The Acts of the Apostles; what do you make of it? My guess is that most of us have been brought up to think of it in two main ways, depending on our church traditions. On the one hand, if you’ve had a more Protestant background, interpretations of Acts have focused on the missionary journeys of St Paul and the progress of the word and wonders he is seen to carry. On the other hand, if you’ve had a more Catholic background, Paul still has a central place but it is shared more strongly with Peter, and the progress of the two to Rome, as the founding fathers of the universal Church centred there. In both cases, there is also an assumption of linear, numerical and geographical growth – with the Gospel and Church sweeping almost all before it, encompassing all nations – in a somewhat colonizing, and even imperial, manner. Is that however how Acts is to be best read?
Over the last few years of fully owning my own queer identity, my view of the Acts of the Apostles has steadily been being transformed. Of course, Paul, and Peter, and even Rome, have their place. Like many common readings of other parts of the Bible however, that place needs serious transformation. This is not least because of the presence of so many other vital spiritual themes, trajectories, and people within the text: aspects which have been traditionally marginalised but which can set us free with wonderful fresh gospel (i.e ‘good news’) for today. Acts is full of them, and Tabitha/Dorcas’ story stands prominently. Let me therefore trace three aspects which catch my eye: three elements which I commend to you for development in our discipleship together …
The first striking element in the story of Tabitha/Dorcas is how evocative it is. Partly this is to do with the nature of the text. For, as with the rest of Acts, this is not an account of history as such, but rater a creative narrative sculpted by the author to bring alive key features of the good news they have to share. Above all, this is therefore centred in pointing to God, not to Peter or Paul, and certainly not to the Church in itself. In this story, we do well therefore not to dwell on Peter’s role. Rather we should see this as a recapitulation of stories such as the healings from apparent death performed by the great prophets Elisha and Elijah, and, most importantly of all, that of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus. As such, we see that it is the work of the Spirit of God which is key, not the performer of the work themselves. We also see however that the recipients of the work are typically marginal in some way, not least in places by virtue of their gender. Far from the later narrowed, and institutionalised, Peter and Paul focus, what we then have in Acts is Christian community as highly variegated and grounded in life, work and contemplation. Many different figures and details are present in these narratives, offering us a far richer and much more multi-faceted picture of Christian discipleship.
what's in the name?
Tabitha/Dorcas is a striking example of this evocative nature of God’s call to diverse community. She is situated for instance in Joppa, for this is the place where Jonah began his journey, in that powerful story of resurrection in the Hebrew Scriptures. She stands in, in-between, and including, different cultures: signified by the Aramaic of Tabitha and the Greek of Dorcas. Her name – significantly expressed in both Aramaic and Greek – is also highly evocative. For Tabitha/Dorcas means ‘gazelle’. This does not necessarily mean she was beautiful in form – who knows? – but the author of Acts surely intends us to see her as embodying beauty and grace in her life, work and person. Is this true to what others see in Christians today, I wonder? How are we going with that? In my own Christian community in Milton, we have what we call an Art and Justice project, which I think is at least one expression of such a call to evocative discipleship.
Secondly, Tabitha/Dorcas’ story is what we might call an entrepreneurial expression of discipleship. I use that term advisedly. For, in recent times, in some church traditions (including the Anglican), there has been talk of the need for entrepreneurial churches and leadership. Usually that means increasing numbers in pews, typically through nurturing young male leaders with strong middle-class, suburban assumptions, on a 'capitalist' model, reflecting today's consumerist world. In contrast, in Tabitha/Dorcas we do have a very striking example of entrepreneurial church and leadership. This however is of a very different kind. Again, perhaps the name ‘gazelle’ is very symbolic, for this is an entrepreneur who, like a gazelle, is highly mobile, flexible and full of grace. Like Lydia - another evocative, entrepreneurial example of female discipleship of whom Acts speaks of in a later chapter – Tabitha/Dorcas is most likely a successful businesswoman, but of a particular kind. Her entrepreneurship is not status, but community, oriented. She works not simply for the widows and the marginalised, but with them.
an independent spiritual mother
Nor is her gender at all significant in defining her. Like Lydia, she appears in the Acts narratives, as an independent person, not as a wife, or mother, or as a widow. Though later tradition has tried to squeeze her into some such mold, including reducing her role to that of a widowed maidservant, the text itself points to a much stronger female agency – no wonder later versions of patriarchal Christianity have marginalized ignored her. What we also see in Tabitha/Dorcas’ work is surely also a cooperative business: a creative cottage industry with hands on teamwork. On this Mothers Day, we do well therefore to affirm her as a spiritual mother of her community, full as it is of marginalized people such as the widows who would otherwise be destitute. This is the meaning of the lived ‘righteousness’ Tabitha/Dorcas embodies – a phrase used to highlight the examples of other spiritual leaders, typically generally only men, in other parts of the Bible. Again, how are we going with being entrepreneurial in this sense? How are we nurturing hands-on cooperatives of love? Perhaps, in my own Christian community in Milton, our Menders & Makers project is a particularly evocative entrepreneurial example, in the very mold, as well as the spirit, of Tabitha/Dorcas? Certainly Micah Projects is an outstanding example.
exemplar of discipleship
For, thirdly, if we should rightly continue to see the likes of Paul and Peter, in their vulnerabilities as well as their achievements, as examples of fruitful discipleship, we must assuredly add to them the many other evocative examples in the scriptures, and not least the example of Tabitha/Dorcas. Once more, let me reaffirm, the purpose of the text is above all to highlight the power of God at work, not any individual channel involved. Yet surely we do well to see in Tabitha/Dorcas’ story another keynote account of resurrection with women, again, crucially, at the heart of it. If you think I’m being too feminist about that, then look closely at the opening of the story in verse 36. Here the first thing we are told about Tabitha/Dorcas is that she is, in the Greek language, a ‘matheta’: that is, a female disciple. Note well, this is the only time in the New Testament when that feminine form is used to describe a disciple. Of course there were other female disciples, but they are elsewhere typically lumped into together as ‘disciples’ with the men with whom they shared ministry. Here however we have this startling exception. What does it signify? At the very least, it surely suggests we should take the evocative entrepreneurial example of Tabitha/Dorcas very seriously, doesn’t it? Do we have here a vital snapshot of what discipleship is to be, for all of us, modeled for us by Tabitha/Dorcas and other women like her? For, in addition to the other elements which I have highlighted, her story also suggests three further discipleship requirements: firstly, that discipleship, including in leadership, is clearly nothing to do with gender, or any other human characteristic; secondly, that any disciple, like Tabitha/Dorcas, needs to die and be raised in Christ, at least metaphorically; and thirdly, alongside ‘lived righteousness’, that being a disciple also involves developing contemplative vision – something Tabitha/Dorcas receives and demonstrates in her resurrection, and which again is something symbolised by the name ‘gazelle’, a creature renowned for particularly keen sight. How then are we going with that? Again, my own Christian community in Milton has a particular concern for contemplation which may be a sign of growth.
some questions to consider
Let me then leave us with three questions which emerge for me out of Tabitha/Dorcas’ story: the account of a much over-looked and marginalised person, yet at the heart of the wider narrative of Acts. The questions are these, and, of course, you may have others (!)…
1. What might it be, in other words, to be a gazelle community?
- reflecting on this story, what kind of a model of ‘ecclesia’ (church/holy community) are we to be today? How far might we thrive by following Tabitha/Dorcas’ leadership: seeking perhaps to be expressive action-contemplation cooperatives crossing cultures and gender and other barriers for/with the marginalised?
2. How are we ourselves to be gazelles?
- how are we to witness to lived ‘righteousness’ and resurrection, offering a grounded vision for life?
3. what kinds of other gazelles can we think of today and celebrate God's work in and through them?
- not least those, like Tabitha/Dorcas, who have perhaps been badly overlooked and marginalised.
In the name of the source and spirit of all things,
the transformer of all that hurts and harms,
and the power of new life in all its fullness, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, 12 May 2019, for, and with grateful thanks to, St Mary's in Exile