Interpreting the world through the eyes of God is the great gift that we as Easter people bring to world
Liz Stuart, 8 May 2022
Acts 9: 36–43; Revelation 7: 9–17; John 10: 22–30
When I am laid, am laid in earth,
may my wrongs create
no trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
remember me, remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.
Words from ‘Dido’s Lament’, one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces of music I think ever composed, part of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. I’d quite like it at my funeral. You hear all these adverts on telly at the moment that say, do you want a funeral with no fuss? I sit there thinking, ‘I want a funeral with lots of fuss, thank you very much!’ Based on Virgil’s Aeneid, the opera Dido and Aeneas tells the tragic story of the love of the Queen of Carthage for the Trojan Aeneas who eventually abandons her, prompting her to take her own life. Virgil’s tale accounts for the animosity between Carthage and Rome and may actually have been based on the story of Cleopatra. Virgil often describes Dido using the imagery of a wounded deer.
It is at least possible that the author of the Acts of the Apostles would have expected his readers to hear the story of the raising of Tabitha (in Greek, Dorcas) with the story of Dido and Aeneas in mind. Immediately before the raising of Dorcas, Peter has healed a man named Aeneas. The names Tabitha in Aramaic and Dorcas in Greek mean ‘gazelle’.
Are we meant to contrast in our minds the fate of Dido and Dorcas? – the first betrayed by a death-dealing empire, the second raised up to life by the kingdom of God; the first a queen, the second a mathetria, a disciple. This is the only occurrence of the female version of mathetes, disciple, in the New Testament. Are we meant to understand that Christianity is a comedy not a tragedy (in the technical sense of that term ‘comedy’: a drama with a happy, life-giving ending for all, including women), in sharp contrast to the machinations of the Roman Empire?
Are we meant to understand that Christianity is a comedy: a drama with a happy, life-giving ending for all?
Let’s linger a moment and honour this disciple, Dorcas. She seems to have ministered to widows, making clothing for them. Widows were a vulnerable group in ancient society, often pushed to the margins, but throughout the Old and New Testaments they are shown to be dear, particularly dear, to God. Dorcas shows herself to be full of the life of her Lord, Jesus Christ, caring for the vulnerable, giving of herself with unstinting generosity. She was their shepherd.
Some scholars think that there is significance in the meaning of her name. In ancient Jewish culture the gazelle represented life and beauty, but they were also somewhat liminal creatures, associated with the dawn. They were clean but they were not sacred: you could eat them but you could not sacrifice them.
Perhaps, then, this disciple represents the expansion of Christianity from mainstream Judaism into non-Jewish culture. Ancient Joppa was famously a diverse community. The fact that Peter ‘presented’ (translated for us as ‘showed’) the risen Dorcas is interesting. It is the same word as was used for the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. It has a formality about it – the formal presentation of perhaps a non-Jewish, female disciple as a true shepherd, fully alive in Christ.
One way to understand faith is as deep vision: seeing the world in a different way, through God’s eyes. To believe is to see differently. We see in part, of course; Jesus saw in full. He had exactly the same vision as God.
Our different vision as disciples really kicks in when we encounter death. The widows mourning Dorcas saw only absence. Peter sees life and calls it forth. As people of the resurrection, when we encounter death, we don’t see absence, we see presence and we see life. Dorcas, the disciple who died in the faith of her risen Lord, was not dead but was alive in Christ, and Peter saw that.
Looking at and interpreting the world through the eyes of God is the great gift, the good news, that we as Easter people bring to world. When others see despair, we see hope. Where some see enemies, we see friends and neighbours. When some see life that is expendable, we see life that is infinitely precious. Where some see outsiders and boundaries, we see no boundaries, we just see ‘a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes, all peoples and languages’ following one shepherd, who desires only that we all share in his abundant life.
We come to church, we say our prayers, we attend to our faith, in order to keep our vision clear, clear from the film that the world leaves across our sight, and we come to sharpen our vision. And our vision requires us to act on what we see. That is what a disciple is: one who sees with the eyes of God and acts as a result. Dorcas clothed her widows and looked after them. We are called to see differently and act on it.
Rumi said, ‘If everything around you looks dark, look again, because you may be the light’. Amen.