This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.
Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30
In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter. But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication. Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE. The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE. In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter. “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot. So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not? That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?” And what does Jesus respond? He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe. So what does that mean in the context of this story? Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening. Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, 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. Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”. If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.
This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect. And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say. He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer. Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father. Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united. For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying. Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!
I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda? How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara? What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years? Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow? Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?
When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship. In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity. Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made. Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics. It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others. This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.
But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here. He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women. That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all. No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss. Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname. So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room. See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house. And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43. Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers. I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house? How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar? Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there? We aren’t told, but I can guess. Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited? Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing. No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done. Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next. This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.
And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary. So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.
Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23. How? How? How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3. There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak. Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red. Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust. This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.
Look, it won’t always be nice. Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss. These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either. Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy. Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death. Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead. And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back. For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream. But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.
There is no need to fight. Trust, acknowledge, rest.