Acts 9: 31 – 43; John 10: 22 – 30
George Bernard Shaw said of Charles Dickens’ notable novel, Great Expectations, “All of one piece and consistently truthful.” Great Expectations is the story of the growth and development of the orphan, Pip. Through all the misery and suffering, Pip endures and good triumphs over evil. The theme of good defeating evil connects with us. I believe hope and expectation are essential to our being.
Our readings address the tensions in the early stages of the Christian Church. All was not plain sailing. Storm clouds surrounded the followers of Jesus. Persecution on the one hand and natural sickness struck the Church. Disappointment and failure touched the early Church; sickness and death touched the Christians in Joppa west of Jerusalem. When a significant disciple died the church sent for Peter! They had great expectations of him.
First a little bit of background. After Pentecost and the initial miraculous expansion of the followers of Christ Jesus they were persecuted. The main persecutor of the Church was Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul. During this time many Christians left Jerusalem because of the persecution. After things had settled down and the persecution fizzled out Peter, the leading disciple, went on a pastoral visitation of the Church. Our reading today finds Peter in the region of Lydda and Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. Here two healings take place: the healing of Aeneas and Tabitha. Now Tabitha’s name means gazelle in Hebrew and in Greek dorcas. In this story the woman who dies is called by both her names – Tabitha and Dorcas. We are provided with quite a lot of information about her healing. We are told that Tabitha was a respected Christian who made clothes and was generous with her wealth and talents using them to look after the less fortunate. Tabitha is the first female to be described as a disciple of Jesus. She was an example to others [Acts 9:36]. She was a leader. We are told that Peter was summoned. Two men were sent to summon Peter to Joppa. Tabitha had died. He arrived and listened to the story about Tabitha and was shown her handiwork. He then asked all to leave the room and he prayed. Then Peter turned to Tabitha’s body and commands; “Tabitha, get up!’ Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up and Peter took her by the hand.
We might remember the healing of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel account Jesus was approached by one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus [Mk 5: 22]. Jairus’ daughter was sick. Jesus went with Jairus but on the way he was met by Jairus’ servants who reported that the child had died. But Jesus said she was merely asleep. Jesus went on. On arrival he entered the child’s room, prayed and then commanded her saying; ‘Talitha, get up.’ [Mk 5:41] We can see a number of parallels between the healing of Tabitha and Talitha. I want to suggest that Peter was modeling his ministry on the ministry of Jesus. That is a natural thing to do.
The miraculous healings in Acts are important. (By the way the word miracle describes an extraordinary event that is not explained by rational or scientific laws.)
1) The healing of Tabitha and Aeneas were for the growth of the Church. I say that because they were public healings and they blessed others.
2) These miraculous healings led to others following Christ Jesus.
3) The healings were the work of the Holy Spirit not Peter.
4) The Christians had high expectations of their leaders.
5) Peter is obedient to the call of the Church.
6) The Lord is the director and healer here, not Peter.
The Jews that surrounded Jesus in the Temple had great expectations too. They were expecting God to send a Messiah/Christ figure who would drive out the Romans from Judea. Their question as to how long Jesus would keep them in suspense has possibly two meanings. It could be that there were Jews who genuinely wanted Jesus to confirm who he was so they could finally decide; and there were those who wanted to trap him into claiming to be the Messiah. Those genuinely wanting to know whether Jesus was or was not the Christ were hoping and expecting the Christ. Those who wanted to trap Jesus were also expecting the Christ, but they saw Jesus as a false Christ.
Jesus answered them; “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [Jn 10:25,26] Jesus’ answer reminds us that we know through faith not simply through some physical demonstration or reasoning of the mind. It is the eyes filled with faith that see and understand. Strangely this is not some irrelevant spiritual truth to scientific humankind. It is a practical reality. In everyday life we see and understand because we have a belief about the things we look at. We see what we expect to see. Our knowing is influenced by our believing and vice versa.
The first great miracle of the Jesus-movement was that people came to see that Jesus is the ultimate revealer of God. The miracle included seeing the truth that love leads to freedom and the truth sets us free. The miracle was that people found that the gentle way of Jesus – love – was the answer. The miracle was that they saw that being in Jesus’ company was where God’s kingdom is.
The presence of God is a powerful liberating feeling. It was only the other day that someone shared with me how wonderful it was that through all their major decisions in life they had experienced God’s presence. They told me that with great sensitivity and meaning. I was deeply moved by their brief but powerful testimony. This is what David was expressing in psalm 23; the Lord’s my shepherd I will not want. Such experiences are miracles too.
The miracles in the Church have encouraged faith and expectation. But today our Christian life is so tame and we expect so little. For example in the devotional aid, Love to the World, the author’s interpretation of the miracles of healing is very different from mine. I sense that the author does not accept that the miracles took place as told in the Scripture. The reality is that if we do not expect great things from God we may fail to see the great things God does. I sense that many in the Church no longer believe that God can miraculously answer our prayers and change things. If we have no expectations of God we will not see much and possibly doubt what does happen. In each of these instances in Scripture prayer was at the foundation of the dynamic change. I would encourage us to pray expectantly and look for God’s actions.
Let me tell you a story. I might have told you this before, but it is worth telling again. I was a young minister and one of the members was suffering with blood in her urine. Her kidneys were enlarged. They had been X-rayed. She asked for prayer. I prepared and found a suitable passage of Scripture – some verses from the first chapter of Mark. I went to visit her about 5 p.m. on a Monday. I gathered her family and read Mk 1: 29ff and then prayed laying hands on her head. I noted that during that prayer her body ‘jumped’. There was no reason for the sudden movement. Afterwards I went home had my tea and went to shower before going to an evening meeting. While I was in the shower Gillian came to me saying that Dallas, the woman for whom I had prayed, had phoned and reported that she had stopped passing blood. I thanked God, but I then thought – forgive me I was brought up in a very chauvinistic culture and am a critical thinker – women do exaggerate! I’m embarrassed by what I thought, but I must confess it.
Well the next day she went to her doctor. He seemed surprised at the turn around. She was x-rayed again and her kidneys had returned to their normal size. He asked her what had happened. She told him of the prayers for healing. His response was telling. She was on medication. One could expect that the medication had finally worked, but the doctor seemed surprised at the speedy result. When Dallas had finished telling him of the prayer for healing and the immediate effect she experienced, he knelt down with her in his surgery and thanked God.
It was not the only time I have seen things change so suddenly and our usual explanations do not stand up. At times like that I sense I’m in the realm of miracle.
I pray that God the Holy Spirit may encourage us to have greater expectations of our Lord God than we might have now.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 12/05/2019