5-12-19 God's Handiwork

God’s Handiwork

Rev. Jay Rowland

Acts 9:36-43

Easter 4C  Sunday May 12, 2019, First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN


This sermon utilizes material published by John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," 2013; Beth Scibienski "Dorcas' Fashion Show," A Thousand Words of Inspiration, 2013; William Loader  First Thoughts on Year C First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary, Easter 4; Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources, and Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.




It’s no secret that mothers play a prominent role in God’s story of us. A good number of these mothers are women who do not have biological children, but help raise and nurture scores of “other people’s children”.  These are women who have given life to the kingdom of God and to the church.  One of those women we meet today in Acts—a woman in Joppa who answers to two names, Tabitha and Dorcas.   

Remarkably, in introducing her, Luke uses the feminine form of the Greek word for disciple—mathetrias--the only time this word appears in all of the New Testament!!  Luke thus presents Tabitha as fully equivalent to any and all male disciples mathetai.  

Tabitha is her Hebrew name. The Greeks called her Dorcas. Both names mean “gazelle.” With what must have been sheer agility and determination, Tabitha Gazelle (if you will) opened her home to be a refuge for women, a safe place for women. There was no safe place for women who were left vulnerable and homeless due to circumstance:  no place for women abandoned by their husbands or shunned by their family or tribe, or for widows who found themselves suddenly on the brink of poverty, or for women both Jew and Greek who found themselves in dire straits for one reason or another.  

It just so happened that Tabitha was a skilled seamstress.  If we in the protestant church had patron saints, Tabitha (Dorcas) might be the patron saint of prayer shawl groups, quilters or sewing groups.  She was known for the tunics and other garments she created with elaborate design, care and beauty. She gave these to the women she took into her home.  

Luke reports that this vibrant disciple becomes sick and dies suddenly. Her body is reverently washed for burial and lovingly placed in an upper room. Now, homes with an upper room, a second floor, were rare in those days.  Tabitha quite possibly was a single woman of some wealth.  In mentioning this room in Tabitha’s house it may be that Luke is calling to mind another upper room-- in Jerusalem--where the eleven disciples gathered waiting for a special gifting of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:13).[1]  

Regardless, Luke infers that the disciples who are in Joppa are devastated by Tabitha’s sudden death.  Aware that Peter is nearby, they summon him, hoping his presence and prayers would bring comfort. When Peter arrives, the sound of Tabitha’s mourners reaches his ears and his heart before he encounters the women themselves.  They surround Tabitha’s body; through their cries and tears they eagerly show Peter the tunics they’re wearing, seemingly every work of fabric Tabitha created is shown to Peter with stories from each woman in the room recounting Tabitha’s kindness and generosity which created and sustained this community. Tabitha’s handiwork. God’s handiwork! 

It was slightly unusual for one’s body to be taken upstairs and laid out instead of being buried or placed in a tomb. But Luke wants to make sure that his hearers understand that Tabitha really is dead. There are echoes from Jesus' raising of a dead girl in Mark 5, Jesus' words, "Talitha cum" little girl arise, which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"[2] 

Scholars note that this story of the raising of Tabitha may have circulated as a legend related to the establishing of Christian community at Joppa.[3] It is supposed to impress all who hear it. For it mirrors the raising of the widow's son by Elijah (1Kings 17:17-24) and the raising of the Shunemmite woman's son by Elisha (2Kings 4:8-37).  It validates the ministry of Peter and the early church just as the raising of Jairus's daughter by Jesus corroborates his messianic ministry.  Thus it is no coincidence that Luke echoes the terms and the details of each of these accounts.[4]  

Whatever history stands behind this story in Acts, it offers the gift of continuity to the Christian community in the early days of the church: Peter is like Jesus, and Jesus is like Elijah and like Elisha, and all are like God: they raise the dead to life.[5]  God’s power of resurrection in the world has been seen in Elijah, in Elisha, in Jesus, in Peter, and in countless other agents throughout history. God has long chosen agents to work God's power in the world. [6] 

The raising of Tabitha is a sign to the community … it serves as a gospel revelation the kingdom of God is nigh for the dead are raised to new life; the poor and widowed rejoice in plenty. The miracle "becomes known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord." When the dead are raised and widows rejoice, the kingdom of God is revealed in our midst.[7] 

The raising of Tabitha also broadcasts the story of Tabitha’s ministry of care for marginalized and abandoned women. This is a powerful revelation, disciples of Jesus Christ continuing to usher in the kingdom of God.  God's healing power among the poor and the marginalized is a powerful sign to any who have eyes to see.  

The mission of Paul to the Gentiles is more familiar that Peter’s to most casual Bible readers. Evidence of the kingdom of God offered to Gentiles is revealed when the dead are raised, and the broken and destitute find hope and joy in community.  God's people are an enlivened people, a joyously caring people, a people set free. Of course, such transforming power is not ours to create, just as Peter's raising of Tabitha was not of his own doing. Only the living God can empower us with new life. It is the indwelling compelling Spirit of Christ that comes to transform death into life, sadness into joy, carelessness into compassion.[8] 

Such is the good news of the gospel first revealed in Jesus Christ, then also seen in a disciple named Tabitha—in her life and in her rising.  The church bears witness to life arising from death, love outlasting hate, healing meeting brokenness; people learning to stand up for themselves, communities uniting to reverse poverty, enemies moving towards reconciliation, people finding meaning in their lives again after languishing in despair. All of this is evident in the vibrant ministry of Tabitha-- vivid realities to inspire and inform taking up space otherwise occupied by legends from the past.[9]  

Enduring examples abound of God’s habit of bringing transformation, through which we learn to recognize the hand of God working new beginnings in our midst today.  Such transformation comes through the Spirit of Christ who willingly gifts transformation. We must remember to pray the prayer of faith, looking for Christ's renewal enlivening his people. When the church is made up of transformed people, the gospel is proclaimed in sign rather than word and bearing witness to all the world of the coming glory of the kingdom of God in our midst.[10] 

Wherever the powers of death are overcome by the powers of resurrection, the power of God is visible in God's world. In our own time such power has been seen in Martin Luther King, Jr., in Nelson Mandela, in Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and countless persons whose names we may never know.[11]  

There are precious few people, disciples of either gender, who would risk their economic status in order to provide for the less privileged. By taking such a risk of love, unjust systems are challenged and transcended.  God’s Spirit in Tabitha is what take on everlasting life among the living. Tabitha used her privilege -- her wealth, her compassion, her acts and her gifts for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, indigent, the hungry, depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.[12] 

A life lived for God in this way is a gospel life, a resurrection life, brave in the face of death and the works of darkness and death which clearly remain ever-present, ever-ominous and all-too-real.  Such is the living power of the resurrection to binding all who live in hope, creating community among all who seek Jesus—he who reveals God’s handiwork.  In Frederick Buechner's novel Godric the Saint says,

"All the death there is

set next to life

would scarcely fill a cup."[13]


Such is the witness of Tabitha Gazelle.  May it also be our witness and our enduring gift which shall transcend and endure as God’s handiwork.







[1] Mitzi J. Smith, op cit.

[2] William Loader First Thoughts, op cit  

[3] ibid

[4] Rev. Bryan Findlayson, "Aeneas and Dorcas", op cit

[5] Loader, ibid

[6] John Holbert "The Living Power of the Resurrection," op cit.

[7] Findlayson, ibid

[8] Findlayson, ibid

[9] Loader, ibid

[10] Findlayson, ibid

[11] John Holbert, ibid

[12] Mitzi J. Smith, ibid

[13] Godric: A Novel by Frederick Buechner 1980 in John Holbert, ibid