Believe It or Not
A sermon on Acts 9:36-43 by Nathan Nettleton, 7 May 1995
Resurrection keeps happening despite our inability to believe.
This morning I took my dogs for a walk and as I went round the corner at the bottom of the street, a large spaceship landed in the middle of Malvern Road. A couple of little green creatures with eyes on stalks got out, took some photographs and then flew back off into the galaxy.
You don't believe me, do you? You think that I'm making a joke of some sort, or possibly that I've been overworking and I've lost the plot. There is probably nothing I could say that would convince you that it had happened, even if it had. And that's OK because it didn't.
But it is interesting that you couldn't bring yourself to believe me, and yet if I stand up here and say that a bloke was dead and buried for a few days days, but then he came back to life again, nobody says I've lost the plot. For some reason you'll believe that one.
This morning we are going to think a bit about what we will and won't believe and how we deal with the stories in the Bible that, if they were anywhere else but the Bible, we wouldn't believe because they have little or no connection with anything we have ever experienced.
The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn't believe if it wasn't in the Bible. We've never known anyone to be seriously dead and then come back to life and we would never expect it to happen. When that bloke up in Horsham thought his wife would come back to life at the funeral, most of us thought he was a bit deluded. Or a lot deluded. Most of us would not seriously think of praying for a dead person to be raised back to life. And so we find a story like this rather inplausible. It can't happen now because in our experience it has never happened before.
But plausability is not necessarily a good criteria on which to judge the value of things. There are lots of things that sound implausible until they happen and we get used to them. When Mrs Monahan was girl there was no way that you could have made the microwave oven she now cooks with sound plausible to her. And you don't have to be as old as her. When I was ten years old, the most powerful computer at Monash University took up about half a building of space. I now have a computer that is far more powerful than that sitting on the corner of my desk. Totally implausible twenty years ago.
What we need to be careful of then, is that we don't write off the story too quickly just because it has never happened before. Lots of wonderful things that happen have never happened before. Maybe God is doing a new thing. Maybe too, the importance of this passage is not just as a piece of history. Maybe it isn't even history but it is true in some other way.
Let me briefly show you something about it. One of the things that Luke, the author of this story, does consistently is to shape stories so that they call up the memory of older stories. So here in the book of Acts we get a number of stories that cry out to be compared to stories in his earlier gospel, and a number of those stories echo back further to stories from the Hebrew Scriptures of ancient Israel. This story of the raising of Tabitha begs us to compare it to the raising of Jairus' daughter by Jesus. Not just because they are both raising the dead stories. Have a look at the details.
Luke writes in Greek, but in this story he takes the unusual step of giving a translation. We are told that this disciple who died at Joppa was named Dorcas in Greek or Tabitha in Aramaic. So what? Back in the story of the raising of Jairus' daughter Luke translates some Greek into Aramaic for us too. Can anybody remember what it was?
Jesus said Little girl, get up and Luke told us that in Aramaic that was Talitha Cumi. And now here Peter, whose native language was Aramaic, says Tabitha, get up, which in Aramaic is Tabitha Cumi. Almost the same. And it is not that there is any magic in those syllables but that Luke's original readers, being familiar with the language and stories would have recognized the echo of one story in the other.
Luke wants us to know that the Jesus story is not over. Jesus might not be physically present anymore, but his influence in the world is undiminished. What he did in body before is done by his Spirit through his disciples now. The power of Christ to bring new life is undiminished from one story to the next.
So much for the technical details of the text. We'll come back to it in a moment and see what we can or can't believe for in all that.
I struggle to believe that life can come from death. Death always looks so powerful, so final, so complete. And the forces that produce it seem so inevitable and so unchangable. Its approach makes me feel weak and helpless and depressed. And as often as not, words of resurrection and hope have a hard time getting through to me through that. There is this whole build up of experiences that tell me that death wins, that tragedy is the end.
I'm going through a difficult time at the moment. One of the symptoms is that I am finding it very hard to motivate myself in the basic areas of my ministry. Lately I have frequently got to Friday night, and I have spent hours staring rather blankly at the page or the screen and not prepared the Sunday service or sermon. Sometimes I decided on Monday what the service would be about, and what I would be trying to say, but I still had trouble getting myself to actually put it together. And when I haven't done it by Friday night, I end up having to spend at least part of Saturday doing it, and that's supposed to be my day off, and then I feel tired, and I don't get enough time with Margie, and I approach the next week feeling flatter and the cycle begins again. It's like I'm having a crisis of confidence or something, and that it makes it difficult for me to actually apply myself. Another symptom is that I'm having trouble praying. Again it is that I have trouble bringing myself to try. And again it exacerbates the problem - I feel flat and our of touch, I don't pray, I feel even flatter and more out of touch.
I'm not sure what is producing it all, but there are a few possibilities, and there is something of a sense of death around all of them, and perhaps that's it. Perhaps I'm struggling with powers of death at the moment, and part of the problem is my difficulty in trusting the words of resurrection.
The House of Hope seems to be dying at the moment. It's not that it's slowly declining. It's more going up in a blaze of glory. But however it is happening it is having an impact on me, because to a large extent I created that place. Seeing it die puts me in touch with some ugly areas of pride in my own psyche. I want what I create to last, to be a monument to my accomplishment. Seeing it die threatens my self-confidence. Maybe what I have done was of little value. Maybe all I ever create is a flash in the pan.
I struggle to accept in my heart what my head says it believes. That the little institutions along the way can come and go, but the mission of Christ in the world continues in both their life and their death. That sometimes a tree has to fall over before the next one can find the space to rise up. That has often been easy for me to say, but this one was my tree and it feels different now. It was O so easy for me to be all gung ho twelve months ago and declare that Club 12 and Mum's Mini-mart had had their day - they were someone else's creations. But its not so easy this time.
Another thing happening at the moment. Some of you know Arlene and as you know she's been in hospital a lot lately with a whole bunch of problems, but the other day the docotrs discovered what is really going on. Arlene is riddled with cancer and may not have much longer to live.
That hits me in the guts at two different levels. I grieve for Arlene, for a precious life being snuffed out so young. I grieve for what she might have become and won't. I grieve the impending loss of a friend. And on another level, it confronts me again with my own mortality, with the transience of everything. Judy Small has a great song that says I thought I'd be much older when my friends began to die. Arlene and I are almost exactly the same age. Just a few weeks difference. I've never had a friend my own age get cancer before. And in the face of that I find the words of resurrection very difficult to hear. I feel overwhelmed by the approach of death and I have trouble believing that God could be doing something life producing in the midst of it.
There was another reading set for today from the book of Revelation. In it John sees a great crowd of people singing and dancing round the throne of God. One of the angels of God explains it to John:
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason God will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
God is doing new things. God is bringing life from suffering and death. But it won't always be the way we want it. God will give Arlene life whether it is in a way that comforts me or not. And for Arlene, who has always been so anxious, and pressured and unsure of herself, the vision of Revelation, of safety in the presence of God who leads her to springs of living water and wipes every tear from her eye, has a lot more to offer than getting well enough to go back to work. I'm not saying we shouldn't pray for health in this world, or that Arlene is feeling comforted by that vision. What I am saying is that Christ promises us that death is not the final word, that Easter happens again and again as Christ breaks through the boundaries of our belief and creates life in new ways.
The question for me, and I think for many of us, is Can we trust God in the face of tragedy? Can we believe that God can lead a person to springs of living water even as their body moves towards death? Or can we allow what we have created to pass away so that energies can be directed into God's new ways instead of our old ones? Can we trust, however falteringly, beyond the limits of our own experience?
There are some powerful forces at work against the possibility of us believing like that. We have been strongly conditioned to believe only what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands. Even those of us who have been in church for a long time are often used to a sort of divided mindset where we choose to suspend our disbelief rather than actively trust.
Part of the good news is that God does not require us to have a 100% unshakeable faith before we can be accepted as God's children. Christ does not require that we have it all together and feel confident about everything before he will do anything good in our lives. Resurrection is happening. The Holy Spirit is active in the most deathly situations to bring about hope and life.
That's what this table is about. We come here and remember a tragedy - the breaking of Christ - and we find here the makings of resurrection. As your receive this bread and wine you are receiving the life of Christ so that resurrection can take place in you. And it doesn't matter if your faith is weak or strong, Christ will be here, offering his life so that you may be freed from the power of death. It's almost like a vaccination, although please don't take me too literally here, it's not a magic formula. In this bread and wine, God is present to make you increasingly immune to death. God is here giving you life. Wherever death still threatens you or holds you captive, God is present for you, saying Little child, get up, take my body, take my bloood, and know resurrection and new life.
So accept Christ at this table, all of you. Especially if the powers of death and despair seem to be overpowering you at present. I'm here because I'm not feeling altogether confident in the face of death at the moment, and I need to encounter Christ in the midst of that. Each of you have your own places within that cry out in need for the life of Christ. The life of Christ is about to be put into your hands. Take eat, and know life.