Friday, 23 April 2010

4th Sunday of Easter: Confrontational Christianity?


Acts 9:36-43
Peter in Lydda and Joppa

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

John 10:22-30
Jesus Is Rejected by the Jews

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’

When the people behind the scenes are putting together the readings for each week, the readings they give us are usually meant to be linked. However, I sometimes find myself having to look hard to see what exactly the link might be. These two readings are of that kind because at first glance there doesn’t seem to be a great deal in common. But when we begin to look closer we can see the common thread. These two narratives are both confrontation stories.

That might not seem to be the most obvious link since, whilst Jesus certainly seems to be in confrontation with a number of Jews, Peter’s story in Acts seems to be anything but confrontational. In fact it seems to be purely based around healing and putting things right, but we have to remember here that we are in the Easter period and Easter is all about living the post-resurrection life.

Easter is about Jesus having the victory over death, so what we find in Peter’s story is his confrontation with sickness and death, as if death is an enemy to be defeated. So let’s start with Peter’s story before we look briefly at the Gospel reading and draw some lessons from them.

The story in Acts is a disturbing one to our 21st century minds because it is likely that we will look at it from the perspective of someone we know who is either very ill, or who became ill and died, and ask why God didn’t or hasn’t healed that person. Certainly that was my first thought. We take on a kind of righteous indignation, a sort of, ‘Yes God, but what about so and so? Why not heal them?’

If we’re not careful this rapidly descends into a kind of argument from righteousness and guilt, that Tabitha was clearly a righteous woman who made a very great difference to people’s lives so she was worthy of being healed, and perhaps I’m not good enough to be healed, or perhaps so and so was not good enough to be healed.

All I can say is that we must not go down that route. Jesus routinely healed people who hadn’t even heard of him, and if you recall the way he healed the paralysed man who was by the pool for thirty odd years, you may remember that that was a pagan healing site. So Jesus clearly didn’t distinguish between righteous and unrighteous people, and we should never point that particular finger at him, nor at Peter.

So whilst the temptation is to immediately start asking philosophical questions of this story, we need instead simply to see what is said, because that is what we can build on. When we look closely at the story what we see is quite remarkable, and surely not an accident. The story of Peter raising Tabitha is an extremely close parallel to the story of Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter.

In Mark’s account of Jesus we find the people standing around wailing and weeping, and here we find the widows standing around wailing and weeping. When Jesus arrived he put them all outside; when Peter arrived he also put them all outside. But here’s the clincher. Jesus says to the little girl, ‘get up’, except that, unusually, Mark tells us what he says in Aramaic which is ‘Talitha cum’.
In Acts we’re not told what Peter says in Aramaic, but we are told the woman’s name was Tabitha and that he said to her, ‘Get up’, so in Aramaic he would have said, ‘Tabitha cum’, only one letter different from what Mark has Jesus saying to Jairus’s daughter. Talitha cum and Tabitha cum.

Now since we know that Luke, the writer of Acts, had used Mark’s Gospel when writing his own, we must surely assume that when he was recording this account he used this wording on purpose to show just how Peter was following in Jesus’s footsteps. We must also notice, however, that he doesn’t do it in his own power.

Before raising Tabitha, he prayed, and likewise in the story preceding this a paralytic is healed at his hands with Peter saying the words, ‘Jesus Christ heals you’. Peter claims no power for himself, but instead heals in the name of Jesus. He is following his Lord and he is confronting sickness and death just as Jesus did.

But that’s not all he’s confronting. There is a hint at the end here that he is also about to confront the traditions of the Jews as well. The very last thing that Luke tells us is that Peter stayed with Simon the tanner for some time. ‘So what’, we might say, but think about it. A tanner is someone who works with animal carcasses. Peter was staying with someone defiled by his work.

This is hugely important because the next thing that happens to Peter is that he confronts the laws regarding what is or isn’t unclean, and as a result realises that the good news about Jesus is meant to be taken beyond Judaism into the rest of the world, amongst the unclean Gentiles like us. So having confronted sickness and death, he is now about to confront oppressive tradition. Peter is discovering that being a disciple means making difficult decisions and standing up for what he believes in.

I’m not going to go into any detail here, but in the Gospel reading we see the same kind of thing with Jesus yet again in confrontation with the Jewish leaders. Throughout John’s Gospel we see him refer to the Jews, but we should remember that John was himself a Jew, and so he is referring here to the authorities, the powers, the ones who think they’re right and Jesus is wrong.

Over and over again we see Jesus in confrontation with them as they refuse to believe his teaching or accept that the authority with which he teaches and heals come from God. Ultimately they killed him because of it.

These two stories highlight for us the need to recognise that being a Christian is not and cannot be thought of as an easy way of life. Our lives should include confrontation, and in fact if they don’t, if we are dodging confrontation we may be avoiding some of the Gospel work we’re supposed to be doing in the name of Jesus.

That is not to say that we are supposed to be angry the whole time, and especially with each other. It’s also important that we don’t get into a whole degree of moral self-righteousness and judgementalism. No, that’s not it at all. But we are living life after Jesus confronted the powers of this world, confronted the traditions of the religious system that oppressed people, and after he confronted the powers of death.

We live in the shadow of the victories he won. In this post-resurrection time we are supposed to continue the work that was doing, confronting those things that need to be confronted. Now I’d like to add a note of caution here following a very helpful conversation during the week. There is an argument that says we should confront moral issues here, and I would want to say, ‘Be very careful.’

You see we have an idea in our own minds about what is morally right or wrong, and we often assume that we are correct, based on biblical teaching. However, we might be wrong. At the moment there are factions within the church who make sexual morality a big issue of right and wrong.

Before we hop on that bandwagon we need to remember that biblical sexual ethics do not point to any one specific clear teaching beyond this one simple rule. If you enter into a covenant relationship with someone, such as in marriage, that covenant reflects the relationship God has with us and so must be treated with utmost respect, which is why adultery is so frowned upon, because it breaks the covenant relationship, but even there forgiveness is offered.

But beyond that it becomes very grey indeed. There are at least two prostitutes who are used mightily by God; there are King David and King Solomon who had numerous wives and there is the very clear understanding, especially in the Old Testament, that all members of the household, wives, children, slaves, whoever, are the property of the husband. Our idea of the nuclear family as being blessed by God is simply not present.

In fact Jesus deliberately undermines traditional families when his own comes looking for him by looking at his followers and saying, ‘Here are my mother, my brothers and my sisters.’ So when you are thinking about whether you should confront poor moral behaviour, be very careful that what you are doing is not self-righteous judgementalism tinged with scriptural ignorance.

No, instead what we find in the lives of Jesus and Peter and the other disciples is confronting oppression, sickness, death, self-righteousness. Jesus set people free from moral issues, but he angrily confronted those things which oppress others, and we should follow in his footsteps. When we think about Pentecost shortly we have to think in terms of the Holy Spirit filling the disciples so that the work which they do is not their own work but the work of Christ.

If we want to see what it is that we’re supposed to confront, we should read the prophets, which is one of the reasons why I’m so keen on the Old Testament. Listen to these famous words from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

When we read those verses it makes it clear to us that however good and excellent our worship may be, if we are not confronting injustice and oppression, then it is not pleasing to God. Now there are lots of good things happening in this church. There are people who are involved with Acorns hospice for children; there are those involved in Christian Aid; others work for and give to the palliative care unit in Vellore, and so on.

What we must be careful of is not to ride on their coat-tails as it were. The post-resurrection life is all about bringing more life and confronting evil when we see it, and that may be as simple as telling someone who is gossiping about someone else that you don’t want to hear them, or writing letters for Amnesty International.

So during this Easter and Pentecost season let us ask for God’s help in confronting those things which should be confronted, and in helping those who need to be helped, and for wisdom to see the difference. Amen.

J.R.W.Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP, 1990.
P.W.Walaskay, Acts, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.

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