Have you considered what you want on your tombstone? The husband of a close friend said she would have these words, “I am fine, really!” Mine will probably be inscribed with a limerick:
Here lies the theologian named Molly T.,
That she had many opinions, you will agree,
She gave seminaries her best
And now finally finds rest
Preparing to debate what faith can now see.
What is said of us at the time of our death reflects how we have lived. The seer of the Apocalypse offers these words:
Then a voice from heaven said, “Write this down: Happy are those who die in Our God for all eternity.”
“Yes,” says the Spirit, “let them rest from their work for their deeds accompany them” (Revelation 14:13).
As the fourth Sunday of Easter approaches, the lectionary text in Acts suggests a close alignment of grace and works. In the story of Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek), her good works are on display. She was “always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36b). Generous in all her ways, she had gathered a circle of widows who benefited from her ministry. Her deeds accompanied her.
When she died unexpectedly, her friends sent for Peter who was in the vicinity, not far from Joppa. Peter responded quickly, and I think his healing ministry with Tabitha prepared him for a further remarkable spiritual experience in Joppa, which prompted a much larger vision of the extent of God’s work with Gentiles, whom God did not consider unclean. You recall that Peter had struggled with inclusion, especially when it came to sharing meals with others than Jews.
Tabitha carries a unique title; her designation is “woman disciple” (mathetria), used only here in the New Testament. Obviously, she had quite a following! In the Spirit and power of the Risen Christ, Peter bids her to arise. Luke uses the same verb (anistemi) that describes the resurrection of Jesus. The resuscitation of Tabitha has similarity to the miracle of overcoming death in other stories in the Gospel of Luke, and she returns to her life through the restoring power Peter offers in the name of Jesus.
Peter presents her alive to all the widows, those who had been so influenced by her faithful service. She now becomes the inspiration for the conversion of many, and they believe in the Lord because of this mighty act. In these early days following the resurrection of Jesus, Acts demonstrates the many ways his disciples follow his pattern of healing
I find the accent on her many good works interesting. Protestants have been quite fearful of compromising the power of grace with any concomitant emphasis on works. Yet, the story of Tabitha makes her concrete labor for others the centerpiece of her life, lost and then restored. There is no perception that she is raised because of a simple calculus that this is what she deserves, yet her generative ministry surely expresses resurrection power.
God’s compassion on the bereaved widows is also an essential part of this narrative. Restoring her to this community expresses the power of resurrection that is set loose in the world. Resurrection is never just about Jesus or strictly past tense. Resurrection always manifests a new mode of being as life eternal has broken into the present.
I recently traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a global immersion pilgrimage with students, where we visited a Karen Bible College. In addition to the classrooms and library, there was also Tabitha’s Shop, aptly named, full of beautiful fabric creations. Following the example of their biblical forebear, these contemporary Christian disciples sew to support varied ministries. Not only do they keep tribal crafts from becoming extinct, they also find ways to support their extended families. And our group did our best to stimulate their economy!
Grace inspires good works, and these expressions of liberation demonstrate the power of God’s redemptive power. Indeed, people are much more likely to believe in resurrection when the people of God practice merciful initiatives toward others.
Good works are the fitting response to God’s lavish grace. They do not save us, but it is hard to perceive that we are being redeemed if our lives do not exhibit the impulse for “always doing good and helping the poor.”
I trust that in addition to theological feistiness, some might remember me for concrete acts of justice and mercy. What will those gathered after you depart say of you? Hopefully it will be, “Their deeds accompany them.” Such is the witness of those given new life through the power of the Risen Christ.