Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/7r0AkQ7-XIs.
One of the great delights of the Easter season is the opportunity to read through the Acts of the Apostles- the story of what they did and how it all went in those early days of the resurrection, the early days of the body of Christ, which is the church. And in some ways they seem like a group of people very far removed from us and in some ways it seems as if we are still facing all the same struggles.
This story that we have read this morning is different to many of the others, which are stories of the proclamation of the gospel, in so far as it is a glimpse into the life of the church, and in particular one very notable woman.
“Now in Joppa there was a female disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that same time she became ill and died.”
So here is the first woman, and indeed the only woman to be designated a female disciple, a ‘disciplette’, it says in the Greek. She is bilingual and wealthy- how do I know that? Well, she is devoted to charitable works and she has an “upper room” which suggests a large and commodious house, which only someone of good standing has. The picture that we have built up is of a well educated, well to do, generous and Godly woman. Her name means “gazelle” so it is easy to imagine that she is beautiful as well- though some of us fail to live up to our names, don’t we? When Peter gets there he is confronted by a whole lot of women who want to tell him how kind and helpful she has been. She has already been laid out for burial when Peter prays for her. There is no reason given for her resuscitation except that as a result many believed in the Lord. It is also not explicit in the text that Peter raises her in the name of the Lord Jesus but that is explicit in the story that precedes this one. Why is this story recorded? Well, it tells us several interesting things. We first of all realise that people in the early church are a diverse bunch-they are male and female, they are rich and poor, they are Greek speaking and Hebrew speaking, and the honour done to this woman in Peter’s prayer and her subsequent healing is carrying on Jesus’ inclusive attitude. When Paul, writing to the Romans says that there is no male, nor female, no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, he is making explicit what is implicit in this story.
The criteria for being part of the flock is that of hearing the shepherd’s voice and responding to it, not on any of the criteria that normally mark out who is in and who is out. You can be rich or poor or somewhere in between, you can be Greek or Hebrew, or any other racial group, you can be male, female or intersex, you can be well educated or ignorant, if you are in relationship with the shepherd you have entered in to the resurrection. Dorcas entered in to the resurrection in a very particular way, but alive in her body, or not, she is alive in Christ. And you know, even though we are reading about her earthly life from two thousand years ago she is still alive in her resurrection being!
There is also the revelation that Jesus the Shepherd continues to look after his flock, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And not only does he look after the sheep he empowers and enlivens and uses us. The fact that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, to be our shepherd in a new way, in this new inclusive community, is the great lesson of the Acts of the Apostles.
This idea of inclusion is also apparent in the portion we read from Revelation. Did you like the picture of the great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages waving their palm branches and robed in white? Again the criterion is that they are in relationship with God, and community with each other.
And what does that relationship bring with it? Well, “The Lord is my shepherd, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul”. He feeds us, he guides us and he is with us even though we walk through the valley of death. One of the greatest fears of the human psyche is of being alone. There are certain of us, sitting in this room today for whom the fear of isolation, of loneliness and of not being included or wanted is a profound and controlling one, no matter how much it is resisted, I number myself among them. Others, due I believe to secure childhoods, are less prone to this fear, but most of us recognise it in some degree. The idea of being in relationship, of being united with God and with one another is the great promise of John’s Gospel. Jesus and the Father abide, dwell, tabernacle in each other. Physical location is irrelevant, and the valley of the shadow of death can be either literal or metaphorical. It can refer to the real and inexorable approach of mortality, or a far more esoteric death of hopes and ambitions, changes in circumstances, or a death of love. But our good shepherd is with us, and if we are in relationship with him, we know his voice. Sometimes the voice of the shepherd is heard clearly and particularly, other times it is found in the community, as it was in Acts. We are joined with God the trinity, and with one another, in the perichoretic dance, the great spinning whirl of creative force that gives life, both temporal and eternal. We are joined, never to be alone, which is not to say that we cannot experience solitude, but we are united with God, our shepherd in his great flock, or maybe in Australia, mob, of sheep.
This promise of eternal life is a promise for the present as well as the future. We are already resurrected, because we are already united with God and with each other. And the writer of the Psalm knew that, didn’t he? He speaks of present circumstances and the eternal banquet in the same breath.
So my question for you today is, of what are you afraid? Are you afraid of difference? Is the idea of people from every nation and every tongue, every social status and every sexual identity, being together in the kingdom that causes you to fear? Is it the fear that you are alone and unworthy of being part of the kingdom of God? Is it the fear of being unloved and unlovable? Is it the fear of life as we know it ending and the unknown beginning, or indeed nothingness beginning? The Lord is my shepherd and I will fear no evil.
This week the commentator Karoline Lewis said this, “Jesus as Good Shepherd promises protection, that the valleys of death and depression and despair are not travelled alone. That the shepherd really does protect his sheep. No one will snatch you away. No one. No thing.”
These are deeply consoling words to hear on this Good Shepherd Sunday. I want to encourage you to live with each other in community in the knowledge of this relationship. We are here today, all of us swept up in the great dance. Do you remember the Barn Dance? We are dancing together like that, meeting and functioning together, moving on and greeting another- all individuals, not very important and yet the dance cannot go on without us. You cannot have a barn dance with one or two couples. And for a Barn Dance you need a circle in which all the diversity, all the individual characteristics are celebrated and enjoyed because of the unity and relationship that we find in the dance. A circle with no end, a circle where no one is left out because it has ended too soon. In this great perichoretic dance of the Trinity we function with God for one another. We are in relationship with the great relational being that is God, but we are equally in the dance together.
In this congregation there are differences and difficulties, but we are called to be for one another, we are called into relationship. We are called to be the sheep together in the flock and the shepherd has promised us love and unity and peace. Let us enter into that relationship together.