Today our first reading (Acts 9:36-43) requires a geography lesson and a recap, or more to the point a fill-in. Last week we were with Saul on his journey to Damascus and today we have jumped to Peter in Lydda. Lydda is a regional centre, about 25 miles north west of Jerusalem on the road to the port of Joppa, which served as the main port for Jerusalem. Joppa is a further 11 miles west. Lydda is on the crossroads between two main routes, one going east-west from Jerusalem to Joppa on the coast, and the other going north-south between Syria and Egypt. It is then a major place, one where travellers meet and as with all marketplaces and intersections it is a place to exchange news and ideas as well as goods. So Peter is far from hiding, he has gone to a major place where he can’t help being noticed. These disciples are not keeping quiet as they had been instructed to do and are doing anything but keeping their heads down.
That brazen ‘out and loud’ approach is significant. Earlier in Acts (5:17-42) we hear of Peter being arrested and put in prison. Prisons in the first century were more like being on remand than a sentence or punishment in themselves. They were the place you were held until it was decided what to do with you. There were no provisions, so friends and relatives would need to bring you whatever was needed including food. This sheds a rather different light on Jesus’ teaching “when I was in prison you visited me”, you cared for those in a desperate plight. Prison could well have led to a death sentence. The charge would have been a serious one. The Roman cultic worship was obligatory and the Jewish faith had an exemption so if the disciples were charged with being outside this exemption and speaking against the cultic religion the sentence could easily be death. This pops up time and again in Acts. Paul spends long periods in prison with the threat of death over his head. A number of his letters were written from prison, which rather gives them an edge.
Acts describes a miraculous escape. Peter is freed by a visitor, a messenger from God, whom it calls an angel. A visitor is not unusual, because that’s how you get fed, so who knows what actually happened. He is freed and despite having been told not to speak, and even flogged to try to shut him up, he is found in the market place proclaiming his faith in Jesus Christ at the top of his voice. After this he travels, going ‘here and there’, as Acts describes it, and finds his way to Lydda. Again no hiding place, not a quiet backwater where he can keep his head down. These disciples are being defiant and confrontational. Why? Because they believe the message they have is so life changing that it can’t be kept quiet. It just has to be told and the best way to spread news is to go to the main east-west north-south crossroads. Today it would be posted on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and they would do something to get on the main evening news. They want this message to go viral.
Shortly after Peter arrives at Lydda, he makes news by healing a man named Aeneas, who has been bedridden for 8 years (Acts 9:32-35). His message is clear and evangelistic, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you”, and with that he gets up and makes his bed. This causes a wave of conversions. People see what has happened and are impressed.
Our reading this morning picked up the story as news arrived that a much-loved saint of Joppa had died (Acts 9:36-43). Tabitha seems to have been a skilled seamstress and as people do when a talented person dies they treasure their work. Someone who has worked wood, embroidered tapestries and fine needle point, knitted jumpers and scarves, even tea pot covers, these all go on display and link us to the one who has died. A number of years ago I took the funeral of young animator and when I visited his widow she showed me films he had made. It was his life on display and being treasured. Peter decides to travel the 11 miles to visit. Given how quickly funerals and burials happen in hot climates, this seems to happen very quickly, possibly the same day. If they set off straight away, the turn around at 3 miles an hour is about 8 hours.
What happens next is reminiscent of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. Just as Jesus calls “Lazarus, come out” as he stands at the opening to the tomb (John 11), so Peter says “Tabitha, get up”. Unlike the healing of Aeneas, he doesn’t bother with invoking the name of Jesus. As Jesus did, so his disciples are to do. As he said in our gospel reading: “My sheet hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) They show that they are his Apostles, sent by him, and that his message has credence by doing what he did.
That’s quite a challenge. I can take the implied call not to hide our light under a tub, to quote Jesus. We are to be people who will give an account of the light and hope that is inside us. If we don’t no one will know why we do what we do and so it will be a witness to nothing other than being nice (assuming we are being nice that is). And while Christianity is supposed to make us live graciously and generously, welcoming all with the love of Christ, as I’ve written in the newsletter this time, it is because this displays the light and hope we have in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead; it springs from this life and love, faith and hope. It is not just ‘niceness’. Anglicans are not known for the exuberance of their witness and talking about Jesus as the light within them. It’s a bit of a seat shuffler, being asked to do that. But developing a few natural phrases wouldn’t hurt to make this go viral.
So if we struggle a bit with giving an account of the light, healing the bedridden let alone raising the dead is going to take us to another level. And I don’t know of any occasion when I’ve raised the dead or healed the sick. I’ve blessed people who were dying and some have duly died, hopefully with a sense of peace, but some have recovered – dramatically. I’m too much of a liberal sceptic to claim the credit or even attribute it. So these are passages that make me scratch my head.
There is a film, called ‘Breakthrough’, being advertised in the cinema at the moment. We saw a trailer for it last Sunday evening while at the Showcase. It is about a 14 year-old teenage boy from Missouri who falls through the ice on a river and seems to drown. He goes into a coma with no pulse for 45 minutes. Everyone is encouraged to pray for him and he recovers. It claims to be a true story. The film has clearly been made as an evangelistic tool, but I’m left shuffling in my seat, uneasily slurping on my drink and eating popcorn, with full sceptical alarm bells going off in my head. How much of this has a natural explanation? What has really gone on here? The factors in his favour seem to have been the quick and skilled response of the medical team and that it was a cold water drowning. Here the physiological response to the shock, the bradycardic response, causes blood vessels to constrict, the heart to slow down and divert blood to vital organs that need it more. The brain cooling so quickly can also make it more likely to survive. Who knows what condition Tabitha was in as she lay assumed to be dead in Joppa in our first reading.
The word miracle means a marvelous occurrence that triggers faith. The world itself is such a marvel. Medical science is awe-inspiring. So I’m not looking for proofs, it is after all, as Jesus taught, a Godless and faithless generation that looks for signs. Rather I see those signs all around each day, and each day we are called to live as people who bring life wherever there is death or life is being sapped. That might be in aid, as with Christian Aid Week – which begins today, in the politics of hope and justice – as we call for in an election. It could be in the countless ways we bless and heal, comfort and show the love of Christ. Life is brought in the way we affirm God’s goodness in and through these wonders. Whatever it is, the call that comes out from Peter is to be prepared to give an account of the light and hope in us and proclaim the overarching sovereignty of God. This is God’s world, our life comes from God and we live it for God. That is the message we need to make go viral, by whatever means. God is good, the world is awesome, and in Jesus Christ life is sacred in his sight.
Sermon for Easter 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th May 2019