Sermon: Sunday 17 April 2016
Fourth Sunday of Easter
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
So who do you think you are? The popular TV show selectively opens up the family history of a celebrity or person in public life and we learn of their tales from rags to riches. Daytime TV watchers get to watch the programme Heir Hunters where suddenly a long lost relative’s unclaimed estate becomes the catalyst for piecing together a family story very often marked by the vicissitudes of family relationships.
The Archbishop of Canterbury hit the news headlines last week as he shared that his biological father was not who he thought. This was in a situation of great dysfunction as a result of members of his family being addicted to alcohol. The DNA testing invented at our University of Leicester which in turn was used to identify Richard III now has the much wider capacity to identify the truth about our biological identities. Archbishop Justin had lived his life as had his mother and his mother’s husband with the assumption that he was their offspring. Now many years later, we learn that his father was someone else, in fact very close to Winston Churchill. Justin is not the first nor will he be the last to learn of such a thing. Indeed, I would be surprised if this were not the case for many – even someone here?
How does such a revelation change things? Justin worried about how it would affect his mother. And no doubt he will have been replaying in his mind so many family occasions and conversations. I’m sure all this will have been at some personal cost but Justin has also used this as an opportunity to bear witness to what life in Christ can do. He reflected as follows: ‘To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal….I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.’
Today’s New Testament reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Tabitha (her name in Aramaic or Dorcas, her name in Greek). We learn a number of things about her identity. Firstly, she is a person of means and generosity who provides for others. Specifically we are told she has supplied many garments for other widows who when they hear of her predicament gather around her with their tunics. Remember that it is also the writer Luke who tells us about John the Baptist announcing that ‘whoever has two tunics must share with anyone who has none (Luke 3:10). She is the faithful follower giving away her tunics. She is also the first and indeed only woman in the New Testament who is described as a female disciple – everywhere else you get the male form of that noun.
We glimpse the life of the early church. Perhaps Tabitha was a person of means because she has enough space in her house for many to gather. And they gather in her upper room! We know that it is in an Upper Room that the cost and possibilities and practices of Christian discipleship are revealed. In particular it is there according to Luke that Jesus denounces the Temple as a ‘den of thieves’ (19:46) milking widows of their pennies. Contrast that with Tabitha’s Upper Room as a place of grace filled provision and re-ordered human relationships. Being host to the community does not necessarily make her the head of the community but alongside her faithful Christian practice and patronage it does suggest that.
But who is she now in the face of illness and death? These experiences are often some of the most dramatic human experiences which very often force identity crisis. We don’t have Tabitha’s self-understanding to answer this from her perspective. But we do have that of others. The church, the other disciples (resorting back to the make form of the noun) send for Peter who is known to be about ten miles away. Word is travelling about the revelation of God’s power in the life of Aeneas who has been parlaysed for 8 years but who now walks.
So Peter is reinstated after his major wobble of trust and allegiance at the crucifixion where his own identity seemed to be at stake. Now after the resurrection, Peter seems to have reconnected with his true identity in Christ. Now it is Peter who is calling people by name, just like his Lord. It is Peter who is saying get up, live. Aeneas and now Tabitha rise up (the word is anatethi as in Anastasia – resurrection!). Previously Peter has used that word to describe what God did to Jesus on the ‘third day’. Peter in the life of the church has become an agent of resurrection. The new life that she had been demonstrating amidst the widows of the community becomes definitively hers – as in that upper room death is triumphed by life.
The witness of Christians to the resurrection is persistent throughout the centuries. It is told in a myriad of ways by people discovering an identity in God’s love which is reliable and trustworthy especially when all our external reliabilities have gone – even things like the sure sense of parentage or many other so called ‘facts’. The new stained glass in St Katharine’s Chapel about which there will be much more to say makes the same point. We see snippets of Richard III’s life portrayed so that we make the connection – the joy of childhood, the trauma of war, the isolation of betrayal, the searing bereavement from the death of a child, the burden of office, and a fragmented and worn life. And we see in the middle of each window Christ – in the most easterly offering the forgiveness which is the gift of the cross and in the more westerly window, the resurrection gift of companionship and recognition in the supper of Emmaus which turns despondent followers into witnesses of the resurrection.
Our sense of identity is vital. We learn things about ourselves and circumstances change which both draw out new insights and shroud others. For many it is adolescent years which are most tumultuousness in this craving for identity – the need to be different, the need to be the same and certainly the need to not be like mum or dad! I had my fair share of struggles with this. Working out that I was a gay man was one of the biggest and at times painful journeys especially when it jarred against social and family expectations. Although for numbers of people in my situation the church has not been the best place for such discovery, for me the opposite was true. In becoming ever more committed to Christ and learning to trust his love more and more, I felt more and more able to be truthful and open.
There was a chorus we used to sing which makes me slightly cringe now but it was one of the dearest things to me for years: Jesus take me as I am, I can come no other way, ….make me like a precious stone, crystal clear and finally honed, love of Jesus shining through, giving glory back to you (words: David Bryant 1978).
Luke in Acts tells us ‘Peter (sic) gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive’ (36:41). Faced with all our identity questions, in the Lord, we are alive! Or as Dietrich Bonhoeeffer writes only days prior to his execution for his faithfulness to the way of Jesus : ‘Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine, whoever I am, thou knowest O God, I am thine’ (from Wer bin ich?).
Acts 9:43-10:23: Easter 4 © The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester