SUNDAY SERMON: Dorcas

Rev. Stephen Baldwin

NT: Acts 9.36-43

A few weeks ago, I was out working in the lawn out back here at the church. A woman who was parked at the library came over to talk for a while. It quickly turned into a confessional, where she confessed various beliefs she held which she didn’t think were particularly Christian but which she held onto tightly nonetheless. Perhaps I should have told her to go across the street to the priest for confession, but I listened. 

One of her confessions was that she didn’t think women should be in ministry. 

“Why not?” I asked her. 

“Because it just doesn’t feel right,” she said. “And it’s in the Bible.” 

“Actually, there were many women in ministry with Jesus and in the early church,” I said. 

She left shortly thereafter, and I dedicate this sermon to her, hoping in love that she and others might consider the story of Dorcas. 

These two mentions in Acts 9 of Dorcas are the only two mentions of her in the entire New Testament. So we don’t know a great deal about her, but what we do know about her is great. 

Her name originally was Tabitha. She was later given a Greek name in the early church, as they were Greek-speakers, which was Dorcas. Both mean “gazelle.” 

She was a disciple. That’s not just some generic term; that’s a specific term for early church leaders in the church of Jesus Christ. 

She was raised from the dead. Like Jesus. Like Lazarus. Everyone knows the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. Lazarus was his friend. His supporter. His follower. Brother of Mary and Martha. 

Very few know about Dorcas, whom some have called Lady Lazarus. She was also raised from the dead. Not by Jesus, but by Peter. She was a disciple. The only woman in the Bible who is specifically called a disciple. Not a teacher. Not an assistant discipline. Not an apostle in training. Not a helper. Not a children’s minister. Dorcas was a disciple. Full rank and benefits. As a woman in the early church. 

She was well-known for good works and acts of charity, the scripture says. She was an artisan, who worked with fabrics. She was a homeowner. It appears in the story that the house they are all inside is hers. Not only that, but it has an upper room. So it’s a big house. A nice house. And it belongs to Dorcas, a female disciple. 

One day, she becomes ill and dies. The community, who obviously cares deeply for her, prepares her body for burial. The other disciples know Peter is nearby, and they ask him to come immediately. 

He travels with the disciples to her home, goes into the upper room, and commands her to get up. Miraculously, she does. And many more came to believe in Jesus, the story says, because of this resurrection of the beloved Dorcas. 

This story raises many questions. The most glaring to me is, “Why Dorcas?” What was special about her that she was a disciple? That she was beloved? That she was resurrected? 

One reason can be found in a small detail in the story we read earlier which we probably didn’t give a second thought to. Joppa. The city where all this takes place. 

Joppa is a port city full of all kinds of people. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, young and old, believers and non-believers. That’s key because it shows the strategy of the early church.  They were working to grow the church outside the traditional church. They were going where the people were with the good news. 

Joppa is also the port city where Jonah boarded a ship in order to run away from God, before eventually ending up in the belly of a whale. Do you remember the story? God calls Jonah to come and help…and Jonah runs away from Joppa. The disciples call Peter to come and help Dorcas…and Peter runs to Joppa. 

The contrast is the point. God calls, and Peter responds. He has learned from Jonah’s mistakes. And now, in the port city of Joppa, filled with sinners and non-Jews (another word for Gentiles), Peter and the church are about to be called to something new–a full ministry to the Gentiles. 

The other reason I think Dorcas is given such a place of prominence is because we have all met her before. We have all known Dorcases–women who make others their priority. Who devote their time to good works and charity. Who use their own resources to make life a little bit better for others. Who have been resurrected in order to spend their lives resurrecting the lives of others. 

Thank God for Dorcas of Joppa, and for every Dorcas we have met along the way. For their lives, for their love, and for their ministries as disciples of Jesus, we give thanks. Amen. 

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