Death Shall Not Have the Final Say

12-May-19

Acts 9:36-43 

We live in a culture of death and destruction. Death and destruction is all around us. The world is filled with people who are filled with hatred. And this hatred is demonically motivated. There is no other way to describe it. That hatred works itself out in acts of violence and death, and innocent people are the ones who are the victims and the ones who suffer the consequences of this hatred.

And yet, in spite of all of the fear and death and destruction that seems to reign in our world, we Christians are called to be a people of life. We are called to build up and not to destroy. We are called to love and not to hate. We are a people empowered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are bearers of a powerful missionary message in this culture of death and destruction. In the midst of fear and anxiety we are proclaimers of peace and hope. Goodness is always stronger than evil. We know this because Jesus Christ is alive, and not only is he alive, but he has also made us alive and created us into a missionary community to carry on our Lord’s ministry on this earth. The power of resurrection dwells within us, and the powers of death and darkness have no authority over us. This is why the missionary community marches boldly into the darkest corners of the world, whether those corners be across the street, or half-way around the globe. This is why you are sending us to Puerto Rico.

In our passage this morning, we meet a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ named Gazelle. Luke describes her as a woman who was devoted to good works and acts of charity. In his gospel, and here in the Book of Acts, Luke does not use the word “devoted” lightly. When Luke describes Gazelle as a woman who was devoted to good works and acts of charity, he intends for us to understand that this was her life. This is what she did. This is how she lived. It is something to have emblazoned on one’s tombstone.

Gazelle understood the power of resurrection. She had experienced it in her own life, and she put that power to work in her ministries. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, she understood fully that once she was dead, but that now, having received Jesus Christ as her savior, she is alive. And as a result of that awesome realization, she devoted her life to bringing life to others.

It is very likely that Gazelle is the minister to the widows in her local church and in her community. In the first century widows had very little help or support. They were often extremely poor, frequently homeless, and largely forgotten and ignored. They were the hidden members of first century society. But Gazelle went out to find them, she searched them out. And she organized them, and she helped to clothe and feed them. And in ministering to them, she helped banish the fear and anxiety and hopelessness that they lived with daily. She did this because she was a person of the resurrection. She had been given life, and so she gave life. This is what people of the resurrection do. People of the resurrection fight the powers of death and destruction. People of the resurrection bring hope to the hopeless. People of the resurrection are devoted to giving life to the dying.

Ironically, this woman, who was so devoted to good works and acts of charity, who was so devoted to life, who was so full of life, who lived daily in the full power of the resurrection, and who deeply breathed the breath of God, lost her own breath. She got sick and died. In the midst of a faithful and wonderful ministry, the powers of death and destruction triumphed. This is how the powers of death and destruction behave. This is what death and destruction does best. It attempts to interrupt the work of God.

Do we have any sense that Gazelle’s ministry was over? Do we have any sense that she had already completed everything that God had called her to do? Of course not. It was evil that interrupted Gazelle’s life and ministry. It was evil that triumphed over a woman who was actively engaged as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and who devoted her life to good works and acts of charity.

But in this case, death shall not have the final say, and that is because it never, ever does. Gazelle has some more life-bringing work to do on this earth. She has more life to breathe into her church and into her community. Her death has created a big hole. It does not seem that there is anyone else who is so wonderfully equipped and so devoted, to carry on the work that Gazelle has been doing on behalf of the poor and the weak and the vulnerable.

And so her church calls for help. Church members had known or had heard that Peter was staying in nearby Lydda, and so they sent for him, asking him to come without delay. What did Gazelle’s fellow church members expect that Peter could do for them? Luke does not tell us. It is left to our imaginations and ponderings. Were they asking him to come and conduct a funeral for their beloved sister? Did they imagine that Peter could bring her back to life? I don’t know. It is impossible to know. But this I do know: in sending for Peter, they expected to experience the power of Almighty God. And I know this, because this is what we must always expect to experience whenever the powers of darkness and death and destruction appear. When we are overwhelmed by the darkness, we must learn to expect Almighty God to show up. God dwells in the light, and the light always overcomes the darkness.

When Peter arrived in Joppa, he seemed to have arrived right in the middle of Gazelle’s wake. Her body has been washed and lovingly placed in an upstairs room. You all know that I spend a lot of time with the dead and the grieving. And at the wake, or at the visiting hours, family members bring tokens and mementos and photographs of their loved ones to put on display. This is a way of giving honor to the life of the one who has died. And this is exactly what is happening at Gazelle’s wake. Gazelle’s family of widows has gathered, and they are displaying some of the clothing that Gazelle has made for them and for others.

In the Gospel of Mark, chapter five, we can read of a very similar incident. In that account, it is Jesus who has arrived in the middle of a wake for a little girl who has died. When he arrives Jesus sends everyone out of the house except for the girl’s parents. Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and says to her in Aramaic, “Talitha cum.” In English, that means “Little girl, get up!” And when Jesus said this, the little girl got up and she began to walk around. So that her parents did not imagine that she was a ghost, Jesus told her family to give her something to eat.

Throughout this sermon, I have been referring to this woman of tremendous faith by calling her “Gazelle.” That’s the English translation of her name. A Gazelle is fleet and full of joyful, bouncing life. In Aramaic, her name is Tabitha, just one letter removed from Talitha. When Peter arrives he takes a very powerful cue from his Lord. He sends everyone out of the house. And he kneels down to pray. When he finishes praying, he turns to the body and says, “Tabitha cum,” “Gazelle, get up.” And she opened her eyes, and Peter took her hand and helped her up. The powers of death and destruction have been vanquished. God’s work will go on. Gazelle has been returned to the widows.

How did this happen? No explanation is given except for the tacit one. Peter is behaving like Jesus Christ, and when believers behave like Jesus Christ, miracles happen. But if you’ll pardon the blasphemy for a moment, behaving like Jesus Christ is not really all that extraordinary. Gazelle herself is a shining example of the imitation of her Lord. She behaved like Jesus Christ throughout her whole ministry. She was faithful to her calling. What better way is there, to imitate our Lord, than to be faithful to our callings, even to the point of death?

To seek an explanation would only drive us into the realm of the natural, and it is in the supernatural where we find our true dwelling place. We must understand that how God’s people wrench life from the clutches of death is not something so trivial as to be explained. If we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we are doing this every day. We are wrenching life from the clutches of death and destruction in everything that we do.

Luke has reminded us, that with this miracle, the new missionary community has announced the inauguration of a new age, an age where true reality is based not on logic, nor on our own faithless expectations, but upon God’s promise of resurrection. We are resurrection people. The power of Jesus Christ dwells within us.

We may lack worldly power, but the true servant of Jesus Christ will fastidiously avoid it anyway. Worldly power leads only to brokenness and death. Our power comes from only one source. That source is the life-giving resurrection power of our Lord. That power, when it becomes alive in us, can and will transform the culture of death around us into a culture of life.

What structures of death and evil in our own community and in this world, is God calling us, as the new missionary community to dismantle? What needs to be torn down and driven out so that God’s resurrection power can move through us? And, what is God calling us to build up in this community and in this church so that the power of resurrection will be known among us? We are a people united by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are resurrection people. It is sacred and holy power that we wield. And when we wield that power the forces of death and darkness tremble.

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