“Can the ways in which we tell the stories of resurrection transform us into followers of Jesus who embody a way of being in the world that can nourish, ground, and sustain the kind of peace that the world yearns for?” I preached this sermon on the raising of Tabitha years ago, as an attempt to convey the academic essay of New Testament scholar Rick Strelan into the form of a sermon. I believe that it is vital for preachers to convey the wealth of insights that are bandied about in the halls of academia, so that congregations can let go of so many interpretations of scripture that insult their intelligence, so that we can begin to explore the “more-than-literal meaning” (Marcus Borg) of biblical texts. Rick Strelan’s essay appeared in “Biblical Theology Bulletin, May 1, 2009, under the title “Tabitha: the gazelle of Joppa”.
Yesterday, I went for a walk. As I was walking along, minding my own business, a bright light appeared in the sky. The light nearly blinded me and so it took a while for me to figure out what was happening. Suddenly, it was so clear that the light was actually coming from a very large spaceship. I could scarcely believe by eyes. I stood frozen to the spot as the space ship landed in the middle of the road. You’ll never believe what happened after it landed. A couple of little green creatures with giant eyes gout out, took my picture, and then got back in the spaceship and flew off into the farthest reaches of space.
You don’t believe me, do you? You think that I’m making a joke of some sort, or maybe I’ve been working too hard and I’ve finally lost the plot. I know there’s probably nothing that I can say that would convince you that little green men have photographed me. Quite frankly that’s a relief because if you’ll believe that, you’d probably believe anything.
I do find it interesting that you won’t allow yourself to believe that I encountered aliens from another planet, and yet, you’ll suspend your disbelief when I tell you a story from the Bible. Or will you? Take our first lesson from the book of Acts. The miraculous story of how the Apostle Peter raised a disciple named Tabitha from the dead. You all know that when someone is dead, that’s it they are dead. You can pray over them all you want, but they’re never going to sit up, let alone stand up like Tabitha. There’s about as much chance of a person standing up after they’ve actually been dead as there is little green men from outer space landing on the street outside this church.The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn’t believe for a second if it weren’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we?Now maybe you’re the generous type and so you say, “Don’t be too hasty, it could happen if the person wasn’t really dead.” I mean, maybe Tabitha’s friends got it wrong and she just appeared to be dead. The story says that Tabitha died, then her friends washed her body and laid her out in an upper room. Then, since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter, who was in Lydda and they asked Peter to head back to Lydda, which was about 10 miles away. That’s a 20 mile round trip on foot with a walking speed of about 3 miles per hour it would take at least 7 hours. She was definitely dead. According to the story Peter sends everyone out of the room, knelt down and prayed and then said, “Tabitha, stand up!” and she did just that.
The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn’t believe for a second if it weren’t in the Bible. I suspect that when it comes to stories from the Bible, most of us don’t really believe that they happened exactly the way the Bible says they happened. Or do we?
Stories like the raising of Tabitha make a lot of us uncomfortable. It’s stories like this that make the Bible so difficult to deal with. According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg: “In the last half century, more Christians have left the church because of the Bible than for any other single reason.”
Biblical literalism, which despite popular opinion is actually a modern and not an ancient approach to scripture, has boxed many 21st century minds into a proverbial corner from which the only escape is to reject the Bible as a source of wisdom. From the very beginning of Christianity, the Scriptures have been understood as a complex mix of historical, metaphorical, allegorical, and symbolic writings that reflect the relationship between the CREATOR and creation. It is only in about the past 200 years or so that the notion that the bible must be accepted as the literal factual historical truth.
The stories about Creation found in the book of Genesis are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sinking the beliefs of the faithful. Unable to check their brains at the door, many Christians have simply refused to cross the threshold of the church and disengaged from even trying to relate to texts that appear locked in a mindset that is trapped in a bygone age. The predominance of Biblical literalism has left so many Christians desperately clinging to the Bible fearing that if one single portion of the text is determined to not to be the literal factual truth that the whole house of cards will come tumbling down and their faith will be lost. So the arguments about the truth of the Bible have come to overshadow the wisdom that is to be found in the sacred texts and in some stories positively bulges between the lines of the scared pages.
Sadly the preoccupation with the literal factual truth of scripture has become a distraction that has kept so many from exploring the more-than-literal truth and the wonders of metaphor, allegory and symbol have been lost to all but the brave few who dare to challenge the lopsided approach to truth.
I believe that when we narrow this particular story down to the choice between believing whether or not Peter actually physically raised Tabitha from the dead, we actually limit our vision of the truth in such a way as to blind us to the truth that is revealed in the text. So, for just a moment, forget about the question of historical factual reality. By that I don’t mean put your brain on hold and simply try to believe. But rather engage your brain and explore more deeply, so that believing becomes a moot point, as the truth is revealed. Let’s look at the more-than-literal and more-than-factual meanings of this story to see what truths they reveal.
The story begins in Joppa, which today is known as the cosmopolitan city of Jaffa. Jaffa is a city on the coast of the Mediterranean and at the time the Acts of the Apostles was written, at about the end of the first century, Joppa was every bit as cosmopolitan as it is today. A first century audience would have heard in the name Joppa a clue that alerted them to the fact that the followers of Jesus were venturing beyond the predominately Jewish realm of Jerusalem. In Joppa, the followers of the way would encounter a very gentile society where issues about mixing with non-Jews was very much an issue.
Joppa was the city from which the prophet Jonah set out for Tarshish on his ill-fated journey to escape the will of God. For this reason alone, the name Joppa, conjured up images of a city on the outer edge or the boundary of the Jewish faith. But I’ll return to the notion of boundaries in a moment.
I’ve told you before that when ever you are dealing with an ancient text, whether its sacred scripture, or an ancient tale like the Iliad, names matter. Just as surely as the name Adam literally means “earth,” or Abraham literally means “father of nations,” or Jesus, which comes from Joshua literally means “YAHWEH,” names are important. There’s a reason the unknown father of Jesus was given the name Joseph, it is designed to point the listener to the Joseph of old who like his more modern counterpart was also a dreamer who fled into Egypt, but not to worry because out of Egypt will come the mighty saviour known as Moses (which literally means “deliverer”) to whom the very name YAHWEH will be revealed. YAHWEH, which literally means “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. Everything is in the name and just in case you forget that, the writer of Acts spells it out for you in both Aramaic and in Greek when he introduces the woman named Tabitha – Dorcas in Greek—which literally means “gazelle.” Gazelle a word that literally comes from an older Arabic word for “LOVE” is the name given to that splendid creature we sometimes call an antelope.
I know that we don’t often encounter gazelles in Canada and if we do it’s likely to be in a zoo. But gazelles are very common in the Middle East especially the variety that has become known as the dorcas antelope, which literally means the “love love.” But wait, it gets even better. Because the writer of the book of Acts would have known just as well as his listeners that the mere mention of a dorcas antelope would have conjured up images of religious controversy. Gazelles you see inhabited a strange sort of boundary when it came to Jewish dietary laws. Gazelles are four-footed cloven-hoofed animals that chew their cud. This puts the gazelle in a category known as “clean” which means that they may be eaten. But because the gazelle is not a domesticated animal it may be hunted and eaten but it could not be sacrificed in the temple. Wild animals could not be eaten in connection with any religious rite.
The gazelle which inhabits the land on the boundaries of the cities and towns, living on the fringes of civilization was hunted for its meat, and although it was deemed clean and therefore, to eat it was permissible, it was also wild and so it needed to be kept well away from any religious ceremony, because it could not be consecrated.
I realize that I’m running the risk of loosing some of you with too much detail. So, let me give you a clue here. The early followers of Jesus were in a quandary as to how to deal with gentile converts. Could they eat with the uncircumcised and risk ritual impurity. Could they let the uncircumcised come to the table? So you see, arguments about who can commune and who can’t go way back.
In addition to bringing up issues of ritual purity the gazelle would have also provoked images of something, or should I say someone far more crucial to the Jewish listener. I told you before that the word gazelle literally means LOVE. So who else was called LOVE? God is LOVE right. Well, in Jewish art the gazelle is used as a symbol for YAHWEH. But even more interesting than that, the gazelle was used to illustrate the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH.
In a culture where the majority could not read, pictures were used to represent the details of the faith and the life-giving aspect of YAHWEH who is LOVE was depicted by images of the gazelle.
Now, there’s so much more that I could tell you about the symbol of the Gazelle, but I simply don’t have time. Suffice it to say that the writer of Acts was determined that his listeners not fail to see that, and I quote, that “Tabitha—that is Dorcas in Greek” is named for YAWHEH who inhabits the boundaries of the Jewish faith. By giving the name in both Aramaic and in Greek the author practically hits us over the head with the fact that this woman symbolizes something far greater than we can even begin to imagine, for she bears the name of YAHWEH who is LOVE.
So if you need to limit her to being an actual living breathing human being who if you traveled back in time you could take a picture of her and say, “here she is,” then you are going to limit yourself to the literal truth, and you will fail to see the more-than-literal truth that this story is trying to tell you. The author has set his listeners up for a story that expresses more than words can tell.
Need I remind you that the literal meaning of metaphor is that which “carries you beyond.” Meta means beyond and phor means to carry; literally “to carry beyond” as in, “the meaning beyond words”. So, listen up! You are about to hear a metaphor about Joppa a town on the boundaries of Judaism, where Jews and Gentiles mix and the lead character in the story is Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek, who is by her very name, both in Aramaic and Greek, a product of the mixing of race and religion, whose very name represents a creature that inhabits the fringes of civilization, and is by nature both clean and unclean, acceptable and yet not, and whose very name symbolizes YAHWEH who is LOVE.
Clearly this story is so much more-than-literal. So let me give you one more fact to throw into the mix. The antelope has horns and in the Middle East the Dorcas Antelope uses its horns to dig for water. Water is the stuff of life. Indeed, the early followers of Jesus referred to Jesus himself as the Living Water. Tabitha—Dorcas in Greek is described as a disciple who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. She represents the gentile convert to Christianity who at the time inhabited the fringes of the early Christian communities. At the very time when Christian communities were debating the lot of the gentiles, Peter is called upon to raise this gentile convert from the dead.
To demonstrate her value to the community the townswomen showed Peter… (whose name literally means rock, indicating that he is the rock who will serve as the foundation of the church)……the women, show Peter, the fruits of Tabitha’s faith. In the various garments that she wove together, Peter sees all the evidence he needs. So, he tells everyone to go outside, then knells down and prays. Turning to the body, Peter said, “Tabitha, stand up.” And here the first hearers of this story would have heard the echo of an earlier story in which Jesus uttered the words, “Tilitha cum”. Which literally means “little girl stand up.” Just in case you’ve forgotten, the literal meaning of the word that gets translated into English as “resurrection” is the Greek word for “stand up”. Low and behold, Tabitha opens her eyes, (remind you of anything…it should…gazelles and eyes open…mean life! Divine life!)
With her eyes open, our text says Tabitha “sat up” but in the Greek the word is the same for as the word for “stand up” or ‘ to resurrect.” Divine life is restored to a gentile convert.
This story is not about the resurrection of an individual. It is about more than that. It is about the gift of DIVINE life being extended beyond the boundaries of Jewish religious life. Just in case you still don’t get it, the writer of Acts tells you in the last line of today’s lesson that, “Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.” Now in case you missed it, Simon was Peter’s name before Jesus gave him the name Peter. If you still don’t get it, this Simon is described as a leather tanner. Every self-respecting Jew would have known that contact with a leather tanner makes you ritually impure because tanning leather requires contact with corpses which is a no no if you’re an observant Jew.
The writer of Acts sets up his listeners for the next story, which describes Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and Peter’s dilemma about what the followers of Jesus can and cannot eat, and who they can and cannot eat with. Just in case you’ve forgotten Peter’s vision, suffice it to say that LOVE wins out in the end.
LOVE, antelope, gazelle, Tabitha, Dorcas, YAHWEH all intimately and divinely intertwined to reveal the very nature of our Creator who breaks all our boundaries; so that we can dwell in LOVE with all our neighbours.
That dear friends, is the more-than-literal truth about the raising of Tabitha. As for me, “I don’t know if this story actually happened this way, but I do know that it is absolutely true!” (Borg) God is LOVE and LOVE triumphs over boundaries. And as for little green men, well if you should happen to meet any, invite them in and break bread with them and let LOVE triumph over the boundaries of your imagination. Creation is a marvellous, wondrous thing, and just because you’ve haven’t yet encountered all of creation, doesn’t mean its not out their to discover.
Shalom, which by the way, literally and more-than-literally means peace!