Monday, April 18, 2016

Alive in Christ

Alive in Christ
Acts 9:36-43
April 17, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Last week, we began a series on the book of Acts, a series which will continue until we celebrate Pentecost on May 15. You heard about a change of plan for a fellow named Saul, a sudden and radical event that changed Saul from a persecutor of Christians to a missionary of the gospel. The Book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, describes for us the events of the early church.The Christians of the first century were still working out what that meant, to be Christian. The events of that time – the healings, the missionary journeys of Paul, the Jerusalem council, the travels of the apostles,
and the response to their message – shaped how they understood the message of Jesus.

The Acts of the Apostles depict for us a community of faith whose identity is being shaped as the community forms.There was no Book of Order, no precedent, no plan. This is on the job training, for everyone in those early Christian communities. As their identity was formed, as they told the stories
and described the miracles and talked over what it all meant, the identity of the church was also being formed. In Acts, we read about the development of the church we now know – its confessions, its community, its convictions and its conflicts. In short, the stories in the book of Acts tell us who we are.

The story we will hear today is crucial for several reasons. First, it tells of a miraculous healing – actually, a resuscitation – by Peter, of an early Christian disciple, a woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha.
Second, it gives us a sense of the closely connected community of the house congregations that made up the church. Third, it shows us that from the very outset, women played an enormously significant role in the church. Finally, we see a portrait of faith.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Acts 9:36-43:
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” 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. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

It has been said that the book of Acts 
“weaves together different narrative strands 
of the church’s mission to the end of the earth. 
If Peter’s story is the warp of Acts, then Paul’s is its weft.” 
(New Interpreter's Commentary on the Book of Acts) 

Both men are crucial to the development of the early church, 
and while they operate in different places, 
they do so with the same authority and power.

So as Saul heads of into his future as the Apostle Paul,
the story turns to Peter’s mission beyond Jerusalem.
As we looked at this text in Bible study, the question arose
whether Peter or the other apostles raised anyone else from the dead?
I looked into it, and found only one other instance
of a miraculous resuscitation, also in the book of Acts, by the Apostle Paul.
That is the story of Eutychus, an unfortunate young believer
who fell to his death from a third story window.
Eutychus was attending an evening church meeting in a house church,
and Paul’s sermon was so long that he fell asleep and fell out the window.
Paul brought poor dear Eutychus back to life, a talent I do not have.
This is why we modern pastors keep a close eye on sermon length…

Okay, back to Dorcas.

She was, clearly, a valued member of the church,
the only woman named as a disciple in the New Testament,
an active and vital force for ministry in the church of Joppa.
I used this text yesterday as we laid our beloved Nonis to rest.

We know what they were feeling, don’t we?
They couldn’t believe Dorcas was gone.
She touched lives. She ministered to people. She cared for the poor.
She listened to people, listened intently as they shared their sorrows,
laughed with them when they told a cute story
about their children or grandchildren.

What were they going to do without her?

We suffer from the same sadness and anxiety today,
in this church and in THE church,
as the beloved older generation passes away
and we do not see the younger disciples that are going to replace them.
You can see it right here, in our own congregation –
fewer people, fewer resources, a deficit budget…We can’t ignore it.

For years, Christian churches have thrived
on the reliable and generous members who bring their gifts,
who share their talents,
who give of themselves in every way possible.
And the simple fact is that every church, pretty much,
has fewer and fewer of those disciples.
In our own case, the challenge is compounded by a history
of relying on income from our endowment to make up the annual deficit.
With interest rates in the fractions of a single digit,
that income is no longer coming in.
We can’t touch the principle,
so even though we have half a million dollars on the balance sheet,
we are already running a deficit for the first quarter of this year.

So what do we do?

Do we fire the preacher and let whoever is left take turns preaching?
Do we quit repairing the building or mowing the lawn,
kick out all the community groups, cut expenses to the bone,
auction off the communion ware on e-bay, sell the organ and all the pianos,
and just keep coming here for one hour a week until the last funeral?

In other words, do we direct all our energy to self-preservation?
Do we declare that the church, or this congregation,
is on its deathbed, and lay it out for burial?

Or do we believe in resurrection?
I think we do!

Friends, I submit to you today, on this fourth Sunday of Easter,
that the fact that we are here, week after week,
is evidence of the truth of resurrection.
God is not finished with us yet,
and we have not yet finished the work that Jesus called us to do
in this community, as his disciples.
I don’t know what all the answers are going to turn out to be,
but we are called, as followers of Jesus, to get up, and keep going.
Dorcas was a disciple.
Her friends, the widow ladies, and all the saints, men and women,
were devastated, grieving at their loss.
Dorcas lay dead, and they sent for Peter.
The weeping women showed Peter the tunics and robes,
the prayer blankets and baby layettes, the scarves and shawls she had made.
Peter saw the amazing ministry she was doing,
the way she, as a disciple, was leading them in mission,
and he said, “Nope. Not dead yet. Get up.
You are not done yet!”

And what happened?
“This became known throughout Joppa,
and many believed in the Lord.”

I can promise you that God is not going to let the church die.
Whether or not our congregation continues for another 170 years,
whether or not the church of the future
looks anything like the church of today,
Christ is not going to permit his church to waste away
or languish, barely breathing, on life support.

We are alive in Christ – it is who we are!
We DO believe in resurrection.
We are raised to new life, to a new life as disciples.

Because this is who we are – you can see it by what we do.
We are, like Dorcas, people who perform acts of mercy
and acts of caring and acts of ministry
every single day.

Yesterday I shared a story that Nonis told me years ago.
She said that when she was a little girl she was at church –
I don’t know if it was at Vacation Bible School, or at her Sunday School –
the minister called her to the front of the church,
stood her on a stool so that everyone could see her.
He pointed to Nonis and said to everyone, “This is a disciple.”
She was a disciple. And so are we all.

Just as Peter, through the power of God, called Dorcas back to life,
Christ is raising the church to life,
saying “Get up! You are not dead yet! There is still much to do!
We are alive in Christ, called to new life, and new ways of living
to ministry and mission, perhaps in ways we have not imagined,
with people we have not yet met,
with resources we have yet to recognize.

And this will become known throughout Sterling,
and many will believe in the Lord,
and they, too, will be alive in Christ.
Thanks be to God!


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