Easter 4C - Acts 9:36-43

Acts 9:36–43 (NIV)

36 In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (in Greek her name is Dorcas); she was always doing good and helping the poor. 37 About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. 38 Lydda was near Joppa; so when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!”

39 Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.

40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. 43 Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.

          There are times when enthusiasm for various ministries of the church lapses and dies.  There’s a time when no one volunteers, or the money runs out, or the ministry no longer meets the need or mission of the church community supporting it. 

          One such ministry was the The Biesinthal evangelism programme.  As a teenager I participated with enthusiasm along with the elders and other members of the congregation in which I’d grown up. 

This ministry involved preparation and Bible study by lay members of a congregation, with the leadership of the pastor, in visiting contacts of the congregation in their homes and sharing a summary of the Gospel and, hopefully, leading people to faith through the message of Jesus.

          This ministry had a limited life span in the congregation as it we soon ran out of people to visit and few responded to our keen evangelistic enthusiasm.  As far as I know this particular ministry programme has never been revisited. 

          Different models of friendship evangelism have been tried since, and then cast aside. A more recent model some congregations have tried is the “Alpha” programme which involves members of the congregation inviting contacts, friends and family members to a series of fellowship meals and an encounter with the basics of the Christian faith. 

          Sometimes ministries are resurrected, renewed or re-established with a new format.  This might happen when someone has a renewed vision or passion for a particular ministry. 

When a ministry is resurrected it can be a great witness to both believer and unbeliever alike.  If we look at the revivals through out the history of the church we often see surprising growth – yet, we shouldn’t be surprised.

          When Jesus raised Dorcas, through the apostle Peter, he was renewing a ministry – a ministry of service.  We can deduce quite a bit about Dorcas and her ministry from the text. 

Dorcas had been married.  She hadn’t stopped living and serving because her husband had died.  She reached out to other believers, and probably to non-believers as well, and sought the means to serve with the gifts she had – she made clothes – today we might call her a seamstress – Dorcas used what God had given her in the service of her neighbours.

          From the response to her death by her fellow believers and the group of widows in Joppa it’s clear that Dorcas was deeply involved in the lives of the members of her congregation and community. They’d gathered around to mourn her death and they sought the Apostle Peter to come and minister to them in their grief. 

The Christian Church had a ministry of, and for, widows which the story of Dorcas indicates was carried out by gifted widows and appreciated by others in the church and community.

          On a local level here in Hamilton we have women and men who are on the rosters of the congregation, provide support and help to those in need, in both formal and informal arrangements, and who continue in the same spirit which Dorcas ministered in. 

There is the ministry of hospitality – the cuppa etc., meals for those who are sick, the food bank, … Soup at school, Longest Lutheran Lunch at school.

          Quite naturally when someone involved in such ministry becomes ill or dies, moves out of town, or gives up that ministry there is a grieving process and others are called to step in and maintain the ministry. 

          Once upon a time St Matthew had a Ladies Guild or Women’s fellowship with a ministry of providing resources, hospitality and service to the community of a congregation. This particular ministry of Guild or fellowship has passed.

This means a renewal of the way things are done or a change in how they are done is needed.  Some-how under the Holy Spirit’s guidance this lost ministry continued, patchy as it sometimes is – you still get your cuppa, the church gets cleaned in fits and starts and the toilet paper miraculously appears in the cubicles.

          I sometimes hear people lamenting the loss of “how it used to be”. It’s quite natural to reflect on transition points to mourn the loss of the past service of various ministries – to celebrate them as the widows did when they showed Peter the tunics and other garments Dorcas had made and ask, “What do we do now?” Or “who will do …”

          We seem to be at a transition point at St Matthew as many of those who used to faithfully do the behind the scenes ministry have been called home to heaven or have moved to new communities.

          Some years ago in NSW a gathering of folk took place at Warrambui in New South Wales. On a weekend the folk of the NSW District reflected on the “Take My Hand Appeal”.  This ministry was in support of the debt our fellow Christians in Sydney could not manage on their own without the help of the wider church.

          (Our Gateway Gift Trust had contributed to this appeal too.)

          At the Warrambui gathering there was a time of story telling, of how various servants of Christ have ministered to each other and the church through prayer, praise and fund raising. 

Participating congregations and members were able to gather and share, to be encouraged and to grieve, to give thanks for God’s blessing and to seek His direction for the future of this ministry. 

          “The Take My Hand Appeal” was closed and a rite of closure was celebrated – to give thanks to God and to help the church look forward to a renewed ministry of service. 

The Church’s President (before we called him “Bishop”) at the time, Pr Mike Semmler, was invited to the gathering at Warrambui to minister to the New South Wales district with the Word of God and with prayer in much the same way as Peter ministered in Joppa.

          It was a bit like the gathering of the widows and Christians in Joppa to mourn the death of Dorcas, to celebrate what had been accomplished and to seek God’s guidance on future directions for the this ministry of meeting the debt. 

It was hoped that a new way ahead would be revealed – perhaps even a miracle to bring to completion the work necessary for the Church to move on in God’s call for the Church to make disciples of all nations.

          Ministry continues in many guises.  Ministry is more than distributing clothing and fundraising for debts. The widows and poor who Dorcas served really loved and appreciated her.

She was so caring, so involved in the lives of those she helped.  Dorcas had the gift of giving herself, even as she gave the clothing she made for others. 

          Ministry is about relationships too – it’s about acceptance, encouragement, forgiveness and hope.  From the brief story in Acts about Dorcas, she appears to have been one of those lovely people – like Mother Theresa was.  

She was a neighbour in the sense Jesus meant when He described the Good Samaritan who stopped and helped, who went out of his way and didn’t count the cost of care for others but did it because of love for God – a natural response to God’s grace to them. 

          Dorcas’ concern for others rather than powerful speaking or a great singing voice, won Dorcas the love of her friends and neighbours. Sometimes in our desire for a more public ministry we forget that the greatest in God’s Kingdom are called to be servants, and servants are called to care for those they serve.

          Serving others brings its own rewards.  Not that we serve to be rewarded.  We serve because our Lord Jesus serves us.  Every time we hear the words of absolution: ..on behalf of my Lord Jesus Christ, and by His command I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

          Every time someone is baptized and everytime we receive Christ’s body and blood in and with the bread and the wine in Holy Communion we receive and participate in the sacrificial love of God for us.

          We gather to retell the story of God with us in the world, to hear again of Jesus death and resurrection so that the miracle of our resurrection will be renewed in us. 

          Dorcas and her ministry of service renewed and continued, even though she fell sick and died, by the prayers of the faithful.

It’s my prayer that we may all be renewed in the various ministries God has called and blessed us in. 

I encourage you all to see how you can more effectively and faithfully serve in the commitments you made when you joined St Matthew and when you volunteered (or will volunteer) with your name on the church rosters.

 That like Dorcas, you may be true Christians neighbour’s to each other in the congregation, parish and district of the Lutheran Church, and also to the people of Hamilton.