Last week we heard the call story of the apostle Paul and how Jesus re-commissioned the disciples in a post-resurrection appearance. That story ended with a conversation between Jesus and Peter. When Jesus was arrested, and Peter was asked if he was one of his followers, Peter denied even knowing him. He did this three times, as Jesus had predicted he would. Peter was deeply ashamed. At that post-resurrection appearance by the Lake of Galilee, Jesus questioned Peter three times, “do you love me?” Peter did not understand at first, even becoming a little hurt that Jesus kept repeating the question, but Jesus was absolving Peter of his guilt over the three denials. All of the disciples were called to special tasks of ministry, but God had something special in mind for Peter. Each time Peter confessed his love for Jesus, he was told “feed my sheep” and “tend my sheep.” Jesus often said “I am the good shepherd who takes care of the sheep,” and now that he was leaving the earth he commissioned Peter to follow in his footsteps and be the “chief” shepherd to the believers.
We are reminded of Jesus’ role as the good shepherd in our gospel lesson for today. A group of people were trying to get him to say he is the Messiah – so that they can have him arrested for blasphemy. He responded to them that he is the shepherd and it obvious that they are not his sheep, because they do not hear, understand or respond to what he is saying, as sheep do to their shepherd. Experiences like that made Jesus aware that he had to commission someone to lead his followers after he was no longer physically present with them. He chose Peter, and our first lesson offers one example of how Peter fulfilled the commission he was given to become the leader of the flock of believers.
The stories in Acts reveal quite a bit about very early church history. The good news had spread as far west as Joppa and Lydda and as far north as Damascus in Syria. There were established faith communities in each place. It was one of the central commands in Judaism that the widows were to be taken care of so it is not surprising that the followers of Jesus obeyed that command. Widows were often very poor, sometimes forced to beg on the streets. But the followers of “The Way,” as the first Christians were known, carried it farther, by giving them an important way to participate in the ministry. In order to survive, widows often lived together and combined their meager resources. By providing them with the necessary resources, the early church encouraged the women to also combine their efforts to care for those in need. We are told that as faithful followers of Christ they were devoted to “good works and acts of charity.”
One of the things they did was to make clothing for the poor. When Tabitha, whose Greek name was Dorcas, died, the other women displayed the many things she had made to give to the poor. Years ago there were groups in congregations known as “Dorcas Circles” who did good works, often including making and gathering clothing for those in need. Today we have women following in their footsteps, making quilts for Lutheran World Relief to distribute to desperately poor people. They are carrying on a tradition that goes back to the first century immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ.
We do not know much about this woman Tabitha who was a faithful follower of the risen Jesus. Although many of the women in the groups of widows were poor, Tabitha may have had more resources than others. In the original Greek it is implied that she performed her acts of charity from her own means. Another possible clue is in the place where she died. Not many homes had upper rooms, certainly not those of the poor. If that was her home, she was a person of means. One thing we do know, she is the only woman directly given the title of “disciple” in the New Testament. Other women were called followers, using other words, but only she was given the title of disciple that was used for the twelve disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. The Greek word is mathetria, indicating a female disciple. We are told that she was a person who willingly gave of herself to help others in need.
The way Luke tells the story, it seems as though Peter responded to the request from the people of Joppa, the community that Tabitha came from, with great ease. He did not question what they expected of him, and responded immediately. All of Peter’s actions mirror the story when Jesus was asked to raise the little girl who had died. He put the onlookers out of the room and said to her “Talitha, cum!” That is, “little girl, get up.” Peter was one of the few disciples who had been permitted to witness that and many other such acts of Jesus during his ministry. He probably did not realize it at the time, but Jesus was setting an example for him, demonstrating exactly what Peter was going to be called to do in the future. Peter also asked everyone to leave the room, knelt down and prayed and then said to her, “Tabitha, get up!”
This story is but one example of how Peter responded to the re-commissioning by Jesus to be the shepherd of the rapidly expanding group of believers. He listened to the people who came to him for help, he responded immediately and followed the example that Jesus had set for him. This took place in the early days of his ministry, as he began to fulfill the daunting commission that Jesus had given him. Peter’s faith in the words of Jesus enabled him to do things, like the resuscitation of Tabitha, that he could not possible have done on his own.
Obviously circumstances in the early church were very different from our experience of church today. How do we emulate people like Peter and Tabitha? Sometimes it is our young people who offer the best examples of such commitment. One of the Channel 12 scholar athletes this year is an outstanding young woman, Charlotte Campbell – called “Charlie” by her friends – who is a senior at St. Anthony’s High School. She has been a star goalie at lacrosse for four years and she has a 97% unweighted scholastic average. She has a beautiful voice and sings in Honors Chorus, among other accomplishments. But what makes her stand out among her teachers and peers is that she is always ready and willing to help others. She aspires to become a trauma surgeon in the United States Navy because she wants to serve her country while healing the injured and sick. Even though she is so busy with her many activities, she is always willing to help other students with their studies. She says that even though she is tired from all her activities, she believes that we should never be too tired to lend a helping hand.
The Bible offers plenty of people who are very inspiring. But sometimes it helps to have more contemporary role models. When we are feeling depressed because it seems as though people don’t care, or when we are trying to discern our call in life, we can look for inspiration right around us, in people like Charlotte Campbell, a young person who leads an exemplary life. Their stories will help to restore our optimism, our faith and our trust in God, and they will inspire us to fulfill the tasks to which we have been called. Amen.