A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter
In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon (NIV).
Today’s sermon is the third in a series called “The Acts of an Easter People,” and one of the things I’ve noticed in my preparation and preaching is that Easter changes everything. It changes Peter from a cringing coward to a fearless witness for Christ. It changes Paul from a persecutor of the early church to its greatest evangelist. And in today’s lesson from Acts 9:36-43 the rules are changed as Peter does something that—before Easter—only the Lord could do.
He raises the dead.
Luke begins this story by telling us about a disciple in Joppa named Tabitha, or in Greek, Dorcas. Both names mean “gazelle” and they give us a mental picture of a woman who is both beautiful and graceful. But that’s not all: Luke says she was always doing good and helping the poor. She was one of those women you sometimes still find in church who seems to do everything—beautifully. You know the kind I’m talking about. So, when Dorcas got sick and died it came as a shock. The widows in the church prepared her body for burial and laid her out in an upstairs room but they could hardly believe she was gone. And when they heard that Peter was in Lydda, just a few miles up the road, they sent two men to him and urged him to come at once. Because Peter had just healed a man up there named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed, bedridden, for eight years. Peter looked at him and said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up and make your bed.” He did get up. I don’t know if he made his bed, or not. Luke doesn’t say. But word of that healing went out all over the region. So the church at Joppa sent for him and when he came they took him upstairs to the room. Luke says, “All the widows stood around him crying, and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.”
Can’t you just picture that? And doesn’t it just break your heart?
But then Peter sent them out of the room, he got down on his knees and prayed, and then he turned to the dead woman and said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and, seeing Peter, she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to stand and then he called in all those widows who had been weeping for her and what do you think they did when they saw her standing there, alive? What Luke doesn’t tell us is how rejoicing broke out in that upper room, how those widows gasped with wonder, and threw their hands in the air, and then hugged Dorcas, and kissed her on both cheeks, how they shouted for joy, and threw open the windows, and told the whole town that the one who had been dead was alive again. All Luke tells us is that this miracle “became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.” And then he says, “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.” I hadn’t noticed this before but if you didn’t have that period “Many people believed in the Lord” and “Peter stayed in Joppa” it would almost look like “Many people believed in the Lord Peter.” But Peter would have been quick to tell you he wasn’t the Lord, he was just a disciple, which begs the question: can disciples do this? Can they raise the dead?
Well, Peter did, but how did he do it?
To answer that question I think we have to go back, all the way back to when Peter became a disciple in the first place. Do you remember that story? How Jesus asked him to let down the nets for a catch and even though he had fished all night but caught nothing he did what Jesus asked and when he did the nets were so full they were breaking, and when they hauled the fish in the boats were so full they were sinking. That’s when Peter fell on his knees and said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people.” And when they got back to shore Peter left everything and began to follow. He became a disciple (Luke 5:4-11). As I often tell the people in our newcomers’ class the word disciple could be better translated as apprentice, because in the same way Jesus learned the trade of carpentry from Joseph his disciples learned the trade of ministry from him. As they followed him from one place to another they heard him preach and teach, they watched him help and heal. I can almost see them taking notes during his sermons, and when he healed someone looking to see where he placed his hands.
I’m thinking of one healing in particular: in Luke, chapter 8, where a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house where he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying. Before Jesus could get there someone came with the news that the little girl had died, but Jesus said, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved. When he got to the house he didn’t allow anyone to go in with him except for Peter, James, and John and the little girl’s mother and father. 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!” And then, Luke says, “Her spirit returned and she got up at once. Then Jesus directed them to give her something to eat” (Luke 8:40-42, 49-55).
Don’t you think that memory came rushing back to Peter as he stood in that upper room, where everyone was weeping and wailing over the death of Tabitha? “Let’s see,” he was thinking: “What would Jesus do? No, even better, what did Jesus do?” In Mark’s version of the same story Jesus put everybody out of the room, and that’s what Peter did. And then he knelt down and prayed, mostly because he knew he wasn’t the Lord: he was only a disciple. What did he say? Probably something like this: “Lord, I can’t raise the dead, but you can. I’ve seen you do it. I’m asking you to do that for this woman. These people love her, and it would mean so much to them to get her back again. So, I’m going to do what you taught me to do, and trust you to do the rest.” And with that he opened his eyes, looked at the cold, lifeless body in front of him and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Her eyes fluttered open, and she turned and saw Peter, and he took her by the hand and helped her to stand up, just the way Jesus had helped Jairus’ daughter stand up. Peter wasn’t the Lord. He knew that. But he had been with the Lord, he had watched him help and heal, he had learned everything he could, and when presented with this situation he simply did what he had learned.
And a miracle occurred.
It makes me wonder if we would be bolder about such things if we had followed Jesus around the way Peter did, if we had taken notes during his sermons and noticed the position of his hands when he healed. Just thinking back through the Gospels last week I was impressed by how many times Jesus does something, and not just says something, when he heals. I thought about the time in John 9 when he spit on the ground and made mud, and smeared it on the eyes of the man who had been born blind. About the time in Mark 7 when he put his fingers in the ears of a deaf-mute, and then spit and touched his tongue. In the very next chapter he spits on the eyes of a blind man and lays hands on him, and when he says he sees people but they “look like trees walking around” Jesus touches his eyes and heals him. In Luke 13 he lays his hands on a woman who is bent over and unable to stand up straight, and suddenly she can. In the next chapter he takes hold of a man who has dropsy and heals him. In Mark 1 he reaches out and touches a leper, breaking all the rules in order to cure him. Earlier in that chapter he takes Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up. Not to mention those times when he laid his hands on little children to bless them, or broke bread to feed a multitude, or raised his hands to calm a storm.
He doesn’t always do something. Often he just says something. But I think if you were Peter or any of those other disciples you would begin to believe that miracles of healing often involve some kind of touch, and that made me think of a book I’ve been reading called A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. In the chapter on touch she says, “Although I am not a portly middle-aged gentleman with nothing else to do, I am massaging a tiny baby in a hospital in Miami. Often retirees volunteer to enter preemie wards late at night, when other people have families to tend or a nine-to-five job to sleep toward. The babies don’t care about the gender of those who cosset and cuddle them. They soak it up like the manna it is in their wilderness of uncertainty. This baby’s arms feel limp, like vinyl.… Reaching carefully scrubbed, disinfected, warmed hands through the portholes of the incubator with pangs of protectiveness, I touch him; it is like reaching into a chrysalis. First I stroke his head and face very slowly, six times for ten seconds each time, then his neck and shoulders six times. I slide my hands down his back and massage it in long sweeping motions six times, and caress his arms and legs six times. The touching can’t be light, or it will tickle him, nor rough, or it will agitate him, but firm and steady, as if one were smoothing a crease from heavy fabric.”[i]
Ackerman says “Massaged babies gain weight as much as 50 percent faster than unmassaged babies. They’re more active, alert, and responsive, more aware of their surrounding, better able to tolerate noise, and they orient themselves faster and are emotionally more in control….” She cites a 1988 New York Times article claiming that “Premature infants who were massaged for 15 minutes three times a day gained weight 47 percent faster than others who were left alone in their incubators…the massaged infants also showed signs that the nervous system was maturing more rapidly: they became more active…and more responsive to such things as a face or a rattle.”[ii] I saw this for myself recently when I visited young Karston Smith at the hospital. Karston was born prematurely, weighing just over two pounds. When I saw him at the hospital a few weeks later his mother was holding him close, and proudly reported that he had gained so much weight he was almost ready to go home. He was still tiny; less than five pounds. I offered to say a prayer for him, and when I did I put my hand on his back to make physical contact. It was so small! Like putting your hand on your own forearm. And yet as I prayed for that little boy’s life and health and strength I could almost feel him growing under my touch.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, except that I believe there is a connection between touch and healing. I believe that is at least one of the reasons why Jesus smeared mud on a blind man’s eyes, why he spit and touched the tongue of the one who couldn’t speak, why he laid his hands on that woman who was bent over and straightened her up, why he stuck his fingers in a deaf man’s ears. I believe his disciples—his apprentices—saw all that and made note of it, and when it was their time to heal they did just what they had seen Jesus do. I was thinking about that when Diane Ackerman explained how she massaged babies. Someone had taught her to do that and she had taken notes: “Six strokes, ten seconds, not too light or too rough.” So when Peter was alone in that upper room with the cold, lifeless body of Dorcas he simply did what he had seen Jesus do. He wasn’t a faith healer; he was just full of faith in Jesus, who once said to his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12).
If we believed that, I think we would lay hands on more people and pray for them, and, to be fair, at our Prayers for Healing service we do. You’ve heard me say that it’s not a healing service. We can’t promise that. But we do promise to pray for healing and usually, when people come forward for prayer, we ministers listen to their requests and then put our hands on them and pray. Sometimes, at their request, we anoint them with oil. Why not? But if we really believed what Jesus said I think we would lay hands on people all the time, everywhere, and pray for them every chance we could. I think we would pat on them, and hug them, and shake their hands, and every time we did we might pray that God’s healing power would somehow flow through us to them. We’re not faith healers, but we could be full of faith in Jesus, we could believe that somehow he could use us to get his work done on earth. Do you know there are people in the world, probably some in this room, who are rarely ever touched? If premature babies who are touched gain weight 50 percent faster than the ones who are not don’t you imagine that people who are never touched begin to shrivel up and die, if not on the outside at least on the inside? Suppose someone like that was brave enough to show up at church, and suppose—to their astonishment—someone gave them a hug, and whispered a prayer for their life and health and healing, and then pulled back, looked them in the eye, and said, “God loves you more than you could possibly know!” That sort of thing could traumatize a person. It could send them running from the room, promising never to return. On the other hand…
It could bring them back to life.
[i] Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (New York: Vintage, 1990), pp. 71-72.
[ii] Ibid., p. 73-74.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.