"All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." (Acts 9:39).
Preacher at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village of Ralston, 21 April, 2014. Readings For the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Lectionary Year C): Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30.
"So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them." ( Acts 9:39)
The new and inexperienced minister, new to his or her charge, had best take the church ladies seriously if their tenure as pastor is to be a long and happy one. When I went to my first parish, one of my congregations was made up predominantly of women of a certain age, whom, I felt, did not sufficiently appreciate my long and theologically rich sermons. However, I quickly learned that these saints of the church had much to teach me about what Christian community looked like. They may not have gone much for Karl Barth or Greek nuances in the text, but their busy hands and caring hearts were the church, even when they drove me crazy. Eventually I learned to appreciate what they had to teach me.
I suspect it has ever been thus. Today’s first reading from Acts, like numerous other spots in the New Testament, reminds us of the importance of women in the Christian church as it was forming in the years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. We find many references to women who were active in works of networking, encouragement, leadership, and works of charity, and one suspects that without them, the work of Peter, Paul and the male apostles would have gone for naught.
In the story of Dorcas/Tabitha, the detail that moves me because of its poignancy and humanity is when the widows show Peter the clothing made by this dear and departed friend and saintly woman. Certainly it is an act of grief, as if by clutching and holding on to these garments they can somehow still hold on to the friend they have lost, and by showing them to Peter they can communicate their grief when words fail them.
I think it’s also true that the widows display these garments as an act of tribute, a testimony to their friend’s charity and goodness to them. I was listening to the Sermon Brainwave podcast and one of the participants was speaking about what rare and precious things clothes were in the ancient world. For every hour dedicated to food preparation, a woman would have to put twenty hours into making clothing. So if the widows are showing Peter the clothing that Tabitha had made for them (and as widows it is likely that they would have depended on charity), then Tabitha was indeed a saintly and generous woman.
This passage raises several questions. What did the widows and women of this little group in Joppa expect of Peter when they asked him to “Please come to us without delay” (Acts 9:39). Were they hoping that Peter could bring her back from the dead? For an early Christian community, excited by the stories of and possibilities raised by Jesus’ resurrection, this might have seemed a reasonable expectation. Second, why was Tabitha in particular raised from the dead when other early believers did not? After all, the central problem that Paul tries to answer in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica (1 Thess 4:13-18)is why some of the believers have died before the promised return of Christ.
I think it may be that, as in John's gospel where the miracles are signs pointing to the identity of Christ, the raising of Dorcas also functions as a sign of the power and importance of the resurrection of Jesus. It has the effect of bringing people to faith, which is the part of the great drama of Acts, the growth of the church.The dual name of Tabitha (Aramaic) and Dorcas (Greek). something many commentators have noted, is a hint of Peter's great realization in Acts 10, that the gospel is true and meant for both Jews and Gentiles.
Like the raising of Lazarus in John, the raising of Tabitha/Dorcas is a sign and a confirmation of things to come. It tells others that the news of the risen Christ is indeed good news, underscoring both the power and the promise of the resurrection. For those in the early church who faced the reality of disease and death in an age of much shorter life spans than ours, as well as the fear of persecution and martyrdom, the story of Tabitha/Dorcas points to a new reality and promises that the God who rasied Jesus will ultimately triumph over death for all believers.
Along these lines, a closing comment on clothes is in order. In our second lesson from Revelations, we heard the question put to John by one of the elders in the heavenly vision, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" (Revelations 7:13). The white robes are eschatological, signs of our rebirth and salvation, in the same manner that a white christening gown is a sign of the function of baptism. They also point to our remaking in the church, of our putting on Christ in the Pauline sense that we have a new identity in the church, the body of Christ, that is transformative, a rescuing from our old life which leads only to death. So the clothing shown to Peter in Acts 9 may indicate more than the grieving widows know. Not only are the clothes evidence of a life well lived, of Tabitha/Dorcas' robust and practical charity, but they are indicative of our new life in the church. The use of robes and vestments in worship, such as the ones I am wearing today, garments which are strange to some of you who come to this chapel from other traditions, may thus be about more than Anglican tradition. The white which some of you wore at your baptism is a sign of your transformation in Christ, of how God sees you, more radiant and lovable than any of us could imagine ourselves to be. One day we will be dressed thus, in the glorious worship of heaven. And who knows how, in the years following Peter's visit to Joppa, certain items of clothing were treasured, not just because they were once made by a kind and revered woman called Tabitha/Dorcas, but also because they conveyed something of the mystery and glory of heaven.