May 8, 2022| 4th Sunday in Eastertide
Every year during Eastertide we read the Acts of the Apostles. And each year we compare ourselves to those forebears of ours. It's inevitable, and maybe it was even the intention of the author of Acts. Very famously, we compare ourselves with the ability of the early Christians to put everything in common, and we may feel ashamed. But also other passages may trigger a similar response.
In our reading today we hear of two extraordinary healings that remind us immediately of similar events narrated in the Gospels. The healing of Aneas is paralleled by the healing of the paralytic to whom Jesus says to take up his bed. Both men can walk suddenly and they can take care of themselves. The resuscitation of Tabitha is paralleled by that of the daughter of the head of the synagogue, to whom Jesus says: “Thalita kum!” (“Little girl, get up!”). In both cases, Peter and Jesus put everybody out of the room, they lend out a hand to the girl/woman, and she is brought back. The similarities between the words “Tabitha” and “Talitha” make the parallel even more obvious. And, in all cases, these people are “raised up” (just as in the icon).
The point is that Peter does just what Jesus did. This is a very clear and deliberate message. After the Resurrection, the Church continues to heal, liberate, reconcile, restore. More precisely, the Church at its inception, according to the author of Acts, was doing that through the power of the risen Christ and with the same level of power that Jesus had demonstrated during his wanderings from village to village.
The book of Acts was written almost 100 years after the events. It is unlikely that the Church was still experiencing the same level of energy and healing at that point. Maybe then the author of Acts was purposely placing the Church of the beginnings before the eyes of the Church of his own time. His intention is still operative now when we read the text, nineteen centuries later. If we are honest, as I said, we make the comparison between them and us, and we find ourselves wanting on all accounts (in faith, courage, generosity, dedication, etc.). Is then shame the point of the narrative? I doubt it, partly because shame rarely produces change, but also because the piling up of stories of mission and healing, of reconciliation of enemies and miraculous liberations from jails, so typical of Acts, seems rather to aim at creating energy within the readership, precisely because these stories follow each other without a break. The effect is different if one reads the book of Acts as a whole or hears just the liturgical portions assigned to each Sunday in Eastertide.
I think that we have a choice. We can either shake our heads and think that we'll never even approximate the model, or we can wake up, raise our antennas, feel the life-power that exudes from these stories and their characters, and understand that we can tap into the same energy they tapped into. Although at times the early Christians lived in peace, as our passage tells us, at several other times, such as when the book of Revelation was written, a persecution was raging. And, yet, the energy emanating from the visions of Revelation is no less powerful than the one in Acts.
Whether our forebears lived in peace or in war, they had a source of energy to tap into, and that source was the crucified and risen Christ. In one word, the Lamb, represented as living and yet spilling blood. The Gospel of John calls this energy “eternal life”. It is hard to say what this “eternal life” is, except by metaphors. For example: “Laying in the palm of God's hand” or “Resting on one's mother's breast” or “Being calmly led to still waters”. We all know the experience, but we often pine after it because we believe that our conditions are too adverse for the experience to be possible for us right now. At times the conditions are prohibitive, but not as often as we think. If the martyrs of our early history could be perfectly calm in the eye of the storm, perhaps we can too. We can tap into the same huge resource of energy, which is the risen Christ. The trick is to stay calm and focused. Only when we are calm we can hear the voice of the shepherd. If we are agitated, his voice will just be one of the many conflicting and attractive possibilities.
I believe that we need to learn how to recognize “the voice”, although once we are trained to recognize it, then it becomes the most obvious of things. One could say that “the voice” is the Bible, or the teachings of the Church, or the dictates of one's conscience. In each of these cases, however, we risk pretending to know in advance what to do and whom to follow. In short, we sheep are never lost and our personal experience of doubt and search is not valued. In reality, instead, we need to become sheep of the good shepherd. How do we become sheep? By not trusting what pulls us out of balance, what disturbs our centeredness in God. And by observing where life really is. The Gospel of John is very clear and even repetitive on this point: the good works of Jesus are the testimony that he is who he says he is. That is, again: where there is healing and abundance of life, there is the place where to go. When we are attracted toward deep peace, even in the eye of the storm, that is the voice of the true shepherd calling.
Nothing good can come out of a church, if church activities are not grounded and supported at the very least by an honest search of the deep and calm waters of God. In my experience, however, even such search is not enough. There is always at least somebody who has already learned how to be sheep of the good shepherd. These are the ones who hold the community together, and they are not always the most active ones. They hold the community together simply because they tap into the energy of the risen Christ.
Tabitha was a Christian leader in the city of Joppa in the first century. She was an active individual, yet she was not doing anything out of the ordinary. She was probably a bit wealthier than the other widows, and she has made for them tunics and embroidered outer garments for them with her kindness and her art. She was a small, yet an important piece, of the risen body of Christ in the world. And she was given a little more time on earth so that she could keep being herself and doing what she was doing.
Tapping into the energy of Christ means tapping into God. The sentence “The Father and I are one” that the Gospel of John places on the lips of Jesus is not simply the description of a state of affairs. It does not simply inform us that Jesus is divine. Rather, it is an operative description. It means that when Jesus acts, God happens. When healing happens, God flows. Reading Acts, and overcoming the shame that we may derive from making a direct comparison between us and them, we become aware that God is an event much more than a person. Page after page, the book of Acts shows that the power of God flows through the Apostles and, by implication, their successors (that is, us) just as it flowed through Jesus before his death.
Christ has died! It was a true and real death, as Jesus did not came back to his previous life. Christ is risen! Jesus is now projected beyond this life, into the eternity of God, and yet his risen power is here with us for ever. The healing power that he shared so generously during his life is alive and strong through the lives of the faithful Peters and Tabithas of all ages. Christ will come again! Which is to say that there will be a time when all things will come into their perfection, integration, and peace. When all tears will be wiped away. We are part of this glorious story and this glorious hope. And we can find rest in this story and this hope, especially when we need the energy to fight the good fight and resist the forces of hate and war. AMEN.