Text: Acts 9:36-43
Bob Poerschke, as some of you know, was one of my major professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a member of this church. Bob is the person who opened a new world of theological thought for me. As a first year seminary student, in compassionate and caring ways, he challenged my understanding of God and scripture and faith. As I would, in my second year of seminary, become his teaching assistant and grader I was pushed even further to define more clearly my theological assumptions, or theological presuppositions as Bob called them. In particular, that first year of seminary, Bob challenged my view of God as a judgmental and vengeful God. Later, he also challenged my Christology. In the earlier years of my faith development, I was much more comfortable with Jesus’ humanity than I was talking of his divinity. In part, I believe, because I could better understand Jesus from the perspective of being a human being rather than a divine being. Jesus the human seemed real to me – someone that I could actually emulate. However, Jesus as the Christ – the concept of God’s divinity being a part of the human soul – was much more obscure and confusing to me. And even more daunting to me was considering that within me was a part of God’s divine nature.
For years, Bob and I had an ongoing conversation that went something like this: “Nancy, we are the Christ of our time. As God’s people today, we are no different than Jesus. We possess the same power and authority that he did. We can be the new Christ in our world.”
“But Bob,” I would say shaking my head, “I’m not sure about that. There’s something that doesn’t seem right about that kind of theology to me.” I know, that was not a highly sophisticated theological response but it was the best I could do at that time in my life.
For those of you who knew Bob, you know well that he could be “out there” with his thinking and, in particular, his theology. But if you spent much time with him, you also knew that his thinking and theology was grounded, not just in some off-the-wall thought process that had no merit or scriptural underpinning, but rather his theology was rooted in his own serious study of scripture and his personal faith convictions. We are the Christ of our time.
My sermon today is not to debate Bob’s theology, much less his Christology. However, based on our text from Acts, I do want to share how I have come to embrace the notion or idea that maybe Bob wasn’t so far off and that we are the Christ for our time. I want to explain how I understand the word “Christ” and how it is a part of our identity as people who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus.
There are two main characters in the story we have read from Acts 9 – Tabitha who we are told is devoted to good works and acts of charity; and Peter, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Tabitha seems to be an important person in the Christian community at Joppa. Her death affects the disciples so much that they send two men to bring Peter to her bedside. The writer of Acts calls Tabitha a disciple. She is the only woman in the Book of Acts who is identified as such. Tabitha’s value to the community, as we read in the story, comes from her good works and acts of charity. She is known for making clothes for the widows of her town. We don’t know whether Tabitha was a widow herself, or whether she’s always lived as the head of a large household, like Lydia, whose story comes a few chapters later. Maybe Tabitha, as Lydia did, had employees and servants living with her. Maybe she did not only sew for the poor, but also made clothes to sell. Maybe sewing was the job she made her living with. And from what she earned by selling to the rich and established, she could produce for free and give to the poor.
Tabitha was probably a member of the church in Joppa – a church equally lead by men and women. Traditionally, it was the role of the church to take care of widows and children. Widows in a patriarchal society were always depending on male support – brothers, uncles, and sons. They had no economic resources of their own. In Acts 6 we read that the early Christian communities had a practice of choosing seven leaders of good standing to organize the caring for the poor. In Joppa this was obviously Tabitha’s job. For whatever reason, she had been chosen as one of the stewards, or the treasurer, or the chair of the Missions and Outreach Council. We know from the story that she gave from her own means and played a significant role in caring for the poor.
It is no wonder that the widows were desperate when she died. We are told they wept. And later when Peter appears on the scene they show him all the beautiful clothes she had made for them when she was still alive. When Peter saw their sadness and the display of Tabitha’s good works, he couldn’t refuse to help. After Jesus’ death, Peter had discovered that he could perform the miracles, which, while he was still alive, Jesus had done. So the story tells us, that seeking peace and quiet Peter sends everyone out of the room. Once alone, Peter kneels down by the bedside of Tabitha and prays. After praying he speaks two words to Tabitha, “Get up.” Tabitha doesn’t immediately jump up as the scriptures report others do when healed. Instead, we are told, “she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up.” Peter gives her his hand and helps her up. He then calls for the others and shows them that Tabitha has come back to life. The story ends with this sentence, “This became known throughout Joppa and many believe in God.”
The raising of Tabitha parallels the raising of the widow’s son by Elijah, and the raising of the Shunemmite woman’s son by Elisha in the Hebrew Scriptures. For the Hebrew people, the reality of God’s Commonwealth for the people of Israel was evidence in God’s healing power applied to the poor. When the dead are raised and the widows rejoice, then has the kingdom come. This story in Acts is no different. It is a significant sign, which authenticates the ministry of Peter and the early church, in much the same way as the raising of the widow’s son by Elijah, the raising of the woman’s son by Elisha and the raising of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus. In scripture, the act of raising people from their dead places is the evidence of God’s Commonwealth here on earth. And so the question becomes for us, as one lectionary participant put it, “Who are the dead people and do we have the power to raise them?” Like Elijah and Elisha, and like Jesus and Peter do we believe that we are the Christ of our time? And do we believe that there is enough of God in us to bring life where there is death?
I want to be clear in what I am asking. I am not asking if we believe we have the power to physically raise someone from the dead. The answer to that is too easy and misses the point. And I am not suggesting that we take on a messianic complex – there are already too many people in the world playing that role. What I am asking is if we believe that within us resides God’s transforming power – that we, too, are both human and divine – and that within us resides the power of the living Christ. Do we believe, as Peter did, that such power has been bestowed upon us and that we possess the power to reach out our hands and help those who find themselves in dead places get up and return to life?
Earlier, I said that I wanted to explain how I understand the word “Christ.” This I know for sure, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It is not a title only given to a man crucified who rose from the dead thousands of years ago. I believe that “The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of humanity universally.” Therefore, I believe, that the word Christ defines those who believe that God resides in all humanity. The word Christ speaks to a purpose and an identity. We are not the crucified Christ – that was Jesus’ calling. But we are the living Christ. And throughout time, there have been men and women who have claimed that purpose and identity and who have raised the dead to life. The one line that has stuck with me from last week’s inspiring and provocative sermon by Dr. Gary Dorrien was when he was speaking of Martin Luther King and he said of Dr. King, “He was the Christ of our time.” In that moment I heard Bob Poerschke’s voice, “Nancy, we are the Christ of our time. As people of faith today, we possess the same power and authority to raise people from their dead places.” The question is, “Do we believe we have the power to raise people from the dead? Will we own and claim our divinity as fully as we do our humanity? Do we have the courage to reach out our hands to people who are dying or dead and help them up?
There are so many Tabitha’s in our world today. She is everywhere. She is the immigrant and the refugee who are traveling down a dead end road in this country from our lack of acceptance and compassion. She is the child living in poverty who is failing school. She is the brown skinned young man who is sitting in prison simply because his skin is brown. She is the single mother who can’t pay her light bill because our nation refuses to pay a living wage to the working poor. She is the mentally ill man who comes to our back door every week because our state has slashed community resources for people with mental illness. Tabitha is everywhere we look these days. And the question her story asks us is, “Will we have the courage to be the Christ for our time?”
I know of no other reason for the church to exist than for the purpose of being Christ in the world – and what I mean by that is that our purpose and identity is defined by how much we are willing to risk to live into the fullness of both our humanity and our divinity. With humility and without any sense of ego, we must believe that through God we have the power to raise up life where there is death – to be the Christ of our time. The Commonwealth of God is still evidenced in God’s healing power applied to the poor by people who are willing to be Christ for our time.
The Tabitha’s of the world are crying out to us, “Come to us without delay.”