Tabitha – Agent of Ministry

 Acts 9:36-43 & John 10:22-30 & Psalm 23

The author of John’s gospel frames Jesus’ ministry in Chapter 10 in the context of the Parable of the Good Shepherd.  I’m never sure about the biblical shepherd image. I was raised on a farm and truth be told I’ve thought the shepherd image as used by those in religious circles bears very little resemblance to shepherds I have known. Where’s the dust, dirt, blood, guts and general toughness of the life of a shepherd especially NZ’s high country shepherds? Yet that brand of toughness is very much characteristic of the eternal life that Johannine thought points to. The author of John mentions eternal life seventeen times in the gospel.  Johannine eternal life is not the heavenly pie in the sky eternal life but the mountains and valleys, grittiness and dust of real life in which one lives out life alongside the living Christ. Lives out life in the way of Jesus to, as we sing in Psalm 23, restore souls, offer comfort and support, offer hospitality and mercy in the valleys of life and on the mountain tops.

That reading of eternal life returns power to people who are often disempowered by Christianity. Slaves, the poor, refugees, women, children, the differently abled. A certain brand of Christianity would say “never mind, there is a heavenly kingdom awaiting you.”  Johannine Christianity says, “ Life in all its fullness and adversity is for living here and now in the way of the Christ.”

I think this is born out in the story of Tabitha. Technically the story is all about Peter. The prevailing theme of Peter as a miracle worker in the line of Elijah and Elisha and Jesus is woven through narratives in Acts that seek to win converts to Christianity.  Peter along with the other disciples witness to the truth that death is not the final word.

It is easy to miss the local agent of ministry in the narrative, Tabitha who, as a widow, has carved out a life not only for herself but also for the other widows in her community of Joppa. Tabitha becomes ill and dies. Peter is sent for.

This phrase, agent of ministry to describe Tabitha first came to my attention in an article written by Heidi Peterson and published in the Christian Century magazine.

What is an agent?

An agentis one who acts for, or in the place of, another, by authority from the other); one entrusted with the business of another. When I think of an agent – apart from Maxwell Smart – I think of stock agents – those men and they were men who bid and sold stock on behalf of the farmers.

In the Acts passage, Peter is an agent of ministry in that he acts on the authority of Jesus’ name in the work of Jesus.  Peter, Christ’s agent, restores Tabitha to life in Jesus’ name.

How then is Tabitha an agent of ministry?  Tabitha acts seemingly on her own initiative and out of her own resources to care for the widows in her community.  This is a faith based initiative on her part but It appears she has been given the title disciple (not deacon) which suggests that she pro-actively understands this work to be following the way of Jesus and a ministry she is called to – and that others in the community have confirmed her as having that authority.  So you have this nice balance of call and affirmation happening – very Presbyterian. She is an agent of ministry – acting on behalf of Jesus and by affirmation of her community.

Keep in mind the context – this is 1C Roman Empire – women did not have all that much agency (i.e. the ability to act independently and make their own choices) unless they had wealth and even then agency was limited. Think of any context in our contemporary world where women do not have agency and imagine such a one as Tabitha. They are in villages in Africa, Asia, the steppes of Europe, islands of the Pacific and they are in NZ towns. There are many Tabitha’s stepping up, leading and initiating out of their own resources on behalf of their communities.

Peter’s work with Tabitha happened quickly. His role in the narrative is a demonstration that this is the post Easter world where nothing is what it seems. This is the world in which new life is revealed and old disempowering realities dissolved.

His action in the narrative was short and sharp and he moves onto the next thing but the dissolving of realities that disempower and render lifeless, people, groups and indeed our planet is a slow burn, to use the language of the gym. This is where the Tabitha model comes into play.

Back in 2016 there was an exhibition in the Dunedin Museum – Women of Ngai Tahu –, which to me seemed like an exhibition of many Tabitha’s. These were women agents of ministry for their people and indeed for NZ for over 100 years. One or two well known figures but mostly women affirmed in their own context, quietly and in some cases not so quietly, working for change. I remember wandering around the exhibition marveling at the cumulative significance of these women’s work and how this work – these stories – were, in the main not from the history books but from diligent research into archives and oral narratives – Stories that never made it to centre stage in much the same way as Tabitha can easily be missed as an apparently passive character – one who is done unto – whilst missing what she has done.  Tabitha’s story models creative problem solving – thinking outside the square – thinking empowerment and agency rather than charity and this exhibition demonstrated this Tabitha like action in a powerful way for me. The exhibition brought Tabitha alive for me. Which in itself shows how powerful story is and how important it is to tell the stories of those who live beneath and between the public narratives.

I’ve used this Arthur Ashe quote before but it bears repeating more than once.

  1. Start where you are
  2. Use what you have
  3. Do what you can

We need the people that stride across the public stage – the Apostle Peter’s and Prime Minister Jacinda’s – we need them to sign the papers and lead the way – but we also need the people who look around and start where they are, using what they have and doing what they can.

This is Mother’s Day. We honour Mother’s on this day but it is also useful to consider the origins of Mother’s Day in the USA where the work of two women in particular initiated a movement of protest by mothers. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation”, an appeal for women to unite to bring peace to the world, lest more sons be lost on battlefields at home and abroad. Some 35 years later, Anna Jarvis, inspired by her own mother’s experience picked up the theme of honouring mothers.  Anna’s mother, Anne Jarvis gave birth to eleven children but only four of them, including Anna, survived to adulthood because of the typhoid and diptheria epidemics that ravaged Appalachia. After Anne’s death, and after some years of lobbying by her daughter Anna, President Woodrow Wilson established a national Mother’s Day in 1914. Mother’s Day therefore has its origins in the fight against war and disease and the desire of Mother’s for their children to live into adulthood.

Both Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, started with where they were, used what they had and did what they could. The fact that Mother’s Day has been so commercialized is disappointing but their legacy of saying ‘no more’ to war and disease is carried on in Appalachia as women fight against the contemporary opioid addiction epidemic.

Emergent leaders who step up to the challenge of living in the way of Christ – who are prepared to take on the slow burn of ensuring life giving action are sorely needed. Whether it is big stage realities that need miracles of new life such as the state of NZ’s water, use of the land, the future of work, income and poverty, climate change – or more personal family, local and social issues the key thing is to learn from a narrative like Tabitha ‘s, who used what she knew, and did what she could to empower and work with her community in order to dissolve the disempowering realities that appear to rule the world. This is living the way of the living Christ. This is bringing to life hope, agency and a sustainable future. This is the way we are called to as disciples of Christ.