Of Wild Grace and Swiftness
Indianapolis First Friends
Pastor Bob Henry
May 13, 2013
Acts 9:36-43 (MSG)
36-37 Down the road a way in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha, “Gazelle” in our language. She was well-known for doing good and helping out. During the time Peter was in the area she became sick and died. Her friends prepared her body for burial and put her in a cool room.
38-40 Some of the disciples had heard that Peter was visiting in nearby Lydda and sent two men to ask if he would be so kind as to come over. Peter got right up and went with them. They took him into the room where Tabitha’s body was laid out. Her old friends, most of them widows, were in the room mourning. They showed Peter pieces of clothing the Gazelle had made while she was with them. Peter put the widows all out of the room. He knelt and prayed. Then he spoke directly to the body: “Tabitha, get up.”
40-41 She opened her eyes. When she saw Peter, she sat up. He took her hand and helped her up. Then he called in the believers and widows, and presented her to them alive.
42-43 When this became known all over Joppa, many put their trust in the Master. Peter stayed on a long time in Joppa as a guest of Simon the Tanner.
I love that Eugene Peterson in his translation of the story of Tabitha takes us one step further and gives us the what Tabitha’s name actually means in her language. I think it brings a bigger picture to the story. Names have such meaning in the Bible. On “gotquestions.org” they point out that often when God changed a person’s name and gave him or her a new name, it was usually to establish a new identity.
God changed Abram’s "high father" name to “Abraham,” which now means "father of a multitude" and his wife’s name from “Sarai,” “my princess,” to “Sarah,” “mother of nations”. Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter meaning Rock – “a foundation to build on.” And the examples go on and on throughout scripture.
Our text for this morning, was not one of these type of name changes as I just explained. Instead the meaning of Tabitha’s name, I believe gives us a deeper meaning to the text. Like Adam meaning literally Earth Man or from the earth. Tabitha in our text has a Greek name – also known as – Dorcas.
Now, we can all understand, in our day, why she might want to change her name. But Dorcas was really a derivative of the Greek word Eudorcas – literally a species of gazelle.
Eugene Peterson points this out for some reason. Some may say it only confuses things. First it is Tabitha, then Dorcas, now Gazelle…this could get confusing.
Well, all this would not have even phased me or had me thinking any deeper, until a couple of summers ago. As the boys and I made our trek across the country to meet up with Sue for her father’s funeral, we took in a lot of America’s scenery – 8 states in three days.
And with that scenery came wildlife. As Alex and I took turns driving, I began spotting wildlife that I never noticed while focused on the road. Please understand, one of the reasons I love my wife is for her adventurous spirit. Often the boys roll their eyes as their mother has our family driving several miles out of our way just in hopes of seeing a wild animal that we have possibly never seen before (in Oregon it was always whales or elk). Yet, going across the country and through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons and all the terrain of the states between Oregon and Michigan we checked off a ton of new animals – from bears, to moose, to yes, gazelles.
The first gazelles we saw were along the road in Nebraska of all places. I believe it was a deer and gazelle wildlife park. At first, I thought they were just small deer, but the antlers and color patterns gave them away. We saw more while in Yellowstone, but most of the time when we got closer they were just mule deer.
I tried to take pictures of the gazelle, but they liked hiding in the tall grass. Often they were so still they looked like statues or sticks coming out of the ground with their distinct antlers. I remember watching them while Alex drove and remember them seeming almost so still they looked dead. Actually, if they were lying down with their heads low they looked like rocks or they just blended into the scenery. We probably saw many more, but never noticed them.
One website says that gazelles are considered to be an animal of “wild grace and swiftness.” At times they can seem statuesque with very little movement only to come alive and bound across the plains. This was my experience. As I watched, this seemingly lifeless animal would go from complete stillness to a full leap and all out run across the fields. It was with such grace and beauty. One minute seemingly dead and the next minute alive and full of vigor!
There could not be a better word to describe Tabitha – especially in our story for this morning.
Peter said, “Tabitha, get up!” You are no longer dead but alive to continue to do good and help out. Like a gazelle she goes from what seems complete death to aliveness. Tabitha experiences what I like to call the “resurrection life” in the present.
I don’t know about you, but I often catch myself kind of walking dead through life – and I so need a resurrection in the present moment.
Theologian NT Wright points out what this looks like for us. Often we are taught,
“…one day you will go to be with him [Jesus]” but he says, “No, you already possess life in him [Jesus]. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.”
Just like a gazelle bursts forth into wild grace swiftness.” Just like Tabitha as Peter asks her to “get up!”
So where is our hope of this “bursting forth” in our lives. Let’s look at Romans 8:9-11 (MSG).
9-11 But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
Tabitha the Gazelle experienced that in its fullest form. As Quakers we can understand this – we too would say the Spirit of Christ was still embodying her. She was known for embodying the Spirit of Christ and living it out in her life. Our text said she was well-known for doing good and helping out – living the life of Christ in her world.
And Peter calls out to that Spirit within her – even though she seemed physically dead – there was life in her. This is what we need to recognize in our world – that the resurrection life can awaken in anyone, it can burst forth from our dead lives, it can burst forth from dead institutions, it can burst forth from dead ways – because resurrection life – ALWAYS FINDS A WAY, folks!
Tabitha’s story is a picture of what we have to hope for – what we can look forward to in the present– what we as Quakers want to experience in our world.
NT Wright concludes that
“…all this relates directly to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:58:
“58 With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.”
…the resurrection means that what you do in the present, in working hard to bring hope, is not wasted. It is not in vain. It will be completed, will have its fulfillment, in God’s future.”
So you and I are called to live like Tabitha the Gazelle.
May we be well-known for doing good and helping out – living the resurrection life now – the Jesus way in our world.
Let’s not waste our lives, or our time, but rather work hard in the present.
Nothing should get in our way – not even death. But instead, we may actually find ourselves coming through the death experiences and finding ourselves getting up with wild grace and swiftness and fulfilling the resurrected life in the present moment!
First Friends, I believe we are on the verge of great things. God is calling to us to “GET UP, because WE ARE ALIVE!”
I want to close this morning with pondering the words of Eugene Peterson from his book “Living the Resurrection.” He says,
“In this resurrection-created world, we find ourselves as allies and companions to friends, bound to one another not out of need or liking or usefulness but because there are common operations taking place among and within us. We are part of something larger and other than ourselves that we cannot adequately be part of by ourselves.”
That something larger is the resurrection life God wants for us. To experience it we need each other. We need to, like Peter did for Tabitha, help each other get up and be presented as ALIVE.
Take a moment and look around this room. We each have been through a lot, we have experienced death in many forms, and for some we are experiencing it as we speak.
Yet, the query for today is…
How can you and I be allies, companions, and friends and help each other turn the death around us into life?
With wild grace and swiftness may we come alive to our world, TODAY!