I think that it is important that we explicitly ask ourselves these questions and think about our answers, because I think that our answers (whether we realise it or not, and whether or not we even realise we have answers!) affects how we live and what we do and don’t do.
Tom Wright’s Acts For Everyone commentary was very helpful for this sermon. It got me to focus on what the passage revealed about the life of Tabitha and her fellow widows.
Eternity: Acts 9:32-42; Revelation 7:9-17
A few years ago, the then Man Utd defender, Nemanja Vidic, talked about how people live and work in Britain. He said this:
“They just don’t have time to feel the joy of life. Throughout the week they all work so hard. They only talk to people at lunch break. Then in the evening they come home and watch the telly so they can get up early for work the next day. The only time to meet friends are at weekends.”
Last week I spoke about the importance of our legacy, the importance of what we leave behind. This week I want to take that one step further. Because, actually, what we leave behind isn’t the whole story. What these readings tell us is that what we do has eternal consequences, that the best of what we do isn’t simply left behind. The best of what we do is somehow taken up into the eternal life of the new heaven and the new earth. What we do now has a legacy not just for now, but for eternity.
There are a number of errors that Christians have fallen into when thinking about how we spend our lives now in the light of the eternity pictured in those visions. We can believe that the only real work is evangelism, or that what we do in church is more important that what we do elsewhere, or that we ourselves should be building the new Jerusalem here in England’s green and pleasant land and nothing else matters. To do any of these things, though, is to limit our picture of God.
The footballer Vidic was talking before the economic crash, before the massive growth in unemployment and austerity. But, even then he said that people don’t have time to feel the joy of life. I think that’s got worse not better. And that’s a major problem. We can look around to see how much of a problem that is. We are called to live the whole of our lives for God’s glory. Work was part of God’s original plan for humanity and a gift from him to us.
But, like everything else, that gift has been distorted and marred. It is attacked by pressurised jobs and unemployment and illness. It means that, even if we do have a job we have to consciously struggle to balance the different parts of our lives, so that the all of what we do is for God’s glory. We’ve thought before about God being our boss, about the call that “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord”. And that of course includes unpaid work. Raising children, whether your own or as grandparents or carers, either full-time or part-time is demanding and fulfilling. Retired people frequently tell me how busy they are now.
The passage that we heard from Acts is largely about the group of widows of whom Tabitha was a member. This was a group of elderly women, a group of ‘retired’ people who had a significant part to play in the life of the early church. They became an important group and they’re mentioned quite a few times in the book of Acts and in the letters in the New Testament. There were groups of widows in practically all of the local churches and most of them seem to have done the same as Tabitha’s group.
In the reading that we heard Tabitha is raised from the dead. The fact that this event happened, that Peter was chosen to raise Tabitha from the dead, brings the widows into the spotlight. It shows that God was concerned with this group, that this group was valued. One of the most astonishing miracles, bringing someone back from the dead is not something that, even in Acts, happened that often. And yet one of the few occasions was a widow, someone who made clothes. What does that say about God and his priorities? If we’re surprised, what does it say about our priorities and assumptions?
Because Tabitha was raised from the dead we find out a bit more about the widows. The widows were an important group in the early church. They were significant because they needed care. There wasn’t an old age pension then, so people had to support them. But, they had the time to pray, to support the work of the church, to grow the church through their words and actions.
In the reading, the widows took Peter to see the clothing that Tabitha had made. She, and they, were part of an important, practical ministry, which made a significant contribution to the life and work of the early church.
The Church of England has relied for a long time on the modern equivalent of the widows, namely ‘the retired’. Because being retired is about moving from one form of productive employment, into another form of productive work, both inside the church and in the wider community.
Work, whether paid or voluntary, is at the heart of God’s plan for our daily lives, despite the ways that it has been sinfully distorted. Part of the answer to this is to change our society, through donations, through prayer, through joining campaigns and unions and political parties to resist these pressures.
But, most importantly, the worth that God saw in Tabitha and the vision of the reading from Revelation hold out to us the radical alternative of the Kingdom of God, where all that we do, all the we are able to do, is valued and valuable. We’re promised that the tears that we shed now will be wiped away by God himself. What those in the white robes had accomplished became part of the new heaven and the new earth. And of course that’s not where Revelation finishes.
At the end of Revelation, heaven returns to the physical earth. We see a renewal and a transformation, but the good that was here already will remain. The good that we do will remain.
So what difference does that make to how we live our lives? What difference does that make to how we work, what we do when we retire, what we do when we can’t find work or can’t do paid work? It reminds us that whatever we’re doing with our days has eternal consequences. This isn’t about a guilt inducing ‘go out and convert the world before breakfast’, but an encouragement to work, rest and play in the light of eternity. Work, rest and play are all important, all part of God’s purpose for us, but all can be distorted.
God is not starting again, but is taking what is already there and refashioning it. Salvation is a liberation of what has been enslaved. This is powerfully shown in the Incarnation of Jesus, where Jesus takes on our humanity and transforms it. In the gospels we read that Jesus’ resurrected body was physical. He could touch, he could cook fish, he could break bread. His wounds were still visible. And yet this physical body was also unlike our physical bodies. It was somehow transformed.
In Romans 8, Paul uses this transformation as a sign of what will happen to the whole of God’s creation. Jesus’ death and resurrection have decisively brought God’s rule to earth. And through the Holy Spirit we are commissioned and equipped to put that victory into practice. We are made in God’s image and so we are to carry on God’s work here on earth.
God takes ordinary, physical things and transforms them. In baptism ordinary tap water becomes a sign of God’s transforming grace in people’s lives. In communion ordinary bread and wine become the signs of God’s broken body and shed blood through which we can enter into his presence. The work of human hands becomes a means of drawing closer to God.
At the end of Revelation we learn that our ultimate destiny is not a garden, but a city, that ultimate sign of humanity’s need to depend on one another. It is a human community where we all have our different tasks, all of which are required for the city to function properly. Work and community were parts of God’s original plan for creation, they are parts of how we build for God’s kingdom now, and are parts of the renewed, transformed creation that will be.
So what we do now takes on cosmic proportions. We are building for the new kingdom that God alone will bring. What we accomplish will become part of God’s new world. Every act of love, every work of art, every day spent faithfully at home or in the office, every act which embraces holiness, justice and peace, every smile and prayer and act of kindness somehow, somehow will be there in that new earth.
We are promised that the Spirit will help us in our weakness. So let us seek the Spirit’s transforming power so that we can truly work for God’s kingdom in our daily lives, in how we shop, in our hobbies, in our time with family and friends, in how we treat our world, in our time at church, so that all we do is part of God’s kingdom breaking into the present and is building for God’s glorious future of which we can be a part.
Let us pray:
as you made this universe and will remake a new heaven and a new earth,
and as your son Jesus took on flesh and lived a perfect life among us,
by the power of your Spirit remake us,
so that we may truly reflect your image
and work in your kingdom,
now and forever.