There is a story in the lectionary, this coming Sunday, which is set in Joppa, the Greek name for the town named Jaffa in Arabic. We know this place, today, as the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, a large and growing port city in modern Israel, a city with a vibrant multi-cultural and multi-religious life. Tel Aviv-Jaffa is also the place where most nations base their embassies to the country of Israel.
This story in Acts, set in the port town of Joppa, sits within the season of Easter and recounts a resurrection, told along the lines of the way that the resurrection of Jesus is told. Tabitha, the woman in the story, becomes ill and dies. There is no doubt about this; she is dead.
As the story proceeds, the apostle Peter commands Tabitha to rise; and then, “she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.” (Acts 9:40-41) There is also no doubt, that the one who was dead, is now alive.
As a result, Luke informs us, “this became known throughout Joppa, and
many believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:43). What happened was striking, noteworthy, remarkable—miraculous!
The flow of the narrative is the same as what we read in the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, moving from death, to life. We have this story in our readings during the season of Easter, to help us maintain our focus on the resurrection, and to invite us to consider how the story of new life shapes our life of discipleship.
As Jesus died and was raised, as Tabitha died and was raised, so we are called to move from death to life within our own discipleship. The paradigm which is provided by the death and resurrection of Jesus provides a model for the way that we are to be, as disciples of Jesus in our own time. And this might very well be how “many believe in the Lord” in our own time.
In addition to this dynamic, there are other features of the story which are worth noting. Tabitha, or Dorcas, is noted as a woman “full of good works and acts of charity” (9:36). The array clothing that she produced is noted (9:39).
Alongside Tabitha, significant women in Acts are presented as positive models of faithfulness and who were leaders in the early Jesus movement. These include Lydia in Philippi, who provides hospitality to Paul and his companions (16:15); Priscilla, who with her husband, Aquila, teaches Apollos in Ephesus (18:26); and the four female prophets in Caesarea (21:9). Each of these women demonstrate faithful discipleship and exercise a leadership role in the early church.
Tabitha, or Dorcas, was a well-to-do woman, with her own business. She is one of a number of people who are located towards the apex of the social pyramid, who appear as believers in Acts. Converts to the movement included “devout women of high standing” in Antioch (Acts 13:50), “not a few leading women” in Thessalonica (17:4), “not a few Greek women of high standing” in Beroea (17:12) and Damaris in Athens (17:34). Luke attests to the equality and mutuality of gender roles in leadership within the early Jesus movement.
Communities of believers met in the houses of people of means, both unnamed individuals (2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 20:20; 21:4,7) and some identified individuals: Simon the tanner in Joppa (10:5–6, 32), Cornelius in Caesarea (10:24, 48; 11:12), Mary in Jerusalem (12:12), Lydia in Philippi (16:14–15), the gaoler in Philippi (16:29–34), Titius Justus in Corinth (18:7), Philip in Caesarea (21:8, 10), and Mnason in a village near Jerusalem (21:16). Tyrannus provides Paul with the use of his lecture room in Ephesus (19:9).
These high-status believers demonstrated the centrality of economic justice in the message preached by Jesus, and lived by the early faith communities. Jesus taught his followers to sell all their possessions (Luke 12:33, repeated at 18:22). The Jerusalem community put this command of Jesus into practice (Acts 4:32–35). Members of the community “had everything in common” (4:32)—they sold their lands and houses and pooled the money thus gained (2:44–45; 4:34).
Joseph Barnabas provides a positive example of this practice (4:36–37); Ananias and Sapphira provide the negative example, warning of what happens when this practice was ignored (5:1–11). The means of the wealthy are to be put at the disposal of the poor. Economic justice is to be enacted through such table fellowship.
As Luke narrates his Gospel, it is at the table that he earths the reality of inclusive Christian community; this provides the groundwork for establishing inclusive communities of faithful people across the Mediterranean basin … and beyond, as the good news spreads.
The Lukan story indicates that people of all levels in the social hierarchy, from rich to poor, were welcome at the tables of generous Christian hosts. And that picture of economic responsibility and of inclusive hospitality is a fine model for us to remember, and emulate, in our time!