Easter 4: 17 April Acts 9:36-43
Peter is like Jesus and Jesus is like Elijah and like Elisha and all are like God: they raise the dead to life. Whatever history may lie behind the story in Acts, it certainly implies a claim to continuity. The language and detail of the Old Testament stories have helped shape the account here. Luke is probably drawing on older tradition. Was Dorcas/Tabitha a significant foundational leader in Joppa? Probably. Was there such a raising? There is no way of verifying this. Many remarkable things happened. This may have been one of them. It may be a legend related to the foundation of the Christian community at Joppa. This is more likely than that Luke has made it up afresh. A one-off event like this would impress hearers in the ancient world. Whether they expect that this would become a permanent element of Christian mission - a very useful one in any age - is doubtful. It would be left behind as a wonder for some to believe and others to allow to join the image of a golden age no longer relevant to every day life.
The framework of the story is worth noting. Luke explains that Dorcas was a very good person. For some she became the model woman, understood as a woman who did good works, engaged in charity, but not in leadership. The passage does not warrant that conclusion. It may however reflect Luke's values who seems almost to make a case that people who are helped deserve it. He adds similar good reports to the story of the centurion whose servant Jesus healed and similarly praises Cornelius in Acts 10. At the other end of the story is Simon the tanner, an occupation that according to some would make him something of an outsider. Both Jesus and the early Christian movement often found a following among outsiders and marginalised groups.
It is slightly unusual that the body was taken upstairs and laid out instead of being buried or placed in a tomb. Perhaps the story needed it to work. There needed to be time for Peter to come from Lydda. Luke wants to make sure that his hearers are sure that Dorcas really is dead. The echoes of Jesus' raising of the dead girl in Mark 5 are striking, not least in Jesus' works, "Talitha com" (Little girl arise), which sounds so much like "Tabitha, arise!"
Stories of raising the dead to extend their lives before they die at a later stage easily evoked notions of resurrection, though that was understood as more than temporary reprieve. They also symbolise hope. The good news is about bringing life where there is death, love where there is hate, healing where there is brokenness. The greater wonder today is when we can see people stand on their feet, communities make their way out of traps of poverty, enemies move towards reconciliation, despairing people finding meaning again. These are realities which take up the direction or flow of what would otherwise be legends left to the past. They invite us to take such stories as symbols of what is an abiding value and through them to find the hand of God in new beginnings today.
Gospel: Easter 4: 17 April John 10:22-30
Epistle: Easter 4: 17 April Revelation 7:9-17