Imagine you have a vision. A voice from outside yourself, pulling you towards an adventure, a mission.
That’s what happens to Paul and his companions. They get a dream sign, a vision, in the voice of a man calling them into Macedonia.
Paul has been guided along roads for a long time already now—a journey with remarkable horizons but still, in an understood world—an eastern, provincial world at the edge of the Roman empire.
Now, they go traveling through Phrygia and Galatia, but the Holy Spirit keeps them from going into Asia; they had an idea about what they could do in a place called Bythnia, but the Spirit of Jesus, gives some hard, definitive closure of that way. They allowing themselves to drift in a strong steering current, and thats part of what Luke is trying to get across in this narrative: God is actively shaping their path toward something as yet unseen.
Parker Palmer writes about a time in the middle of his life when, frustrated by the sense that his opportunity to seize life and claim calling was running through his fingers, went to stay with a community of Quakers to pray and seek what Quaker Christians speak of as “way”—the patient, confident openness to the experience of God revealing the path God would have you walk. Nothing but frustration. Nothing happens. Eventually he pours out all his angst to a woman of many years. This is how he relates what she said: “‘I’m a birthright Friend,’…’in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.’ She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: ‘But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.’”†
Ways are closed for Paul, and they’re helped by those closed possibilities to the coast in Troas. And here, in the vision, the man says “come over and held us” calling them across the Aegean—into Macedonia. That’s Greece.
That’s another place altogether. Its a dramatic step further from the known. Its a step onto a different stage. They’ve traveled into the land of epic myth—the vision comes to them in Troas: Troy—the scene of the Trojan War—the foundational epic of Greek and Roman imagination. And they’re being called across Homer’s wine-dark sea to the land of Alexander the Great, who stormed out of Macedonia once upon a time to conquerer of the whole world they knew. Now they’re set to sail the other way, carrying word of the kingdom of God.‡
What strikes me particularly about how this journey is described to us in Acts is this: we’ve heard about visions before in Acts: Ananias literally gets a street address in the vision that sends him to Paul; Cornelius doesn’t quite get an address, but he knows he’s to reach a man called Simon and Peter, staying a man named Simon, in a house by the sea; Phillip is guided to an Ethiopian courtier in a chariot. Pretty specific.
But in the dream this time, Paul gets….a province, a direction. Only that.
They catch a ship and hop their way across, and eventually to the coastal city of Philippi. Philippi: not the provincial capital, not the biggest city. Just a place. This is where they decide it seems right to begin. And they are very much strangers in a place they just don’t know much about it. Up to this point we’ve seen Paul preach in synagogues first. Nothing like that here, at least not they they can find. The known way, the tried way isn’t on the menu. So, here is beginning of the proclamation of the good news in Greece: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.”
They have a hunch about where people might go looking for holy space, in a city without a synagogue. They went to a place where it looked like maybe somebody would show up—maybe, on the Sabbath, somebody who knew the God of Israel. They go outside the walls of the city, by the water. And they waited. And when it turned out to be a place where women gathered,
that’s who they talked with. That’s who they meet, and so that’s who they tell the story of the their journey there, and the remarkable why of it. That’s who they tell the story of Jesus.
And God was at work in this person Lydia, opening her heart. It was a man in the vision calling them to Macedonia, but it was Lydia who first heard them. And they aren’t like—we had this dream about a man, and we have an important mission, and we were wondering if you could take us to, maybe, some men. They speak to the women as if they are the whole point of this journey—to Lydia, who isn’t even from Macedonia.
And she was baptized and insisted that Paul and his companions stay in her household. And because they had a place to stay, they could keep going back to the place by the water to talk to more people. And because they could keep coming back, they met and shared their story with others who became a community. And going back and forth to that place they eventually tangled with a young woman consumed by something that gave her clear eyes for secret realities—for who Paul was, and who he served. She served as a slave, and when Paul healed her of her possession, her masters were angry because now she was worth less to them without her clairvoyance. And because they got upset, and whipped up a court against Paul, Paul ended up in prison. Because Paul ended up in prison, he was there when an earthquake shattered the building and Paul could sit tight, and reassure a despondent prison guard and give him a vision of a whole new kind of life. And because he was still sitting in jail when word came that the generals wanted to shuffle him quietly out of the city, Paul could insist on a a face-to-face reckoning with the Roman colonial authorities. And free, they made their way back to Lydia’s house—which now seems to be the home of the church in Philippi.
Our Bishop Doyle writes about this passage in Acts that“The church must send, and empower people to go out, without plans! People should go and discover in the world what is up there and not overly plan their work. Certainly, there will be time enough to figure things out… but the beginning of mission is a Person attentive to the Holy Spirit and a Place and dependance upon God.”§
And there’s something else too. Everything that happens in Philippi, in Macedonia, begins with disciples showing up and talking with the people given to them as if they had been given to them.
† Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 38.
‡ This is probably how the original Greek-speaking audience would have heard this passage in acts, as resonant with the Homeric epics and the memory of Alexander. See: Robert Sorensen, “Paul’s vision of ‘a certain Macedonian’ in Troas: how might Luke’s original audience have heard the narration of Acts 16:9?”, Logia 21 no. 2 2012.
§ This comes from Bishop Doyle’s weekly commentary on the lectionary texts
In the Book of Acts, we’re at Joppa, a port city in Roman Judea. An urban trading center, a city of the empire. A place where cloth goods in particular, clothing, was made for sale down in Jerusalem and exported into the wider markets of the Mediterranean.*
There was a disciple there whose name was Tabitha. Tabitha is an Aramaic name,
so she was likely a Jew in this essentially Greek city. It was important to the writer that a listener know what her name meant; they translate it for a Greek listener: it means Gazelle. Gazelle is a woman of at least some wealth, which is the strong suggestion when someone in her world is described as devoted to good works and acts of charity. She had the means to be charitable to others. And she was charitable to others because something had happened to her. She was a person who had heard the story of Jesus, and been claimed by it. She was a disciple, a follower in the way.
She became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.
Who are they, and where are they. We learn more after Peter has been sent for, and then arrives.
All the widows stood by him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Gazelle had made while she was with them.†
So, They are widows. And the writer gets that its a community. They washed her. They laid her in an upper room. All the widows are there, show the clothes Gazelle made when she was with them. The message they send to Peter is: come to us. This is a community of women.
Its a community of women in a culture which had very clear expectations of a woman’s obligations, and they had everything to do with the household she belonged to. The household was the most basic and the most inviolable institution in the greco-Roman world. The fundamental unit. But what provided stability to society and empire, didn’t provide safety or security with anything like equality.‡
Households were headed by men, and having a place was about the ability to establish a relationship to a man. A woman who wasn’t connected to a household as a slave, or a servant, or a wife, or a daughter, or a mother or a mother-in-law was adrift. Unless she had her own wealth, if a woman was widowed, and couldn’t find another household that could or would incorporate her, she was terrifyingly vulnerable and in desperate trouble. There was just no space for her to fit.
But here are a bunch of widows together. And this is the place they share. When Peter decides to stay in Joppa after the miracle, they do not invite him to make himself at home. He has to go stay someplace else—in the household of a man called Simon the Tanner. This is the place they share.
Maybe its Gazelle’s own house. A house with upstairs rooms—maybe the kind of house that was a center of production for the clothing we talked about earlier.§ And we know that Gazelle was both a woman with some money, and a woman who was a master seamstress. She’s been supporting the community, but she’s also been making clothes, either to sell, or for the women themselves to wear—maybe they’re showing the clothes to Peter as they wear them, weeping around her body. She’d chosen to be with them, and to help them go on together. And when Gazelle died, they took care of her. We don’t know if Gazelle, herself, was a widow. But if she had some other family, some other people, the women, the widows took care of her in the end. They washed her, prepared her body. And they’d heard that Peter was not far, so they sent disciples to ask him to come to pray with them and comfort them, and to bury her, I guess. Which isn’t what happened.
There is more than one miracle in Joppa. One, is that Peter calls Gazelle by name, and the power that raised Jesus from the dead moves through him she wakes up and gets up from the bed and the saints and widows come rushing in and there she is holding his hand and alive.
But the greater miracle is that in Joppa, the new thing alive and growing in the world broken open by Jesus, was a place where women like these women could become a household of their own. The new thing alive and growing in the world introduced a woman with something to give, to people who needed it. And they ended up belonging to each other. A bunch of widows and Tabitha. No one was dead, it turns out. They were all very much alive.
* For a discussion of Joppa in the 1st century, and a reading of historical evidence, including archeological evidence, that suggest Tabitha could well have been a benefactress from her position as a producer of cloth goods, see Teresa Calpino, Women, Work and Leadership in Acts. esp. pp. 141-153
† David Bently Hart, in his translation of Acts, helpfully just translates Dorcas as “Gazelle” throughout.
‡ On the position of widows and early Christian communities of widows, see Dennis MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle
§ Calpino also identifies in the story suggestions that the household of widows we see in Acts 9 is connected to a workplace. pp. 159-160
The way we’ve shaped the bible into chapters and verses affects how it happens to us. So does the way we read and hear Scripture in worship. We, for example, very rarely read from John 20:31 straight into Chapter 21:1. If we did, we might snag on the way John writes ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” And then….there’s another page. The writer immediately starts telling us about another sign Jesus performed by the Sea of Tiberias.
It seems like John bottom-lines his reason for writing, wraps up the story, but then starts again. And it seems that way, most scholars agree, because John really did end his Gospel, and then the writer, or another writer in the community, reopened the scroll to add another story. And that’s wonderful, because we get to ask why. I’m convinced that when we reckon with Scripture as inspired, as an action of God to reach toward us, we need to think not only about the words, but about the story of the words. God has moved toward us in the histories of people and communities. But for right now, the important thing is to recognize that we’ve just heard the conclusion of the fourth Gospel: Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. There was a lot more that could have been told, but the writer gave us the story of Jesus and Thomas, and decided that was enough—a sign so rich with meaning that John meant originally that it would be this story resonating in the hearts of the hearer in the silence after the reader sat down. This is a powerful sign!
We could talk about trust, about doubt, about signs and our vision for God in the world. But now, I want to think with you for a little while about how this story lets us see Jesus, what the Resurrection says about the meaning of having a body.
I recently encountered a theologian—Molly Haws— pointing out something that might be obvious, but that we don’t pause over: to be born again, you have to be born. The new life of the spirit requires the prior life of the body—a body that the wind of the spirit breathes new breath into. The breath can make alive the dry, helpless bones. But you need bones.
The body is not a husk, or an enemy. As much as we’re often trying to get away from our bodies, to escape our bodies, the Resurrection proclaims the awakening and transformation of the body.
New Testament scholar Candida Moss writes that the way we tend to think of Jesus rising and appearing with his wounds may be a little off. Thomas asks to see the marks of the nails, and to place his hand in the marks. And we imagine wounds. We paint Jesus with wounds. I’ve often spoken about wounds. But the word used to describe the marks made by the nails in Jesus body isn’t a word used to describe open wounds. Used in the context of a body, she argues, its more like a depression or, really, like a scar.
You may be wondering why it matters whether Jesus shows up in that room with open wounds or with scars. Here’s why: if Jesus reveals scars, it means that whatever kind of body Jesus rises in, it’s a truly living body. A body that isn’t static. A body in which what was torn knits into scars.
If that’s what Jesus’ risen body is like, the marks aren’t just symbols of his sacrifice, or even as proof that it really is him. If the wounds of the crucifixion have become scars in the Resurrection, maybe what we see in Jesus is what glorification is like for all God’s beloved, embodied, wounded ones.
Jesus carries marks of the cross in his wondrous, mysterious risen body because the crucifixion happened to him in his body. And that tells us that Resurrection doesn’t obliterate our history. No. It breathes new life—life that can heals and grows into the perfection of our identity before God.
So our bodies aren’t something to be discarded or escaped. Our weird, remarkable, rebellious flesh is the place where we are found by and experience God. In our substance.
We need to hear that in a culture that holds up the body everywhere as a spectacle, and but which teaches us to be pretty disgusted with our actual bodies. Most of us struggle to have any unashamed peace at all with our bodies. We distrust our bodies. Our bodies are the place where we suffer. We suffer from the collapses and the breakages of our bodies.
And we need to hear that because our bodies are the place where we suffer the costs of sin. The sin of misogyny, the sin of racism—these are, as a great Priest and scholar Chris Bryan points out—evils about the body. He writes “What do they involve if not the claim that because my body is in some way different from your body, that makes me a better person than you, or else perhaps a worse person than you, and it even gives me the right to oppress or abuse you, or you the right to oppress and abuse me.” And, he writes “it is bodies that are starved…and abused.” Its bodies that are assaulted. Its bodies that are condemned to ingest unsafe drinking water.
And if there is in the end justice for what is suffered, God’s healing justice, there must be justice in and for the body. And justice isn’t forgetting, and it isn’t wiping away. Its a redeeming answer to what we have experienced. And that, Father Bryan goes on, is what we are shown in the body of Jesus: Jesus, who knew the struggle and delight of a body, and who offered his body to be broken, receives an answer from the Father—he receives justice—in a body that has been redeemed.
And he, the Apostle Paul writes, is the first fruit, of all those who will be gathered out of their graves.
Your body is your story, and your story matters to God. If you are frustrated that you aren’t big enough to reach all the light switches. If you can run so fast, you laugh with delight in what your legs and lungs can can do. Or you are heartbroken at the places your body can no longer take you. If you don’t trust its mystery. Even if your body seems to betray you. Even if you are ashamed of your body. Even if you struggle to claim the goodness of your skin. Even if you hold in yourself the trauma of a wound.
Our story has been written, it is being written, in our bodies. And at our last awakening, the promise of the resurrection is that God will author something new in it.
Moly Haws cited essay is “Put Your Finger Here: Resurrection and the Construction of the Body” Theology & Sexuality, 13 (2) (2007): 181–194.
Christopher Bryan’s quoted thoughts are found in The Resurrection of the Messiah.
Candida Moss’ discussion of resurrected body of Jesus can be found in Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity.