I wonder if you know a Dorcas? Have you ever met someone like Dorcas in the Acts reading, who devotes themselves to helping others? Who sees need and responds to it? Who uses whatever gifts they have to help, without fanfare or show?
And if you do know somebody like that, what impact do they have? If you’ve got someone in mind, are they a Christian? Does faith inspire what they do and does that faith have an effect on those around them?
I watched a fascinating programme recently. It was called ‘The Battle for Christianity’ and it’s still got a few days left on iplayer if you want to catch it. Professor Robert Beckford looks at the future of the Christian faith in the UK – particularly how it is changing. It’s really encouraging because it’s all about churches that are growing.
He goes to Holy Trinity Brompton and Hillsong in London and talks about new styles of contemporary worship reaching out to people in their twenties. But he also went to an Anglican church in a community centre in Barnsley where immigrants from Iran and Syria are becoming Christians – they have had fifty baptisms in the past year.
What really struck me was how these growing churches are involved in social projects. They run food banks, or help the homeless, or offer addiction recovery programmes. Their faith isn’t just about preaching and rock music, it’s backed up by action. You can look at them and say ‘actually this is genuine faith, it really makes a difference.’ In today’s world there are lots of competing claims in a marketplace of ideas – but people can experience that kind of Christianity and say ‘this isn’t rhetoric, it’s real’. There must be something in this.
They’re copying Christ’s example. Being a Christian involves getting stuck in, responding to the need that we see around us. V. 36 describes Tabitha as a disciple – that means one who follows Jesus. If we follow Jesus we must share his love for the lost, the broken and the poor.
How do we do that? In leafy North Wiltshire, we’re very good at getting involved in the community. If there’s a village event, almost always there’s a church member at the heart of it, Christians making tea and making things happen. Some people find themselves on the village planning board, getting stuck in at the school as governors, helping children to read or offering Open the Book assemblies. There’s a lot of wonderful things going – yet social need is perhaps a bit harder to see.
We’re aware of poverty overseas and respond through our charitable giving. We try to make the world a better place through Christian Aid and Fairtrade. In our nearby towns some folks help the homeless at Doorway or the Sisters of the Church.
Closer to home, poverty is less obvious in our villages – it’s there though. Not on the main street but often hidden away on little estates. I do wonder what need there is if we look beneath the surface? What desperation or dependency hides behind net curtains? Isolation can be a real issue in rural communities, particularly for teenagers who don’t have transport or the elderly who are housebound. How reliant are people on the village shop or post office?
Dorcas addressed the need that she encountered –verse 39 speaks of how she made clothes for the widows. In a society where there was no safety net, her help would have made a huge difference because she responded to what she saw. As a church, do we know what’s going on, what the needs of our community actually are? Listening and noticing are the first steps to helping out. Perhaps then we can think about what is possible with the resources God provides.
The church in Joppa were motivated by their faith in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t a woolly faith that had been reduced to just social action – it had real content and we see the depths of that faith when Dorcas dies. In v.38 they send two men asking Peter to come to them without delay – obviously hoping that some miracle will be possible.
And indeed it is. Not through Peter’s power, but through the Lord Jesus Christ. The raising of Dorcas has distinct echoes of the time when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Just like Jesus did, Peter puts all the mourners outside. The words Jesus used ‘Talitha koum’ are just a letter different from Peter’s command using her Aramaic name ‘Tabitha koum’. Coincidence? Surely not!
The point is clear: The power of Jesus is at work through the apostles. Jesus raised the dead and now Peter has the authority to do the same. The apostles are carrying on Jesus’ work, doing the things he did and speaking in his name. In our gospel reading, John 10:25, Jesus says ‘the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me’ – in other words the miracles Jesus did showed that he came from God. Now, the disciples perform similar miracles, showing that God is with them. This is why in v.42 ‘many believed in the Lord’. It gives us confidence as well: confidence that the disciples were the true inheritors of Christ’s mission, confidence that their teaching continues his.
It should also give us confidence that because Jesus has risen we shall too. In the New Testament, whenever we read about people who have died being brought back to life, it has two meanings. Firstly, it is the ultimate miracle, the most difficult thing, the greatest sign of God’s power and glory. When the dead are raised, the Kingdom of heaven has come. When Peter and Paul do what Jesus has done, it is a sign that his power is with them.
Secondly, it looks forward to the resurrection of the dead – the wonderful promise that those who trust in Christ will one day be raised to life and live forever. Dorcas is not still with us on earth. Having been brought back to life she was still mortal, and eventually she died. This miracle was not a resurrection – instead it is a return to earthly life. However, it acts as a sign that God has power over death and that there will be a resurrection. As a disciple of Christ Dorcas will share in the life of the world to come. We can too when we trust in him.
As Jesus says in John 10:28 ‘I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ This is why we have these readings in the Easter season – they show us how the resurrection of Jesus is a promise of eternal life for us.
And when I say us, I mean the whole world. Anyone can respond to Christ and be welcomed by him. Yet at the time of our readings that wasn’t taken for granted. At this moment in Acts, the gospel has not yet reached the Gentiles. It has only been preached to the Jews – with mixed results as Jesus’ words in John chapter 10 recall.
But there’s a telling little detail in v.43 of the Acts reading: ‘Meanwhile Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.’ What’s so significant about that? Tanners made leather. They dealt with animal skins, a messy, smelly and unpleasant job. Strict Jews weren’t allowed to touch dead bodies, so tanners were regarded as unclean and had a poor reputation.
Yet Peter stays with Simon, a sign that his horizons are beginning to broaden. Peter starts to see that God’s love is offered to everyone. It is while he is at Simon’s house that he has the vision and receives messengers from Cornelius, the Roman centurion, leading to the first Gentiles being baptised. Here we see a sign of what is to come.
God’s love is offered to all. He invites us to come to Christ. He invites us through the preaching of the apostles and the church they founded; borne witness to by signs of power and acts of loving service. He invites us to deepen our discipleship, to speak of his love and to love others in practical ways, so that we too can join in the invitation and mission of God.