Harrowing Of Hell
May 8, 2022

The Repose of Tabitha

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Happy Mothers’ Day. I am no mother, but I know a few, and they have had a major impact on my life. There is Kristin, the mother of my children, and then there is my regular mom, the mother of me, Gracia Conn. And then there’s my sister, Valerie, who’s also a mother. And then there’s a bunch of people here at church that mother me, which is good for me and probably good for the church as well. So, to all mothers everywhere, happy Mothers’ Day.

The scripture today is one that is appropriate for Mothers’ Day, in a way, not because it is about mothers, but more so because it is a complicated, if not problematic piece of scripture, and when I have a problem, I go to my mom.

The problem is the miracle of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead–with dead being the problem. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

Let me lay out the issue by returning to the sermon I preached two Sundays ago.

In it I mentioned a miracle from the Book of Acts: that of the man who couldn’t walk who Peter healed. Peter had been in Jerusalem, near the Beautiful Gate, and there was a man with a twisted leg. Peter said to him: “In the name of Jesus, stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6). And he did!

My point in recalling this miracle then was not to make the argument that it happened, or how it happened, or even why it happened, but by whose name it happened through… the name of Jesus. 

Now, I know there is a broad range of perspective on miracles here at Epiphany. Some of us are highly skeptical, others of us have experienced them ourselves. But the miracles we encounter with Jesus and his followers, like Peter, are not about straightening limbs, or cleansing skin, or chasing away demons, rather they are about inclusion and acceptance and re-incorporation into the Kingdom of God.  

Miracles are about the fullness of community. They are about the inherent value that every single human being into a community. You may recall, that in the days of Jesus a disability, disease, or untimely death was thought to be a sign of God’s disfavor. And so, if God didn’t like you, why should anyone else? As a result, people who were widowed, or had financial hardship, or were disabled, or diseased, were believed to be dismissed by God, and so cast out by the community.

The big Jesus insight was full inclusion…of everybody irrespective of the health of one’s body, or mind, or financial circumstances. All are included in God’s divine economy, as it should be.      

But what is the necessity of re-including somebody back into the community who has already died?  That is the miracle problem put upon us today. I know, it’s taking me a long time to get to the point of this sermon. If my mom had been preaching it, she would’ve gotten here a lot more quickly. And if she could signal me through the Internet she probably would be doing this (circle hands), nonetheless here we are.

Now when we come up against miracles in the Bible, the question we ask is not did this miracle happen, but rather, what is Jesus teaching us about inclusion? So that’s the question today: what is Jesus teaching us about inclusion through Peter by raising Tabitha from the dead? What message of inclusion do we learn?

Our watchword will be “repose.” It is a word we can use equally for

  • a state of tranquility and equanimity within the soul of a person,
  • as well as, the way in which we describe someone who has died… the repose of the soul.

In both cases, whether alive or dead, repose and soul are bound together. And what we learn as we look at Tabitha, whether she was dead and brought back to life, or was in a state of disquietude and brought back to equanimity, or in a state of comma and brought back to strength, what we learn is something about the nature of the soul. Now what is going to help us understand all of this is the synaxaria, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, we’ll start with Tabitha. She was a Gentile. She was an early convert to Christianity. She had taken her place as a leader within the Christian community of Joppa, employing her resources, experience, and God given talents to care for the marginalized, in this case widows. Tabitha was a person, capable and generous-an exemplar of the Christian lifestyle. Then she dies, and seeing her lay there, one might have said: “There is a soul at repose.”

Peter hears about her death, and travels to Joppa. There he witnesses, through the stories told by widows gathered, what an extraordinary person she was. Sort of a mother to them, I suppose.

Peter asks them to leave the room. He takes Tabitha by the hand and says: “Tabitha, get up.” She opens her eyes and sits up. Peter calls the widows and together and they celebrate the repose of her soul in its returned, embodied state. Repose in death. Repose in life…the soul remains the same.

Now you might be wondering: “Preach, why do you tie Tabitha’s resuscitation to soul-filled repose?” You guessed it- The synaxaria! (Do I need to say anything more? Or should I just finish my sermon here?)

The synaxaria is a book of saints in the orthodox church, from which is read the hagiography (history) of the saint on their saint’s day. Tabitha’s is October 25th.  So why are we reading about her today?  Because …

But what is usually found when reading about saints, is what happened after they experienced the unstoppable hope of the “who” that is Jesus. An example of this is Photini, from the Gospel of John; she was the Samaritan woman at the well. There she met Jesus, and her life was changed. Tradition tells us that after she met Jesus, she became the very first evangelist.  She preached “the who” of Jesus in a way that unleashed the unstoppable hope to the Samaritan people.  This is what we read about Photini on her saint day. 

But what we read about Tabitha is nothing, or shall I say nothing new. After she has been raised from the dead her story stops. Nothing else is said about her in the Bible. Nothing else is said about her in the synaxaria… other than the retelling of her being raised from repose to repose by Peter.

And that is the insight. That is the radical inclusion. That the state of one’s soul in it’s embodied, temporal, mortal life is the same as the state of one’s soul after death, when it sits in the eternal presence of God. From inclusion to inclusion. From repose to repose.

Whether we are alive as we are alive right now, or we are alive as we will be alive after mortality, either way we are included by God, because we are all an intentional part of God’s divine economy; and we are loved by God right here, right now. Our souls are held by God, right here right now. And we are loved by God after we die. Our souls are with God after we die. Repose here, repose then.

That is the radical inclusive message we learned from Tabitha. Her silence says it all because repose is known only in silence…Because the soul is soundless. The soul demands nothing from the body. The body is simply the agent of a person’s will in this temporal world for a particular period of time to live out, hopefully, God’s intentions for the soul when it was originally conceived. Which means the soul exists far beyond the influence and reach of the human will. The soul is woven inextricably into the tapestry of God. Which means there can be no history written by the soul, about the soul, on the soul.

The greatest insight we can have for the soul is its repose. And its repose is constant, irrespective of the state of “this” mortal body. Dead or alive, repose remains.

And so, what we see with Tabitha, whether Peter raised her from the dead, or raised her from coma, is that she now moves silently within the realm of her eternal soul. No story to be told, just the reality of her inextricable connection with God.

What we have in Tabitha is the fullness of what it means to be a child of God living in the Kingdom of God. She was a person of great good works. We should follow her example. And she is also a soul in repose. And so are we.

And here is the tension we face as free-will agents within God’s divine economy: There is nothing we can do about the repose of our souls. To be a soul in repose can elicit no action; to be a soul in repose can engender no activity; to be a soul in repose can demand nothing; to be a soul in repose can influence nothing. A soul in repose transcends the capacity of a human’s will…because the soul belongs to God and God alone, and its repose is by God’s grace, and God’s mercy, revealing God’s love for you and for me and for all of humanity right now and forever more. 

That is the Tabitha story, in my estimation. That is why she was raised from the dead. The miracle was given to call our attention to the inclusion of all souls within the full realm of God’s divine economy, right now, and forever more.

The closest we will get to experiencing this love in embodied form, is probably at that very moment when our mothers gave birth to us; which is the very moment when the soul comes into being; when we leave the womb and come into this world. Which may be another reason for celebrating Tabitha today.