Acts 9.36-end or Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18; 8.6-18; 9.8-13; Psalm 23; Revelation 7.9-end; John 10.22-30
Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life: raise us, who trust in him, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, that we may seek those things which are above, where he reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
THE readings this week offer several ways of asking the question: “What is the Church?” In the narrative of Tabitha, who is raised to life by Peter, the writer of Acts speaks from knowledge of an already well-organised body of believers.
Not only have they responded to the message of Jesus (Tabitha is the only woman in the New Testament to be described as mathetria, the feminine form of “disciple”, Acts 9.36), they have also developed a charitable network that employs their skills in textile-working (Acts 9.36, 39: see Loveday Alexander, “Acts” in John Barton and John Muddiman (eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary, 2007).
They might even have contributed some income to social projects by selling garments. References to “saints” and “widows” (Acts 9.39, 41) indicate defined groups among the local followers of the Way (Acts 9.2). Paul’s letters confirm that widows were distinguished within Christian communities (1 Corinthians, 1Timothy).
The writer also wishes to show that these early Christians have begun to embrace a tradition. He models the healing miracle on the actions of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17.17-24; 2 Kings 4.18-37), and especially on the raising of Jairus’s daughter — even exploiting the echo between “Tabitha” and the Aramaic talitha: “little girl” (Mark 5.41).
Arguably even closer in its details and characters is the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, which inaugurates Jesus’s ministry and draws him to the attention of the crowds in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 8.14-15; Mark 1.29-31; Luke 4.38-39).
At the other end of the spectrum lies “the multitude that no one could count”, presented in a vision to the author of Revelation. The crowd has fought for a Kingdom divinely governed, and freed from evil and suffering under the banner of the Lamb. Its members have been ready to shed their own blood rather than deny Christ (Revelation 7.14).
This is not a Church forming itself in history, but a Church that has triumphed over history. Nevertheless, it draws on the tradition of prophecy in order to show its fulfilment in the risen and glorified Jesus. Isaiah’s lyrical account of the homecoming of exiles to their own land, and their return to honour and prosperity as part of their renewed relationship with God, glimmers through the imagery of this passage (Isaiah 49.8-end, especially 49.10, 21, 26).
John’s discussion of Jesus confronted by Jews gathered in Solomon’s Portico for the feast of the Dedication of the Temple deals with time, and how the Church exists in time, in a more complex way. His evasive reply to the demand that he say whether he is the Messiah speaks both of something that has always been, and of something that is yet to be.
The Father has given him “sheep”, who obey his voice and to whom he promises eternal life (John 10.27-28). This promise has still to be realised, and must submit to the processes of history, as Jesus moves towards his death, resurrection, and ascension to share the Father’s glory.
It may sound as if the identities of those who will eventually share this Kingdom are foreclosed, but Brendan Byrne is more hopeful. He notes: “There is no suggestion that God has rejected those who have chosen not to believe. Their choice also remains contained within the divine will, which the gospel consistently presents as directed to the saving, rather than the rejection, of human beings” (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014).
Odd though it seems to move from the post-resurrection appearances of the past two Sundays’ readings to this, it is an important shift. The Church that reads these passages now is being prepared for the questions raised in the 40 days leading to the Ascension.
They are as real for contemporary Christians as they were for their original hearers: how must we behave in the absence of the physical presence of Jesus? What will hold us together? What happens between now, and the time when we hope to meet him again, as judge and redeemer for eternity? How can we answer the challenges — on the spectrum between benign indifference to hostility — of those who do not believe?
Meanwhile, the assurance that precedes the episode in the Temple — that Jesus is the Good Shepherd — offers a powerful anchor, caught with deceptive simplicity in Jane Leeson’s hymn, published in 1842:
Loving Shepherd of thy sheep,
Keep thy lamb, in safety keep;
Nothing can thy power withstand,
None can pluck me from thy hand.