Acts 9:36-43

“Listen to Her life…”


Take a moment and create a mental image of a disciple…

What do they look like? Sound like? Act like?

If you’d rather doodle a drawing on your bulletin, please do.

Now I want you to keep this image in your mind and perhaps add to it as we hear God’s word today.

Prayer for illumination

Let us pray…..Creator God, our loving parent- out of darkness you create life.   Into the chaos of our world your Spirit breaths new life….May the power of your resurrection to be felt today. Open our minds and hearts to a deeper understanding of who you are and who you call us to be. Amen.

This morning we are going to hear a story from scripture about several disciples of Jesus. I’ll be reading from Acts 9:36-43 and I’ll be reading from the Common English Bible today, which is the translation our Confirmation class has been using this year.

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas). Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need. 37 About that time, though, she became so ill that she died. After they washed her body, they laid her in an upstairs room. 38 Since Lydda was near Joppa, when the disciples heard that Peter was there, they sent two people to Peter. They urged, “Please come right away!” 39 Peter went with them. Upon his arrival, he was taken to the upstairs room. All the widows stood beside him, crying as they showed the tunics and other clothing Dorcas made when she was alive.

40 Peter sent everyone out of the room, then knelt and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up!” She opened her eyes, saw Peter, and sat up. 41 He gave her his hand and raised her up. Then he called God’s holy people, including the widows, and presented her alive to them. 42 The news spread throughout Joppa, and many put their faith in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed for some time in Joppa with a certain tanner named Simon.

Which disciples did you notice in this story?

There’s Peter who gets the heading title in our Bibles. Peter is known for his affirmations and betrayals. He denied Jesus and then the risen Jesus asks him 3 times- do you love me?  Now Peter is out preaching, healing, and performing miracles in the name of the Lord. It doesn’t matter what his references remember about his loyalty, he’s a disciple and helps to start the early church.

Then there’s Tabitha (Dorcas). She is the ONLY female specifically called a disciple in the New Testament- the only one. Her compassion and good works were widely known. Her title as a disciple changes the typical pattern of the early church’s leadership. In fact, as one commentary puts it, Tabitha’s discipleship draws our attention to the fact that nothing in this community follows society’s norms- “Common fisherman are preaching to the temple authorities, paralyzed old men are up and walking about and changing lives, and a woman…leads a welfare program among the poor at Joppa.”[1] I guess Jesus’ teenage fishermen turned disciples and his inclusion of women, children and the poor should have been a foreshadowing to us. Now thousands have professed their faith in the Lord and new communities are breaking bread, worshiping, and caring for the needs of the poor, orphaned and widowed.

But Tabitha wasn’t just another convert to the Jesus movement or a good seamstress….she was a disciple of Christ. She was a disciple who used her skills to take care of those who were in need. Despite the fact that we only hear the men preaching throughout Acts, her discipleship should not be dwindled down to the making of clothes. The Holy Spirit was alive and working through her just as much as it was through Peter or the recently converted Paul.

If we learn one thing from the early church, its that listening to the Spirit and following its call will likely lead us into unexpected places and into community with those we once thought we had nothing in common. In listening to the Spirit we are beckoned to listen to the church, to other disciples and as Tabitha did, to the marginalized around us whose voices are often silenced.

Listen to her life. Listen to their life.

Using male language for God in the church is still common even though the Presbyterian Church and other circles continue to promote a more inclusive and expansive vocabulary for God.  It’s interesting though that the common pronoun originally assigned to the church was “she.” Maybe this comes from the church being described as the bride of Christ but this has garnered some unattractive baggage for the church (and for women). The church is not an innocent, helpless virgin nor some scandalous woman that we label with a red “A,” and the church is most definitely more than a “mother” who nurtures us and puts a band-aid on our wounds. Just like God is much more than the masculine terms commonly subscribed to the divine.

It’s not that each term for the church or God is necessarily bad, its that individually most terms limit our picture of God and who God’s disciples are called to be. Rachel Held Evans is the author of many best-selling books who writes about faith, doubt and life in the Bible belt. Rachel talks about how the church should be a place for EVERYONE to share ALL of their lives, the good and the bad, the affirmations AND the questions and doubts. She writes beautifully of her certain faith that was challenged and expanded to be more of what our Confirmands describe in their journey of faith reflections: faith that is less about certainty and more about relationships and a continual wrestling and participation with God, the church and its people.

Recently Rachel Held Evans became ill quickly and died at the age of 37. Her death has rocked the lives of many, especially many young clergy women and not to mention her closest family and friends. Much like I cannot understand how Tabitha got sick, died and was raised back to life….I cannot understand Rachel’s untimely death. Nothing in these stories helps to explain, but they are stories that beckon us to look at our lives through the lens of faith and to see that in life and in death we belong to God[2].

Rachel left the church for a while in her 20’s and describes how much she wrestled with faith. I love her depiction of the church:

“This is the church, Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here. This is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe it’s time to embrace her, flawed as she is.” [3]

The church contains our hurt and our deepest joys, our friends and our enemies, a welcoming seat at the table and a seat that is saved for someone else. The church is as imperfect as we are and our vision of God and our call as disciples will always be more limited than what God can imagine.

Yet even in the darkest corners, the deepest pains and the greatest divides, each part of the church and each member of Christ’s body remains deeply nestled in God’s love.[4]

If you look back at the text in Acts it says that after Tabitha died, the disciples heard that Peter was in a town nearby and they sent two people to get him. I wonder who those disciples in Joppa were?  Were they other women like Tabitha? Were they some of the first male apostles? Were they old or young? Were they among the widowed, poor and crippled?  The patriarchal tradition embedded in scripture leads us our first assumption to be that they were just two male disciples, and maybe they were. But what if they weren’t?  What if the church was already continuing to change as it was being formed?

Think back to the image of a disciple you created in your mind this morning.

Does it look like someone in Divinci’s Last supper? Or does the disciple look more like you?

You know my picture looked a bit like this…if you don’t mind i’d like to take a picture (take picture of congregation).

So yes a disciple looks a lot like Peter and Tabitha but they also look nothing like them too. 

Disciples look like you…and you….and the person who’s missing from your pews and the person sitting on a bench outside and people you’ve never met worldwide.

You see God’s calls all sorts of people to be disciples and so the church is full of males and females and of those for whom binary terms will never accurately describe identity. God’s church is full of those you are old and young, single, married, widowed, those with children, those without and those who wish they could. The church has disciples who are misfits and goofballs, musicians and athletes. God doesn’t ask to see your resume, you just have to say yes and gather around the table with the rest of the family.

The norm for a disciple is not what we look like or where we’ve come from.

The norm for a disciple is how we live in faith, together, along this journey.

Perhaps you do not feel called to preach like Peter but you have the gift of listening with compassion and sitting with the marginalized, lonely or sick like Tabitha-  do not think for a moment that both aren’t valuable ministries of Christ’s disciples.

Maybe you are a Confirmand who loves to speak your mind, or sing with all your heart or share your art as gift to others. Those are gifts for ministry but so is being the quiet one, who watches out for all your friends and who invites the new person to join.  The church is a complicated, beautiful mess of different people and different gifts and we ought to listen to them all.

When you listen to the church what do you hear from her? 

When you listen to your life of discipleship, what do you hear?

Do you hear the good news the women told?

Do you hear a God who holds your joys as well as your pains?

Do you hear the excitement of the person behind you…and the sufferings of the person down the pew?

Do you hear the gifts inside of you that you usually ignore?

Do you hear God’s promise of belonging and resurrection?

We may not understand the mysteries of faith but as we listen- I hope we will hear the Spirit saying- see things may be changing or troubling at times….but I’ll sit with you right here…and here, here’s another disciple to be your friend. Together, we will walk forward and we will see new life resurrecting in our midst.

[1] Willimon, William H. Interpretation–Acts. John Knox Press, 2010.

[2] Willimon, William H. Interpretation–Acts. John Knox Press, 2010.

[3] Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, 2015.

[4] Evans, Rachel Held. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nelson Books, 2015.


Rev. Allysen Schaaf

Associate Pastor for Youth and their Families
Decatur Presbyterian Church