DORCAS the needlewoman reminds us how unusual Luke the Evangelist is in paying so many women the compliment of a personal existence by naming them. I have been a needlewoman, knitting and dressmaking, since childhood. I still knit, but no longer tailor my own clothes: it is time-consuming, and I am now more cash-rich (relatively) and time-poor. Long before I realised that Dorcas was a needlewoman in the Bible, I had a tin of pins from the “Dorcas” brand. It promised ultrafine pins that would not mark cloth or turn rusty.
When Dorcas dies, it sounds a straightforward, natural death: “she became ill and died”. People must have liked her: their first thought was to send for Peter, and, when he came, he was surrounded by widows “weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made”. This homely detail is touching. Dorcas the needlewoman will not be remembered for mighty acts of power, but for the clothes she made. When people wear them, they will think of her.
I know how this feels when I wear my ordination stole for weddings and baptisms. My aunt embroidered it, my mother made the lace cross at the nape, and it was made up by a friend who also made my wedding dress. All three of them, now gathered to glory, are remembered every time I wear it. All kinds of clothing can carry memories for us, and contain meaning.
It is not soppy to be touched by the memories that simple objects can evoke. Look how the cockerel has become a symbol for Ukraine, “bloody but unbowed”. A lingering scent on a scarf, a handwritten memo fallen out of a book, the savour of familiar food — all these can, for a moment, bring the dead to life, albeit only in our minds.
It is not naïve or wrong to hope for miracles, either. But we should listen carefully to what Luke tells us. He does not say that they summoned Peter expecting him to revive Dorcas, or that Peter prayed for her to be restored to life. In fact, Luke goes out of his way to emphasise that she was dead. Peter turned not to a person but a “body” (soma) to speak his command, “Tabitha, get up!” It reminds me of Jesus’s words “talitha koum” — and perhaps it was intended to.
Dorcas was one of Jesus’s sheep. So, presumably, was Simon the tanner, whose job description still survives in English as a personal name. So, certainly, was Peter. When Jesus makes his self-disclosing statement in John 10 — “the Father and I are one” — he is only part-way to the fullness of revelation which emerges by the end of the Gospel. The seven great “I am” sayings show that Jesus was not completely avoiding disclosure of his identity, but, rather, sowing the seeds of it where they will thrive (the first, the Bread of Life, is in chapter 6; the last, the true Vine, is in chapter 15). None of them is a political title, such as “king”, or “anointed”. Without context and instruction, they remain enigmatic — even the simplest one, which is also the one most closely associated (in the Hebrew Bible) with kingship: “I am the good Shepherd.”
That final sentence of this Gospel lection, “The Father and I are one,” is dramatic. We can think of it as provocative in its effect, a piece of evidence providing ammunition for the Jewish authorities to work up their picture of Jesus as a blasphemer. The very next sentence says that they gathered stones to stone him for his supposed blasphemy against the oneness of God.
From John 17, we know that Jesus prays later on for the unity, or “one-ness”, that is between himself and the Father to exist also among his followers. This might seem to belong to a later strand of New Testament thought, when Christians were deciding how to ground and grow the Church. But it lies behind a polemic in Corinthians, “anyone who glues themselves to the Lord is one Spirit” (6.17; NRSV and NIV translators supply “with him”). It is front and centre in the sublime language of Ephesians 4.5-6. A noble ideal is also, for Christians, a statement of fact, a done deal: “You have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3).