Posted by: owizblog | February 4, 2013

Dorcas – Sermon, Kilbarchan East, 29th April 2007

Acts 9:36-43 , Revelation 7:9-17 , John 10:22-30

I’ll be honest – the story of the raising of Dorcas has, over the years, made me scratch my head a lot. Maybe it’s the same with you. But here’s a starting-place for us all. Whatever sense we might or might not think we can make of it, the crucial thing is to see what sense it makes of the stories of our lives.

We’ve spoken before, on Easter Sunday, about the distinction between resurrection and resuscitation. It’s a distinction that’s there in the stories of the Gospels, about Lazarus, and Jairus’ daughter, and the son of the widow from Nain, set over against the stories of Jesus after Easter. It’s basically the difference between a return to this life, and the inbreaking of a new life the likes of which we don’t have the language to describe.

What sense are we to make of the story of Dorcas? The first thing we need to say is that it’s a resuscitation-story. It’s the story of a bringing-back to life – this life – of a person who we’d say, and have said probably since the sixties, was “clinically dead”. And it’s a story set in a world in which concepts such as “clinically dead” have no meaning. It’s a story which falls oddly on the cusp of two worlds, because if someone from our time could meet someone from then, and we were to look together at this story, we’d agree that it’s a story about restoring to this life of someone who was dead, but they would come to it from a world in which that’s impossible, whereas we’d come to it from a world in which it is possible within limits, and that these limits are being rolled back and back. But we’d have to say that what’s proposed here is – well, we’d be driven to the kind of thing you’d hear said on Star Trek: “well beyond our technology…” The story makes it clear that there isn’t much of a distance between Lydda, where Peter happens to be, and Joppa, where Dorcas dies, but we still have to assume the passage of some hours.

We’d also have to say that the story looks a lot like those stories of Jesus raising the dead, in particular the story of Jairus’s daughter; you remember, the daughter of the “ruler of the Synagogue”:

When they came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, he saw a tumult, and people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Tal’itha cu’mi”; which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and walked (she was twelve years of age)…

There’s no laughter, of course, or derision, in the story of Dorcas – this is, after all, the Church at Joppa. But pretty much everything else is there. Even the Aramaic “Talitha, qumi…” – “little girl, get up!” – is echoed in the phrase using the Aramaic word for “gazelle”, which is the meaning of “Dorcas” in Greek: “Tabitha, qum…”

So why would a story be told in such a way that so carefully patterns it on a previous story? Why would Luke – who, as you know, also wrote Acts – do that? It’s interesting that when Luke tells the story of Jairus’ daughter, at the end of chapter eight, he leaves out the Aramaic bit, “talaitha qum(i)”, as though he were saving it up for here. (Though Matthew doesn’t use it either…) But still, pretty much anyone who had read that story in Luke would surely think “Hang on – this is familiar!” And anyone who reads it in Mark, and sees there the words “talaitha qumi” twigs instantly.

And likely, we’re meant to. Likely, what Luke is saying is that this power over death, which the Gospels show Jesus exercising during his ministry, points forward to the resurrection – and so, too, this incident attributed to the early Church, and its most authoritative leader, points back to the resurrection. Well, back, and forward too, because it’s to do with our hope. It’s saying: the power of death is broken, and this has something intimately to do with Jesus Christ.

But there’s something else, too. Something about the Church. Something that, for me, turns on this tiny little detail, which can’t be accidental in the composition and telling of the story.

All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.

We may keep our thoughts of, and ideas about, resurrection at the edges of life. But that’s not where death appears. Death breaks in where life is real, and touches us in the middle of life. We can keep death at the margins for long enough – but at some point, it breaks in and touches us at the centre of life, where life is lived.

But what the Gospels tell us is that that’s exactly where Jesus Christ was always to be found. Where life is real, where huge questions mesh with the business of just getting through each day and trying to make sense of things, where the real things of real life really do come apart, and we’re left just holding on to scraps of meaning, and wondering why they don’t make sense any more…

All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.

What else was there for them to do? This is real life, and real life has broken, and stopped. And become completely unreal for them, which is another thing that grief will do. All they can do is to hold on to bits of what used to be real; “tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”

And it’s into that reality that Peter steps.

And it’s in that reality – the shattered, stopped reality of death in the midst of life – that the Resurrection is made real for these people. Not at the edges of life, where it functions like a paid-up insurance policy “in case the worst happens”, but here at the center of life, where we have to face questions of meaning not as subjects for debate, but as rocks on which we can be shipwrecked. Resuscitation stands in for resurrection, to make the same point; living in a time where either is an impossibility for them, resuscitation – the coming-back- to-life – must seem like a big part of resurrection – the complete transformation of our living and dying by a life which is vastly more than anything we can know – and yet we do know it, or at least begin to, in Jesus Christ.

And the reason for that, the way in which we do begin to know and understand something of the meaning of resurrection, is to do with another aspect of this story of Dorcas. One word: relationships.

We have a long tradition, in the West, of understanding ourselves as – well, selves. I am me, and what’s important is what makes me me, before my existence ever connects up with yours. And all of that is somehow in me. The essence of me, what makes me really me, is something that belongs to me, and me only.

Now, thinking of myself like that crams this whole business of life, death and resurrection into a very particular perspective. We often hear people asking – we Ministers often get asked – “What happens to us when we die?” What that very often means is “What happens to me when I die?”

I’m not for a moment saying that these are unreasonable, or selfish, questions to ask. What I am saying is that maybe the story of Dorcas suggests that that isn’t the only, or best, or most helpful way of asking these questions. Or the way the Christian faith leads us to ask them.

Notice that the story of Dorcas starts with real people in real grief. Not asking abstract questions about life after death, but asking, as people do in situations like this, “What has happened?” “What happens now?” “What is there that’s still there, that I can cling on to?”

But notice, too, that these people are doing this in the context of a shared grief. They are together, remembering someone who was, up until very recently, one of them. They are hanging together, supporting each other, as best they can, as they come to terms with what they have all lost.

In other words, what you have here is a network of relationships. A broken network of relationships.

And doesn’t that suggest something? Isn’t a large part of what I am, of who I am, of what my self is, actually formed in relationships? Think about it. If I just was, just existed, all on my own, how could I ever be good, or loving? How could I be bad, and abusive? And what about the love I receive? How much of what I am is my response to the relationships in which I stand? A lot! And how could I even exist outside of relationships? Even Robinson Crusoe had to come from Lower Largo – or at least, Alexander Selkirk, the prototype Robinson Crusoe, did.

In this sense, death is a breaking of relationships. “Till death us do part…” Dorcas’s death is a breaking of relationships within the Church in Joppa. The network is disrupted – the web is torn. In fact you could say that death is a breaking, a disrupting, of relationships within the body, too – cell from cell, organ from organ. And it’s a disruption of a hugely significant relationship in what makes me me. My body is the way I relate to my self. Have you never patted yourself on the back, at least metaphorically, or beaten yourself about the head, sometimes literally? Who am I, without my body?

But isn’t that why the Christian faith has always spoken in the first place not about the immortality of the soul, but about the resurrection of the body? Isn’t the Christian hope to do with the mending, the healing, of broken relationships, beginning with our relationship with God? To speak of resurrection is to speak of the renewal, recreation, of a pattern of relationships. To speak of my resurrection is to speak of the renewal and recreation of the relationships in which I am me. Relationships with others and with God.

Paul saw this very clearly. That’s why, in I Corinthians 15, the chapter about death and resurrection, he speaks of the seed, with its scant life, dying and giving place to the new, vastly more complex life of the plant which grows from it. And so, he says, we need to be brought back into relationship with our selves as bodies – but as what he calls “spiritual” bodies, where there is both a continuity of relationship, and also something radically, astoundingly new.

The Gospels struggle after the same thing, talking of the Christ simply being there with his disciples, because doors can’t keep his risen body out – and yet the disciples recognize him – and this, of course, means that their relationship with him is renewed.

The story of Dorcas is told at a much simpler level. Again, it’s helpful to distinguish between resurrection and resuscitation. But it’s also the story of relationships being renewed; broken relationships within her body, so that she herself is “mended”, and then relationships between her and the community who were grieving for her, the Church, because she is “returned to them”.

But all of this is done on the basis of a relationship with God. And this is what’s interesting. We were talking about the similarities between Dorcas’s story and that of Jairus’s daughter. One big difference is this. According to Mark and Luke, Jesus says to Jairus “Do not fear – only believe!” Here there’s no reason for Peter to ask. Faith – which is essentially trust – is present. The faith of the Church – which is also Dorcas’s faith. On the basis of a relationship with God, all the other relationships are put back together.

Four verses in our Gospel reading today to which we haven’t paid much attention, say it so neatly:

My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.The Father and I are one.

And of course Paul says almost the exact same thing in the great eight chapter of Romans:

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We are set in a web of belonging, a network of relationships. Death is what threatens to destroy this web of belonging, to break in and separate, and sunder. That’s why we push it so far away in our minds, to the edges, the limits. But here in Church, in the very community of the Resurrection, we can dare think about these things. The experience of the Church is what is reflected in the story of Dorcas – where death breaks in and insists on its place at the centre, where it seems to threaten the disruption of everything that makes sense, there too, and far greater is the power of resurrection and life, the gentle, healing, mending power of God, which puts things back together, restores the relationships of all things, and overcomes death with the life – the living relationship with God – that can never die.


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