This Sermon was delivered at St Remigius Royden and St John the Baptist, Bressingham on the morning of the 12th May 2019. Readings: Acts 9: 36-end, John 10:22-30.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our reading from Acts comes from the ninth chapter of Acts, a chapter which is perhaps better known for its dramatic account of Saul’s Damascus road conversion experience in the earlier verses. But the chapter as a whole is filled with dramatic moments, not least of which being this curious moment where Peter is called to a place called Joppa because one of the disciples, a woman called Tabitha, has died.
It’s hardly the most thrilling of premises for a story. Saul’s story begins with a vivid description of him breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, while Peter is asked to do a house visit for a deceased person. However, that’s not entirely fair to Peter because our portion of scripture has missed some helpful context from the previous few verses.
While Saul was having his conversion experience and being sent off to Tarsus to begin a ministry preaching the Gospel to the gentiles, Peter has been going here and there among all the believers. One place he stopped at was called Lydda and there he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years because he was paralysed. Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” Immediately he got up, and all the residents of Lydda saw him and turned to the Lord.
I wonder if this reminds you of a similar event in the Gospels?
I’m thinking of one of Jesus’ earlier miracles, first forgiving and then healing the paralysed man who was lowered down on a stretcher through the roof.
There, as here in Lydda, the situation starts with encountering a paralysed man and then the healing happens with a command to do an action relating to what they’re lying on. Jesus says, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.” And he does. Peter says, “Get up and make your bed”. And he does.
Healing a paralysed person was impressive when Jesus did it. It caught people’s attention and drew in the crowds who wanted to hear him speak. Yet there’s a key difference between Jesus’ healing and Peter’s healing ability. Jesus acts, as we heard in our Gospel reading, as the one who is one with God the Father. That is, he acts with all the authority and power which comes from being the Son of God; of being equal in power to the creator of all of reality. When Jesus speaks words of healing, he speaks as the one who spoke the universe into being.
Yet when Peter speaks words of healing, he speaks as one who shares in the power of Jesus. Indeed, though he follows the same pattern of healing as Jesus does instead of claiming the power to heal as his own, he makes it abundantly clear that it is Jesus’ power, indeed Jesus himself, who is really healing Aeneas.
This offers us a key insight into the ministry of the Church, and by extension of each of us – whether we are lay or ordained. Christ told Peter that he was the rock on which he would build his Church. Peter in his ministry went around here and there, wherever believers were. And he exercised his ministry by following the example of Jesus, and example he learned from in all the years he spent with him as he travelled around Israel. More than this, there’s a very real sense in which it’s wrong to say ‘his ministry’, just as it wrong to talk of ‘my’ ministry or ‘our ministry; there is only Jesus’ ministry, which we, you and I, share in and exercise in his name.
This is all well and good, Samuel, but Peter was actually with Jesus. And those kinds of healings don’t happen very often. They happened back then, or sometimes to people we’ve heard of in other places.
Well, it’s true that they don’t happen often and make no mistake it wasn’t common then. That’s why they gained so much attention!
However, if Peter’s healing in Lydda happened in Diss you can bet that those of us here in Bressingham/Royden would have heard of it. The people of Joppa, which would have been as similarly close to Lydda as we are to Diss, certainly heard of it because when Tabitha, a good Christian woman who had been a pillar of the community and done much to help the poor in this area, died, the disciples there went and asked Peter to come without delay.
And he did. When he arrived there were people weeping and mourning loudly. He puts them all outside before kneeling down to pray. Turning to the body he says, “Tabitha, get up”. She awakes, and lives.
This situation also feels familiar. Perhaps it reminds us of when Jesus heals Jarius’ daughter. I’m quite sure that this would have been on Peter’s mind, given that his behaviour once again closely follows Jesus’ example.
Again, we see that the emphasis is placed on Jesus. The result of Tabitha’s restoration to life is that “many believed in the Lord”. However there’s a curious phrase which I think it’s worth both noticing and reflecting on.
Having healed Tabitha, Peter calls the saints and widows and shows her to be alive.
Often when we use the word saints we implicitly mean those who have gone before us into the presence of God; those faithful believers who have departed from us in death and whom we have entrusted to God’s loving care. Sometimes in the prayers of the Church they’re included in the company of heaven, somehow spiritually present alongside God in a similar way to how Jesus refers to Abraham and Isaac Moses being with God now. Or, alternatively we might use it to mean someone who is particularly hard working or virtuous, describing people whose dedicated service is somehow impressive or inspiring.
I wonder, though, how often we think of ourselves as being saints?
I’m sure that Tabitha’s friends in Joppa were remarkable people, but when I compared the similarity between Lydda and Joppa with Diss and Royden/Bressingham my intention wasn’t just to help us to imagine the kind of distances involved. No, I was hoping that the comparison would help ground our imagination in actual places so that we might remember that these people we hear about in scripture are fundamentally just that – people, people like us.
They are not saints by virtue of living in the times of Scripture. They’re saints because they were believers in Jesus. They’re saints because they heard about him and his followers and recognised that there’s something about Jesus which is not only important but could well be very helpful to their lives.
I began by mentioning Saul’s conversion experience. It’s an important story for us because it shows us that although Jesus is now with the Father in heaven, he is not removed from our lives. He is just as in heaven now as he was for Saul, and his ministry here in our communities can be seen in the ministry of Peter who went here and there, wherever the saints were to be found. More than this, it wasn’t just about Peter but also about the saints in these places who saw Jesus at work in the healings of Aeneas and Tabitha.
These stories in the ninth chapter of Acts, of both Saul but especially of Peter, are helpful for us as we reflect on what’s happening here in our own church community of Bressingham/Royden.
As you know, the days when each parish can have it’s own priest are retreating rapidly into the nostalgic mists of the past and so we find ourselves in groups and teams such as we are here in the Diss Team Ministry. If Peter is an example for the Church then he is to be an example for the Clergy and the readers, going here and there, wherever the saints are to be found. And if these two healings are an example for Diss and Bressingham/Royden then they remind us that yes, there was a healing of a paralysed man in Lydda, there are acts of worship, events and ministry which happens in Diss. But that same ministry comes out to Joppa, to the good woman Tabitha and happens here in Bressingham/Royden as well.
Indeed, the potential of what can be achieved here could even be greater. We might think it’s harder to heal the dead than the paralysed, we might be tempted to compare ourselves as a smaller church to the larger church in Diss. But the reality remains that the ministry of Jesus, whether it’s exercised by Peter or Tony, Paul or John, comes to the saints where they are in the unique circumstances they find themselves in.
But it cannot be done by them alone. This is a ministry which happens with the saints and widows; with all of the disciples who believe in Jesus. And this is where I wish to encourage you. Just as Peter showed the saints that Tabitha was alive, just as we share the gospel and the sacraments with you, it’s for all the saints to continue sharing this with those who live here in Bressingham/Royden.
This isn’t something which we do alone, nor can we. It’s not our ministry, but Christ’s. And it is by following his example and by acting in his name that we have hope not just that we shall be saved by his death and resurrection, but that the joy of our resurrection faith can come to and spread within our communities so that our church, living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, may fruitfully increase in the name of Jesus.