April 25, 2010
Commentary by Bruce G.Epperly
See also: [Year C Archive]
Today’s scriptures describe God’s faithful and everlasting care. God is our companion in life and death, and, in the spirit of today’s readings, beyond. Resurrection is a whole-person and whole-creation reality that touches us in mind, body, and spirit.
How shall we read the passage from Acts 9 in the twenty-first century? If the preacher includes the healing of Tabitha (Dorcas) in the congregational readings, he or she must take the time to interpret it. Too often, we hear passages that challenge our understandings of God, the world, or human life read in church and simply let them stand without commentary. Congregants nod their heads or assent silently to passages that promote hatred and violence, or make declarations about divine activity that would lead to imprisonment if performed by humans. I recall once reading a Psalm in worship that spoke of divine activity in terms of hatred and violence. Realizing what I was reading, I stopped in mid-sentence and surprised the congregation by saying, “I can’t go on anymore without saying that I find these words unworthy of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.” I later learned that two people decided to join the church as a result of my choice to challenge the violent theology of the scripture text.
While I believe that God can act in lively and life-transforming ways, and that God’s presence can be revealed in acts that change our bodies as well as our spirits, the Acts passage needs to be addressed in terms of twenty-first century technology and medicine. No doubt the author of Acts is making a connection between the rising of Tabitha and Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter. Still, the possibility that a dead person (one who has not breathed for hours) can be revived by our efforts or as a result of a partnership involving God and ourselves is difficult to believe in a world of EEGs and EKGs.
In interpreting this scripture, we need to avoid two equally problematic dead ends: first, interpreting this parable as a solely as myth, as a fabricated tale to demonstrate that Jesus’ healing power lives on in the community of faith, or as the description of an existential or intra-psychic movement from life to death. While these approaches can be meaningful, they imply that the narrative of this event was a complete fabrication by the author, an attempt to affirm resurrection power by concocting an event from Peter’s ministry. The problem with this explanation is that no one in the first century would have accepted our twenty-first century explanations – as pre-modern people, they did not have our understandings of myth or existential interpretation. I suspect the first readers’ world view made room for such events and that they read this event with a sense that it really occurred.
The second dead end is to interpret the raising of Tabitha as a literal, theologically and physically explainable event that we can replicate in our time. As a praying pastor, who believes in divine healing power, I find that the approaches of faith healers and televangelists, who claim to cure persons in end-stage cancer, destructive of relational and realistic understandings of the power of prayer. Our prayers and God’s movements within our prayers exist in a relational context in which many causes may lead to healing and disease. Our prayers may be the tipping point between health and illness, but they not are omnipotent. Prayer is always contextual. Perhaps, even God must suffer along with the person with end-stage cancer and her or his family, unable to physically cure the person, but still able to inspire a sense of peace and the support of friends and loved ones.
A “naturalistic theism” affirms that certain events reveal God’s presence and power in extraordinary ways, but that these events also occur within the matrix of interdependent causal relationships. Still, some might object to my reasoning, noting that “you can’t limit what God can do?” While I believe that we have barely tapped in awareness and embodiment what God can do in our lives, there seem to be events that no amount of prayer can change. Can we attribute our failures in such moments to God’s will or to our unfaith? Or, is a truly relational God able to heal the spirit, but not cure the body in some instances?
If you choose to focus on the Acts reading, you might use the scripture as an opportunity to ponder how much we can expect of God and how much we can expect from ourselves in the transformation of mind, body, and spirit. In this regard, my critique extends beyond televangelists to include those who believe that “we create our own reality” such as the authors of The Secret, Louise Hay, and to some degree Wayne Dyer. Our thoughts are transformative: as the Apostle Paul noted in Romans 12:2 “be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But, our thoughts are not all-powerful. To claim that the mind is omnipotent is to suggest that persons who don’t get well or are diagnosed with serious illness are fully responsible for their condition. [For more on a progressive Christian vision of the healings of Jesus, see Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice.]
Let me add one last note on Acts. Tabitha was cured, but eventually she died. Everyone Jesus cured, including Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus died. While not omitting prayers for cures, Acts also invites us to ponder the reality of divine healing which embraces death and dying. This surely is part of the message of Psalm 23.
Virtually everyone knows Psalm 23 and its affirmation that God is present in life’s most difficult moments. Many congregants will remember these words from a recent graveside service involving a loved one, and will remember their hopes that their recently deceased friend or relative is truly in God’s care despite the reality of death. The words of the Psalm invite us to trust that God will be our companion, providing healing presence even when there cannot be a cure. There are no guarantees that persons of faith will avoid suffering and failure, but there is the promise that God will have the final word in our lives. Still, God’s presence cannot be invoked blithely – faith in God cannot be forced. At times, we must “hope against hope” that God is with us as we face death, chronic illness, and death. We may need to trust God’s care and the faith of a community when we have no faith of our own.
The passage from Revelation proclaims a universe of praise. All tribes, nations, and peoples praise and worship God revealed in Christ. This is a hopeful passage for those who see divine revelation (which implies salvation) extending beyond the confines of Christianity and present in the lives of indigenous persons before the emergence of Judaism and Christianity or the missionary journeys of modern evangelists. Revelation and salvation are present in ancient Chinese religion, among Hindu holy women and men, Taoist mystics and Buddhist monks, aboriginal peoples, and Yoruba in Africa, and among all indigenous people. This is good news worthy of praise.
John’s “shepherd” passage is a call to awareness of God’s call in our lives. “My sheep hear my voice.” How shall we interpret this passage? Does this mean that only the “elect” hear Christ’s voice or that the “sheep” are those who are listening to God’s movements in their lives? Are some persons outside of God’s fold – by God’s choice or their own?
The passage of John notes that all who follow God’s path share in eternal life, and “no one will snatch them out of my hand.” As a child, I remember the phrase “once saved always saved.” In the Reformed tradition, some assert the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” Paired with Psalm 23 and Revelation 7, the passage from John affirms God’s fidelity through all the seasons of life. The questions the pastor must address in preaching on this passage involve issues such as “Is God faithful even when we are not? Is God’s love stronger than our forgetfulness, addictions, and failures? Does God’s faithfulness include all the ‘sheep’ and not just church-going, Christian ‘sheep’?” While the vicissitudes of moral and spiritual – as well as physical and mental condition – shape, and may limit the intensity of divine presence in our lives, progressive and moderate pastors are challenged to proclaim a strong word of grace – God continues to work in our lives, seeking wholeness, healing, and inviting us to be faithful in every season of life.
These passages call us to ponder what it means for God to be on our side and be a protective force in a world where there are no absolute guarantees of success or safety for us, our congregations, and institutions. God wants Tabitha to be well and will do what is “necessary” to bring her to health. God is with us in the darkest valley and inspires praises among all creatures. God will take care of God’s sheep, even though some, in Jesus’ and our own time, experience suffering and death.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education and co-pastor of Disciples United Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure:41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy:The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry (with Katherine Epperly). This book was just selected Book of the Year byt the Academy of Parish Clergy. He may be contacted for speaking engagements, retreats, and workshops.
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