Easter 4 (12-05-2019)

READINGS: Psalm 23; John 10: 22-24, 27-30 & Acts 9: 36-43

The obvious theme offered by the Psalm and Gospel for this day is the Good Shepherd, but this day is also Mother’s Day. Although Mother’s Day is not a religious day, the Acts reading provides the opportunity to showcase women of faith and also the mothering, nurturing aspect of God. It seems they all come together in the theme of “Choosing Life”. Mothers bring us into this world and it is their nurturing, and particularly the nurturing that occurs through the Good Shepherd, that helps to bring us life; however, the final choice for life is ours to make.  It’s that old adage at work: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  It is the problem faced by teachers, prophets and leaders of all sorts, and it no doubt frustrated Jesus, too. In the end, no matter how much you do for people, their choices will determine whether or not they find the life that God intends for us all; the life Jesus called ‘eternal’.

The ideas that follow come from the Rev. Rex Hunt, a clear voice in the world of progressive Christianity.  His website is listed under “Useful Links” on the main menu bar.

Note: It might help to read about “Eternal” in “Words of the Word” elsewhere on this website.

For the purposes of today’s lesson, there are only two categories of people: those who accept the offer of life and those who don’t; i.e. those who are living and those who are dead. There are the people who have put themselves into the hands of the Good Shepherd to lead them through the valley of the shadow of death, and those who have chosen to stay there.

Many who are up in years are very much alive, whilst some who are quite a bit younger have been dead for years.  Oh, their bodies are still alive, but the kind of life that Jesus offered is not there..  These people exist, but are not really alive.

This is the heart of the matter for Jesus: life in the kingdom of God or ‘not-life’.  It would be a simple matter to demonstrate the two alternatives if it weren’t for the fact that we are so good at procuring artificial life for ourselves, so that we are not quite dead and yet not quite alive.  For most of our lives, this artificial life works.  We can fill the empty feeling inside with all sorts of good things, so that life is pretty good.

The story about the raising of Tabitha emphasises the critical ingredient for life in the kingdom, and that is hope;  a radical hope which is characterised by openness to the possibility of even the most impossible; the kind of hope made possible by Easter.

Tabitha is the only woman in the entire New Testament to merit the term “disciple.”  Her discipleship has been in her “good works and acts of charity.”  She has been caring for those for whom no one else would care for.  Now that Tabitha has died, who will see to the needs of the widows who are mourning her death?   What will happen to these poor, vulnerable women?  Tabitha, their protector is dead, so now these widows are as good as dead.  The story thus opens with death:  poor people, people who can’t get adequate health care, people who are vulnerable to the elements, who are enslaved by death.  This is the way most stories about the world’s poor end: in death. 

Surprise! Easter strikes again! Death will not have the final word, and the story moves on to a fresh affirmation of divine power.  Peter’s words, “Tabitha, get up!” reminds us of the way Jesus evoked dead Lazarus form the tomb.  Jesus raised Lazarus; Peter has raised Tabitha.  Into regions of death, where people grieve, a word is spoken: a word of life.  The Easter commotion continues.  And, perhaps most worrying, it continues through the man the gospel writers use to represent us. We disciples of Jesus now carry the responsibility to bear the word of life that overcomes death.

Now it doesn’t really matter if you believe Tabitha actually returned from the dead. It is, afterall, a story; however, it matters very much whether or not you believe the point the story: that there is a power let loose in the world, a power unto life, rather than unto death, and you carry that power.  

The real problem with this story for us may not be that we doubt Peter could raise this dear old woman to life, but rather that we are unsure we could be raised to life and we are really unsure we could raise others to life. Whether or not Peter did raise Tabitha is not the question for discussion, but it is very important whether or not you are open to its possibility, and to the infinite possibilities of God.  

Where, in your life, are things fixed, closed, settled and dead?  For what do you grieve today?  These are the places of death, the places where your attempts at providing life for yourself and others have failed. But these dead places also harbour the hope they can be restored to life.  When life-giving gospel words are spoken, the dead rise, which is to say that the future is open and everything makes way for Easter.

Beware! An Easter faith is radically destabilising. It was faith that propelled revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi.  This kind of faith doesn’t tie things down and create order; it cuts everything loose. 99.99% of the time the rules of cause and effect work, and history evolves according to expectations, but you never know when something entirely new will break into the world.

Faith is, at its heart, a way of denying the authority of established accounts of the world.  It is a way of saying to fellow human beings and to the world, “No, I will not give in to things as they have been handed to me.  I will not give in to death, however it presents itself: not to poverty nor injustice nor violence nor to anything which this world does to diminish human life.”  In other words, faith is the ability to choose life, even in the face of death. I pray that you are among those who choose life.  In so choosing, you not only gain life for yourself, you give it to the world.

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