About a year ago, my friend Anna died. She was 33. Grief is so strange. Even though I had helped to plan and officiate her funeral, I would still forget for a moment that she was gone. For weeks after she died, I would think about sending her a text, and then remember all over again. Before she died, Anna gave me some of her things: a chair, a spoon rest, a silicone mat for rolling out pie crusts. I have those things in my house, and I think about her when I see them.
When I read this passage about Tabitha, the moment that stands out to me is when the widows are standing beside her bed, weeping and showing Peter the tunics and other clothing that she made while she was with them. This moment rings true for me - this is what we do after someone we love dies. We hold up the things they touched and say, “She was just here. She made this. How can she be gone?”
The people who knew and loved Anna told stories about her, trying to remember all the specifics. How her voice would get really high when she was excited. How she would send text messages that were pages long. How much she loved bioethics and hedgehogs. How many medical interventions she went through to have more time with her nieces. We wanted to remember her as she was, to not soften the edges of her life.
I think this is what the widows are doing. They are remembering their friend Tabitha. Let’s remember her with them.
Tabitha was part of the church community in Joppa, a city on the Mediterranean coast that is now present-day Yaffa, adjacent to Tel Aviv. The Scripture says that Tabitha was a disciple. She is the only woman explicitly named as a disciple in the New Testament, and this is the only time that the feminine form of the Greek word appears. But it also says that she was a disciple, not the disciple, which suggests that there were more women who were disciples. A disciple means someone who is attached to a teacher or movement and follows their instruction and commitments. As a disciple, Tabitha studied and followed the teachings of Jesus. She lived out her beliefs by devoting herself to good works and acts of charity.
Tabitha had two names, Tabitha and Dorcas; both mean gazelle. Like the apostle Paul, Tabitha was a Greek-speaking Jew with both a Jewish name and a Greek name. Scholars have speculated about what kind of woman Tabitha was because the text is unclear. Some assume that Tabitha was an independently wealthy woman. Others note that Tabitha was a common name for enslaved women at the time. Tabitha may have been a widow, supporting herself and the widows in her community by making clothing. Regardless of her economic status, her community mourned and celebrated her.
And who are these widows? If we go back in the Bible, there are many examples of God telling the people to care for widows. For example, Deuteronomy 14:29 says, “The widows in your towns may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”
In the New Testament context, the word “widow” was fairly inclusive. It could mean any woman who did not have male protection or support. A widow might be a woman who had been married but her husband had died. She might be a divorced woman. Or she might be an unmarried woman who no longer had her father’s protection.
I have talked about the moment where the widows are weeping at Tabitha’s bedside, but this is also a moment in the early church. Earlier in Acts, there was a dispute in the church because a certain group of widows was “being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (6:1). Later, the church would set up the “office of widows,” described in 1 Timothy 5. This was a role for widows who had no family members. The church would support these widows, and the widows would devote themselves to prayer and good works. That sounds a lot like the description of Tabitha and this community of widows. This community may have been an early version of this kind of role in the church. We sometimes talk about the early church as if it was one thing, but these communities were learning, growing, and changing.
These widows cared for Tabitha’s body. When she died, they washed her, and then they laid her in a room upstairs. When they heard that Peter was nearby, they asked him to come. They brought him to her bedside. And they stood beside him, weeping, and showing him the things she had made.
In turn, Peter cared for Tabitha’s body. When he heard the news about Tabitha’s death, he got up and went with the disciples. He stood at her bedside with the widows. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes and, seeing Peter, she sat up. Peter gave Tabitha his hand and helped her up.
In some ways, the miracle is the least interesting part of this story. We have heard miracle stories like this before, of someone in an upstairs room who is raised from the dead. At this point, Tabitha goes from being an individual to being a sign. She is no longer a specific woman; she is the disciple who was raised from the dead. This story became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. But Tabitha’s community remembered Tabitha, in all of her specifics, and we remember her.
I lift up this moment of the widows grieving beside Tabitha’s bedside because grieving is precious, holy work. It is important to take time to grieve the people we have lost, to remember their stories. And God meets us there. God meets us in our grief and our struggle and our joy. God is present when we tell each other stories about those we have lost. In this moment, and the next, and the next, God is doing miraculous things.
Please pray with me.
God, you are here in this place. You are present in the moment of our grief. You know our stories. You know us in all of our specifics. Be with us as we mourn those we have lost and help us to see you clearly in all the ways you are moving among us. Amen.