Blogging toward Sunday

April 23, 2007

In this new series, authors offer reflections on the Sunday
lectionary texts. Feel free to join the discussion by adding your
thoughts.

The
structure of this narrative—the miraculous move from death to life—is
clear and unambiguous. It is an epitome of the truth of the gospel that
God—in Christ—has transformed the world toward well-being. It is indeed
a “miracle,” which means that it is an inscrutable, inexplicable
happening beyond all of our categories of explanation. The preacher’s
task is not to explain (or explain away), but to witness to the
concrete claim of the wonder that God’s power, in this instance, was
decisive for life in the world.

This narrative, like every biblical narrative, is set in the midst of other biblical narratives. We can read backward:

•Behind
this narrative is the narrative of Mark 5:35-43 that it surely echoes.
In that narrative it is Jesus who utters the commanding words, “Little
girl, get up.” That utterance changes the world. The utterance of Peter
in Acts 9:40 echoes the utterance of Jesus.

•Behind
the narrative of Jesus in Mark 5 there is the narrative of Elijah (1
Kings 17:17-24) and the narrative of Elisha (2 Kings 4:32-37). In these
strange stories the “surge” of the power for life, entrusted
consistently to human agents, transforms the world.

•And behind
all of these stories of Peter, Jesus, Elisha and Elijah there is the
raw liturgical report of God’s own capacity to enter a world of
negation and work newness. At the very outset, God said, “Let there be
light” (Gen. 1:3), and the world of chaos came to fruit-bearing order.
The utterances of Peter (and of Jesus) are commensurate with the
utterance of the creator on that first day amid the mass of chaos. In
all of these utterances, it is authoritative speech that matters
decisively. It is the peculiar claim of these narratives that the power of God for life
has been peculiarly entrusted to particular persons. Obviously Elijah
and Elisha are peculiar in the Old Testament, endlessly subversive and
“outside the box” in their transformative capacity. It is equally
obvious, of course, that in the New Testament Jesus is entrusted with
the word of life that renews the world.

So consider Peter. If we
refer to the authorization of Peter in Matthew 16:18, we have a
beginning. In a more “catholic” reading, Peter is the head of the
church. In a more “evangelical” reading, the “rock” is Peter’s
unshakable faith in Jesus. Taken either way, Peter, in our narrative,
is an epitome of the authority and capacity and mission of the church.
Peter, now the embodiment of the church, enters the room where there is
a smell of death. He prays. He engages the body. He utters his
commanding imperative. And life is given, life that is, in verse 41,
celebrated by saints and widows.

The wonder is witnessed and
attested only by saints and widows. What a pair! The saints are those
who did not flee from the smell of death. The widows are those who live
every day in their vulnerability, at the edge of death. They are the
only witnesses. The non-saints, the ones who fear death, were gone and
did not stay to see the miracle. The anti-widows, the ones who work
death on the weak, were not there. It takes a certain kind of witness
to see the newness! They stayed in the chamber of death and were there
for the surprising gift of new life.

Clearly the narrative
attests that Peter—the church—is entrusted with the resurrection power
of Jesus who himself carries the force of the creator God. The church
is entrusted with the power to create new life. . .bodily, concretely,
locally. It is no wonder that in the Book of Acts, the church is always
before imperial authority, for the capacity to bring life out of death
threatens every status quo.

In the Gospel reading, the works of
Christ testify that Jesus is the Messiah, the works of new life that
Jesus enacts everywhere (John 10:25). But many do not believe the
testimony, because they are inured to the old arrangements of death and
despair. But “my sheep” are the ones who “follow me.” The church stays
close to Jesus, and so follows Jesus, not only in being obedient, but
also in dispensing the miraculous power for life. The church continues
to do what Jesus has done in order to make the world new.

The
ones who do that, the faithful, empowered church, have “eternal life,”
a quality of bold freedom in the world (John 10:27). Perhaps that
“eternal life” was already signified in the life of “Tabitha” (Dorcas)
who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). She
already knew, in her daily round, about “eternal life.” Now the whole
body of saints and widows, attached to the narrative, is invited to
live that life with her, close to Jesus, agents and recipients of new
life!