by Benjamin Cowan
The reading in Acts takes us to the ancient city of Joppa (modern-day Yaffa, which is connected to Tel-Aviv). Tabitha was a woman known for her kindness and compassion. She became ill and passed away. It happened that Peter was nearby and the followers of Jesus in Joppa called for him. Peter came and found the people in mourning and ready to bury Tabitha. Jewish custom normally required that the body be buried before sundown and the nearest place to bury the body was 4 hours away but the people decided to wait for Peter. Peter shows up and in a setting similar to other resurrections (1Kings 17:7-23, 2 Kings 4:8-36, & Luke 8:40-56) orders everyone out of the room. Peter prays and Tabitha is restored to life. The miracle is shared throughout the city and Peter stays in Joppa with Simon the tanner. This is an exciting text with many things and there are many things to take away from it but I will limit myself to three. First, starting with the reputation of Tabitha, we are challenged to ask ourselves the question, how do people perceive us? Tabitha was known for her acts of charity and in like manner, we as followers of Jesus should be known for showing kindness and compassion to all. Second, the story establishes that Peter is continuing the mission of Jesus. Jesus raised the dead and so does Peter. This signifies that the same Spirit that was upon Jesus is now upon Peter and continuing to bring life to the vulnerable in society. In our modern times, Christianity has become associated with bringing hate, harm, and violence to others. This text reminds us why it is important for followers of Jesus to demonstrate the life-giving nature of the gospel rooted in charity. Finally, Peter shows his solidarity with the outsiders by staying with the tanner. Tanning was a job that was looked down upon because of the smell and the association with unclean animals. So vilified was the job that Pharisees allowed wives to divorce tanners if they could not stand the smell. As such, Peter staying with Simon is a reminder of Jesus solidarity with the outcast. We are asked to consider, who are the outcast in our community? We must consider not only those who have been cast out by society but also by the community of faith. The text calls us to view them as belonging to the family of God instead of calling them unclean.
The psalmist declares to us what it means to be the sheep of the Lord. This psalm from the Christian perspective reminds us that it is sweet to trust in Jesus not matter what happens in life. Jesus is our Good Shepherd (John 10:11). As the Good Shepherd, he leads, defends, protects, feeds, and watches over the flock. The psalmist reflects on what it means to trust in the Lord in times of rest and in times of adversity; in both, Jesus is watching over the flock. So confident is the psalmist in the Lord that the author states that because the Lord is his shepherd, goodness and mercy will be the psalmist forever. The psalmist knows that the sheep of the Lord dwell with the Lord. Let us give thanks in worship to God for Jesus as our shepherd and we becoming his sheep.
Revelations 7: 9-17
This passage begins with an astonishing scene, people from all nations, ethnicities, and categories are untied together in worship by God and the Lamb. The commonality between them is that they have washed themselves in the blood of the Lamb. Blood, from a perfect sacrifice, was used in the ancient world for ritual purification. The people gathered have been purified and washed in the life of Jesus. Symbolically, blood is used to illustrate that those gathered before the throne have taken on the life of the Lamb as their own. They have committed themselves to the mission that Jesus outlined in the gospel (Luke 4:18-19). The revelator reminds the audience that there can be a price to following Jesus but that the cost is worth it. Like the psalmist above, the have faced treacherous valleys. Yet, because of their faithfulness to the mission of the kingdom of God, they too now dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The gospel reading takes us to a Hanukkah festival. Hanukkah was instituted to commemorate the liberation of the Jews from the Hellenistic Greek Seleucid Empire in general, and in particular it celebrated the recapturing, cleansing, and re-dedicating of the temple of the Lord. During the occupation, the temple was defiled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he who offered swine to Zeus in the Holy of Hollies. During the celebration of the purification of the temple, Jesus is asked if he is the Messiah. Jesus answers the question very tactfully by stating that what he does testifies to who he is. In other words, as written in the epistle of James (2: 14-26), faith is seen not in words only but the works one does. Actions testify to identity and belief. Jesus goes further and tells those asking they do not believe his words because they are not his sheep. The 23rd psalm fits well with the gospel selection because it describes how the sheep are attuned to their shepherd. As the psalmist describes, Jesus says his sheep know his voice, follows his voice, and Jesus protects them. Foreshadowing those seen in the selection from Revelation and what the psalmist hopes for, Jesus promises that his sheep will be with him forever. This is because the Father gives the sheep to him and Jesus is one with the Father. In identifying himself as one with the Father, Jesus is answering there question yet going beyond their question because he is stating he is more than their own perceived conceptions of the Messiah. There are many points to be drawn from this gospel reading and here are three: 1) the church should be a place for testimony. The Feast of Dedication is a celebration of God’s mighty hand of deliverance. Today, in our personal life, community, etc., there are stories within the church body that testify to work and mercy of God. Sharing testimonies builds relations across generations in the church and opens people to the lure of God. 2) The gospel reading requires us to consider this question: do our lives testify to the fact that we are his sheep and know his voice? The text asks us to consider if our actions testify to belief in the gospel or something else. 3) Do we have preconceived ideas that limit the gospel? This is to say do our teachings, doctrines, theologies, philosophies, sermons, commentaries, ethnicities, our own lives, communities etc., limit the possibility of who Jesus is not only to ourselves, communities and to the cosmos itself. The gospel reading challenges us to open our minds, be mindful of the past, cultivate a life of listening to Jesus’ voice demonstrated in action, and not to limit the gospel by a false belief in already knowing the truth absolutely.