April 11, 2016

Grace and Works

            We have a saying at Central, especially this time of year as students scurry to get final papers and projects completed.  The saying is: “Salvation is by grace; graduation is by works.”  Of course professors and students alike know that some grace is ingredient in any commencement.
            As the third Sunday of Easter approaches, the lectionary text in Acts suggests a close alignment of grace and works.  In the story of Tabitha (Dorcas in Greek), her good works are on display.  She was “always doing good and helping the poor” (9:36b).  Generous in all her ways, she had gathered a circle of widows who benefited from her ministry.

            When she died unexpectedly, her friends sent for Peter who was in the vicinity, not far from Joppa.  Peter responded quickly, and I think his healing ministry with Tabitha prepared him for a further remarkable spiritual experience in Joppa, which prompted a much larger vision of the extent of God’s work with Gentiles, whom God did not consider unclean.  You recall that Peter had struggled with inclusion, especially when it came to sharing meals with others than Jews.
Tabitha carries a unique title; her designation is “woman disciple” (mathetria), used only here in the New Testament.  Obviously, she had quite a following! In the Spirit and power of the Risen Christ, Peter bids her to arise.  Luke uses the same verb (anistemi) that describes the resurrection of Jesus.  The resuscitation of Tabitha has similarity to the miracle of overcoming death in other stories the Gospel of Luke, and she returns to her life through the restoring power Peter offers in the name of Jesus.

Peter presents her alive to all the widows, those who had been so influenced by her faithful service.  She now becomes the inspiration for the conversion of many, and they believe in the Lord because of this mighty act.  In these early days following the resurrection of Jesus, Acts demonstrates the many ways his disciples follow his pattern of healing
I find the accent on her many good works interesting.  Protestants have been quite fearful of comprising the power of grace with any concomitant emphasis on works.  Yet, the story of Tabitha makes her concrete labor for others the centerpiece of her life, lost and then restored.  There is no perception that she is raised because of a simple calculus that this is what she deserves, yet her generative ministry surely expresses resurrection power.

"Discipleship" by Elspeth Young

God’s compassion on the bereft widows is also an essential part of this narrative.  Restoring her to this community expresses the power of resurrection that is set loose in the world.

Grace inspires good works, and these expressions of liberation demonstrate the power of God’s redemptive power.  Indeed, people are much more likely to believe in resurrection when the people of God practice merciful initiatives toward others.

Molly T. Marshall

Central prepares creative leaders for diverse ministry contexts.

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