Easter Means More
It’s still Easter. Why does Easter get seven weeks? Why so long? Acts 9:36-42 provides the answer: “Easter Means More.” May 6, 2018.
It’s still Easter. That’s not a leftover April Fool’s joke. We do Christmas in a day and then clean up, go to the after-Christmas sales to return the sweater we didn’t like, and get the tree down by January sixth. Ash Wednesday is a day. Maundy Thursday is a day. Good Friday is a day. OK! I know there is an Advent season, a Christmas season, an Epiphany season, a Lenten season. But Advent is four weeks, Christmas is twelve days, Epiphany rarely goes more than six weeks, Lent is forty days. Why does Easter get seven weeks? Why so long?
Today’s first reading from the book of Acts in chapter nine provides the answer: “Easter Means More.”
The hand was thin, lined from so many hours in the sun, flecked with age spots, and trembling slightly as it held the corner of an intricately woven shawl and presented it for Peter to see. “This was from Tabitha.” Another stepped from the corner of the room, shifted the flowing robe that covered her bowed head and graying hair, and extended her arm so Peter could catch the pattern. “This was from Tabitha.” One by one these women, who had all come on hard times, who had lost their source of income when their husbands died, whose children could not or would not care for them, whose only means of survival had been begging, stood quietly around Tabitha’s funeral bed in that upstairs room with tears glistening in the corners of their eyes and trickling on their cheeks. These were not professional mourners, who provided the prescribed mourning, wailing, and sobbing and then invoiced the family after their show was done, like the commotion surrounding the house of Jairus when Jesus arrived to see about Jairus’ daughter. This house, this room, these women were different. In Joppa, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Israel, there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. The apostle Peter was about ten miles east in Lydda. So when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. If you and I were there, we’d have tears, too.
Why? Why were these women crying? The obvious answer is that they were saddened by her death. But the “why” question bends our heads for a closer inspection. There was more to their tears. They were deeply touched not only by Tabitha’s death but by her life. They were not merely sad because of her dying but also thinking about what she meant for them while living. So, I ask again, “Why?” What was it about Tabitha’s living that moved them to tears? Surely it wasn’t just the clothes she carefully crafted and gave to them. Surely there were other gifted seamstresses in the community. Surely there were other kind and giving people. What was behind her hands and her hand-outs that brought out the tears from her friends? What was her motive?
You’ve seen funerals for the rich and famous. There’s usually a eulogy. A son or daughter or friend or co-worker gets up to speak. Perhaps it’s a string of speakers, and each has to tell a story or two and recount the characteristics or actions that made the person who died memorable. There’s nothing sinful about a eulogy, but noticeably absent is any comment about motives, why the person did what he did, why she acted as she did. What was the reason for their living?
We know very little about Tabitha. Her Hebrew name and Greek name, Dorcas, both mean “gazelle.” Was she graceful and energetic in her youth? We don’t know. Was she a widow in later years? We don’t know. Did she run her own seamstress shop? We don’t know. What we do know is her motive, her reason for living. True, only God can look into hearts. But he gives us a peek. In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha. When the author, Luke, uses the term “disciple,” he is referring to someone who learns from and follows a teacher, and the teacher is Jesus.
There are teachers that I enjoyed. They were interesting or engaging. But what about a teacher who knows my hidden fears and calms them, who knows my deepest secrets and doesn’t count them against me, who knows the debt-hole of sin that I cannot climb out of and pays for it with his own blood and then comes back to life to prove it all true. That’s a teacher who changes living from merely taking up space, inhaling molecules, and digesting food and turns it into real living, more living, not for ourselves but for others. A dead teacher won’t have that kind of a life-altering impact, but a teacher who has come back from the dead and still lives does.
We don’t know other people’s motives, but God gives us a glimpse into Tabitha’s heart so that we can look into our own. The tunics, the shawls, the robes, the scarves didn’t just come from a caring heart. They came from a heart filled with a resurrection faith, and the widows wept when they thought of Tabitha’s heart of faith so evident in her living. I’m concerned about my motives, and I’m concerned about yours. Turn to Jesus, listen to him, learn from him, follow him, and your reason for living will not be food in the stomach, money in the bank, or even being nice for the sake of being nice but, like Tabitha, will be Jesus who gives purpose and meaning to our lives by rescuing us from a fate worse than death. He rescued us from eternal death by his death and resurrection. His resurrection is our reason for living and loving, praying and giving. That’s why we say that Easter means more, more living.
At a funeral of the rich and famous, friends and family might expect a eulogy, a meal after, and maybe even a party in honor of the one who died. But there are no expectations regarding the person who has died. They are dead and gone. The conversations involve promises to keep memories alive. But unless it’s a spouse or immediate relative, memories fade.
What were the expectations when the folks in Joppa asked Peter to come? There had been miracles in the early church worked by the apostles, but no raising corpses. What did they expect Peter to do? Bring them a word of comfort, remind them of life forever that Jesus won for them and for Tabitha? What they did not expect was for Peter to make his way up to that room on the roof, examine all the articles of clothing the widows showed, and then send them all out. No one was there to see him, but you can, can’t you? He’s on his knees. He’s not even looking at her. He has turned the other way. His head is bowed. His hands are folded. He’s concentrating. He spending time in prayer. He speaking to the living Lord. “O Savior Jesus, I will make bold. Find a way to help these dear people learn that Easter means that you have conquered death, that Easter means more life. Help them see that Tabitha still has life, real life, that is, a connection of love and joy to you.” God’s answer amazed even Peter. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive.
Now I’m going to talk about your funeral. But before I do, keep in mind that some years ago I visited an elderly woman at a care facility. She was one hundred and four. She asked her nephew, “Where will I be buried?” He said, “When you die, you’ll be laid to rest in the family plot several miles from here.” She responded, “Not too soon I hope!” So, when I talk about your funeral, keep that in mind. Not too soon I hope! At your funeral the pastor might mention something about your life on earth, but he’ll be talking mostly about more life, life in heaven. He would not be able to do that if there were no Easter. Jesus rose to guarantee that at the moment of death we go right on living, and on the last day our bodies will be raised to new life. Death brings sadness and separation, a reminder of what we deserve because of sin. But Jesus’ resurrection changes the conversation from loss and separation to rejoicing and reunion, all because Easter means more, more life.
What happened to Tabitha? We don’t know. But don’t you think she hugged the widows who came back into that room? Don’t you think she stepped outside and waved to her friends? Don’t you think that every time people saw her at the marketplace or sweeping the steps in front of her shop or delivering more clothes to the poor they called out, “Hi, Tabitha!” and then whispered, “She was dead. Now she’s alive, and she told me that there was no guarantee that the apostles would do that for me but that Jesus guarantees life with God now and forever. I want that kind of life. I want to trust in a God who can do that. I want to be alive now and in heaven.” Sure enough, this became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Many more people crossed from spiritual death to spiritual life, from no connection with God to a resurrection faith, to an optimistic, sure, and certain hope, to smiles on their faces in the face of persecution and pain, to being really alive because Easter means more, more alive.
There is a verse immediately following this account that illustrates the point. Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon. What’s the big deal about a tanner? Beginning in the mid eighteen hundreds, tanneries began operating in Milwaukee, and by 1890 Milwaukee became the largest leather producer in the world. But processing animal hides into leather is messy and smelly and all the more so when done by hand twenty centuries ago. On top of that, Simon the tanner had to handle dead animals which made him ceremonially unclean. Yet that’s where Peter chose to stay. I wonder if Peter had the tanner in mind when he wrote in one of his own letters, that the Lord does not want anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
That’s the plan behind our calling a fourth pastor. With Pastor Strong devoting time and energy to our second ministry site in the Third Ward, we don’t want to lose momentum in our efforts at other sites and more people. We don’t care if they are ceremonially or spiritually unclean because we were once, too. We want as many as possible to learn as Simon the tanner did and as Tabitha did that the living Lord gives life with God. Eleven students at Wisconsin Lutheran High School received new life through baptism on Tuesday. This coming Thursday we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord with a mission event in the Grace Center. Free meal, and you won’t want to miss the presentation by Pastor Nate Seiltz, the director of our church body’s Multi-Language Publications Ministry, which, thanks to your offerings, circulates the message of the living Lord globally. In the next weeks graduates from our college of ministry and seminary will be assigned to classrooms and pulpits to ring out the saving news of the life-giving Jesus so that more can live, really live. And that is the purpose for our congregation’s existence because Easter means more, more alive.
After the festival of the Ascension, the paschal candle, which has been lit during the Easter season as a reminder of the living Lord, will only be lit for baptisms and funerals. The seven-week Easter season will end next Sunday. But the blessings of Easter really never end because Easter means more. Amen.
Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on May 6, 2018