Archive for May, 2004

May 2

Works that Testify

By Marsh Chapel

Religion and psychology teach us that things often symbolize a lot more than they are by themselves. I remember the day in my Freshman year when I learned about Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexual symbolism. Suddenly my campus vanished and was replaced by a surreal landscape of towers and tunnels, fertile courtyards and soaring arches bursting with light at the top. For all my new vision, however, I have to say that my sex life was not improved. It really was just a bunch of college buildings. Similarly, some religious people like to see signs and portents in everything. Catching a cold is a sign of God’s disfavor; finding a parking place around here during a Red Sox game testifies to the Parking Angel. Some people think that if they are well-born, handsome, rich, or successful, surely God is with them and they deserve it. On the other side, many people take suffering as a sign that the victim deserves the suffering as punishment. In all those cases, things simply are what they are, for natural reasons, and the visions of cosmic meaning are mere projections, often pathological projections.

Nevertheless, there are occasions when the works people do, in fact, testify to something bigger and more important than the works themselves. Jesus, in our gospel lesson, for instance, was being questioned about his real identity. Was he the Messiah or not? He did not answer by quoting scripture or giving a philosophical analysis of what messiahship is as applied to himself. Rather he said, “the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” People are what they do with what they have. Jesus was what he did, and his religious identity came from what he did in God’s name. Of course Jesus’ answer was more complex than met the eye. People in his time expected the Messiah to be a military leader like King David who would drive out the Romans and establish Jerusalem as the capital of the world where people from all nations would come to worship God. Jesus did nothing of the sort, although actions such as riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday might have suggested that to some people. Rather, Jesus redefined what it means to be Messiah with his works, the humility of them, the humanity of them. Jesus claimed authority over his disciples by washing their feet. So Jesus’ works not only testified to his identity as Messiah, they redefined the very role itself.

A more touching example in our texts of works that testify beyond themselves is the story in Acts of Dorcas, or Tabitha. I suppose that Peter’s work of raising her from the dead is important because it testifies to the power of God that he exercised in the name of Jesus. But I want to call your attention to Tabitha’s works rather than Peter’s.

Notice that Dorcas was called a disciple. The term “disciple,” or even “apostle,” was not limited to the Twelve who had been especially named by Jesus. It applied to many people, including many women. The woman’s Aramaic name, Tabitha, and Greek name, Dorcas, are both given; they mean “gazelle” in their respective languages. In the text they are alternated: Tabitha, Dorcas, Dorcas, Tabitha; obviously both are important. I suppose that this means that the Christian community in Joppa was a mixture of Aramaic-speaking Jews and Hellenized Jews who spoke Greek, and that Dorcas was of the latter group. Or perhaps she was even Greek and not Jewish. If so, it was altogether more significant for Peter to visit her, because he was slowly moving outside the definition of the Christian movement as wholly conforming to Jewish practice. This incident is related just before his experience with the Roman centurion Cornelius in which he came to declare all foods clean to eat, throwing over the kosher limitations. If Dorcas was in fact Greek, it was a bold move for Peter to minister to her.

What is most striking about Dorcas, or Tabitha, is that she seems to have been a long-time mainstay of the Joppa Christian community. This incident must have occurred within the first twenty years of the founding of the Christian movement. If we follow the chronology in the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke as a second volume to his gospel, Tabitha’s death and revival probably occurred much earlier than twenty years, say, within the first five or ten years. Yet Dorcas was settled with a group of widows, obviously a well-articulated group within the Christian community, and had worked with them for years making clothing. Most ancient Jewish and Hellenistic societies were organized around family life, and widows had little or no place unless they were supported by their children. The Christian communities from the very beginning gave a special place to the widows. What would our churches today do without the women who make the congregation the center of their lives, like a family?

Tabitha “was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she sickened and died, the other widows washed her body and laid her out for what we would know as a wake, and sent for Peter to come. The widows stood around fondling the garments she had made for them, the material results of her good works, the works themselves. Now to what did those works testify? They are not the works of a Messiah, or even of a great leader and now miracle worker like Peter. So far as we know, her good works were in paying attention to the needs of those around her. Like most of us, she attended to those in her community to whom she could relate directly, to the issues of security and health in her neighborhood, as exemplified in making clothing for people. Moreover, she must have done this superlatively, because her community so deeply mourned her that they sent for Peter and asked him to come without delay. Perhaps they hoped he could bring her back to life as Jesus had revived Lazarus, but without the delay that had raised such tensions in the Lazarus incident. Whatever the hope, Dorcas was deeply loved for her charity and good works by those around who had come to know her as a person of charity and good works. Her works testified to the sanctity and healthy good life of the Christian community in Joppa. They testified to her responses to the needs of that community. They testified to the fact that the community could love her and fight against her death.

We, of course, need to do good works that testify to the grounds and obligations of our faith. Every one of us lives in a community with needs, and what we do in response to those needs testifies to the quality of our faith. Let’s keep the order right. It’s not that we first have faith, and then respond to the needs in proportion to our faith. It’s that we first practice good works, and this determines the quality of our faith. Any of us can have right beliefs, but that does not mean we act upon them. Many of us go through existential trials to decide that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior; sometimes this decision costs great humiliation in front of secular friends. But even having made that decision, whether it’s real depends on what we do. Let us present our deeds before a neutral observer, say, God, and ask whether, given what we do it looks as if Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Our works testify to who we are. What testimony do we want them to give? What testimony do they in fact give? “By their fruits you shall know them.”

I’ve been speaking of the testimony of our works as if we testify as individuals. But friends, we are in this together. A fundamental need in our community is for courtesy. We can each be courteous to one another, but we need to establish widespread social habits of courtesy. Poor people need help, and we individually can contribute to efficien
t charities; but we need collectively to develop an economy that minimizes poverty. To be marginalized is humiliating, and we can individually reach out to people who are marginalized because of race, class, sex, religion, or history; but we need collectively to develop a culture that embraces all without humiliation or deprivation of rights. We can individually express our political views when nothing much turns on it; but now that our country is occupying two countries that did not attack us, or have the plausible means or will to do so, the needs for collective political responsibility are astonishingly compelling. Those of us who are Christians would like to say that our works, from common courtesy and local helping to responsible engagement of political affairs, testify to a Christian faith commanding love demonstrated by God in Christ, sustained by martyrs, carried down to us by the faithful, and made our responsibility by our baptism in these, our times.

So I invite you to the communion table, the elementary work of Christian practice. From this table go out renewed in courtesy, charity, community building, and commitment to craft a society of which Jesus could be proud. Go out from this table comforted against the inevitable failure to be perfect in courtesy, charity, community, and politics, remembering that our kingdom is not of this world. Yet this table, showing Christ’s presence here, manifests the fact that our kingdom, which is of God’s world, is in this world. Here is where we have to be like Tabitha-Dorcas, and live out our faith. Amen

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville