Summary: The greatest work of the church is often the little acts of service that happen "behind the scenes."
How many of you are familiar with penicillin? Of course, this is one of the most widely used antibiotics in modern medicine. Perhaps you have also heard the name of Sir Alexander Fleming, the pharmacist who discovered the medicine. Or maybe if you haven’t heard of Mr. Fleming, perhaps the name of Jonas Salk will ring a bell. Dr. Salk was a 20th century medical researcher, most famously known for his discovery and development of the first successful polio vaccine. But how many of you have heard of Henrietta Lacks? Mrs. Lacks was an African-American mother of five who moved from the tobacco farms of Virginia to one of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. In 1951, at the mere age of 31, Mrs. Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. In the process of that diagnosis, a biopsy was taken, and the cells that were removed created an immortal cell line that is known as HeLa. This cell line has remained under continuous observation, and it has made possible some of the most important discoveries in modern medicine. The HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. In the past sixty-plus years, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells to further advance medical research and break-throughs!
Needless to say, Henrietta Lacks is an unsung hero of modern medicine. Though she was probably not well-educated, and she certainly wasn’t a researcher or doctor, she made a contribution that has proven as significant as that of any medical researcher. It turns out there was another woman much like Henrietta Lacks, who lived nearly 2,000 years ago. We heard this morning the only account we have of Tabitha (or Dorcas, as she is known in Greek). These few sentences in the Acts of the Apostles tell us all we will ever know about Tabitha. Ironically, the New Testament is full of stories about Peter, the apostle who raised Tabitha from the dead. We know him to be one of Jesus’ most devout disciples; so much so that Jesus calls him “the rock,” the foundation on which Christ will build his church. Acts tells us of Peter’s work around the Middle East in the years following Jesus’ resurrection—as he sought to continue Christ’s work and spread the Good News of God’s coming kingdom. But we know very little of Tabitha. In fact, Tabitha probably would not have even made the pages of scripture if not for her brief encounter with Peter.
Still, the Bible reserves for Tabitha the only use of the feminine form of the word “disciple”; mathetria. This Greek word literally means “pupil” or “apprentice,” which may suggest that at some point, Tabitha actually studied directly under Jesus. Whether that is the case or not, this woman clearly embodied what Jesus had in mind when he told his followers “to make disciples of every nation”, particularly in her love for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” She was a “disciple” in the truest and most wonderful sense of the word. And that’s what I really want to focus in on this morning.
Certainly, Tabitha’s resurrection from the dead is a miraculous event worthy of great consideration itself. She is one of only a handful of people in the Bible who holds such a distinction. But what really impresses me about Tabitha is not the fact that Peter appeared, prayed, and then Tabitha was raised. What really impresses me is one little detail, the first thing Luke tells us about this disciple in Joppa. Did you catch it? She is “generous and full of good works.” “Her life overflowed with good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.” In fact, so generous and compassionate was Tabitha that we know she touched many, many lives. The crowd of widows that gathered around her in her dying moments and then sent for Peter is a strong testament to Tabitha’s generous work.
In his writing, James tells us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: too look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” To be a widow or an orphan in the ancient world meant that you had no means by which to support or sustain yourself. In Tabitha’s day, women were not valued by the culture at large, and widows had no one to stand up for them, so they lived on the margins of society. In order to survive, widows and orphans were completely dependent on the generosity of others.
Tabitha, we have reason to believe, was a widow herself, and yet somehow she found ways to care for other widows. It seems Tabitha was a master seamstress, and so she spent her time making robes, and tunics, and other clothing for these women who could not have afforded clothing on their own. Now, making clothes and supporting widows might not strike you as anything worth writing home about, especially when you think about the work the other disciples like Peter and Paul were doing during this time. They were traveling all over the Middle East starting new churches and spreading the gospel.