old death in remarkable ways.
What kinds of new things might First Baptist do with and for one another, and with and for this community that say that we know the way God in Jesus acts in 2019 and onward? We must, of course, translate biblical words into terms that people will understand today. I daresay that people out there will understand that God still cares more about bringing wholeness than about buying happiness, and about sharing than about shouting, about health than about hate, about caring than about our own comfort. Doing what we see Jesus doing, and so bringing transformative resurrection life to our communities in 2019 and beyond demands the very best thought, prayer, and action from every one here, and, although this is hard work, it’s the work this community of faith is called on to think through and continue to carry out in Jesus’ name. What it will mean, in short, is to be known by daring deeds not by long-winded creeds. When we involve ourselves in such thought and action – doing what God and Jesus are doing, both we and people out there are raised from death to resurrection life.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.