June 5, 2016 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24); Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”

This line isn’t from any of the texts appointed for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost. It is from Acts – Acts 26:8 to be exact – and it comes out of Paul’s mouth as he defends himself before King Agrippa. Chapter 26 of Acts is a play-by-play testimony to the revelation Paul speaks of in Galatians 1. It is the revelation he received not from any human origin, but from a divine one, and therefore he must heed it regardless of the consequences.

“Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” That question reverberates down through history and bellows into our sanctuaries this week as we read about widows whose only sons have died. Elijah heeds his heavenly marching orders and goes to the widow of Zarephath, bringing the word of God’s miraculous provision for her and her only son. He then raises that same son from the dead in the optional verses that follow. (I say: Go for it; read until verse 24.) I suspect the good widow of Zarephath thought it incredible. At any rate, it convinced her that Elijah was indeed a man of God. The Luke text has Jesus encountering a funeral procession where a widow is about to bury her only son. Jesus’ compassion moves him to raise up that son. The crowds gathered thought it was pretty incredible. Fear seized them and they glorified God. They were convinced Jesus was a prophet.

If the widow of Zarephath finds it incredible and the crowds of Nain do, too, why shouldn’t we? What need do we have to hear Paul’s rhetorical question? Well, I think we need it asked of us more than ever because, frankly, I wonder if we don’t find resurrection incredible so much as don’t believe it is possible. Not really.

If these three texts tell us anything, they tell us that our God is a God of compassion and life. Our God has particular concern for the world’s most vulnerable and the power to bring about resurrection-type reversals – not just in Zarephath and Nain but in a town near you. Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?

We are post-Easter people, after all, and, as Paul details in 1 Corinthians 15: 12 and following, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Our God is a God of compassion and life, the God who stops to tend to the vulnerable and brings resurrection to people and places overcome with weeping and mourning. Our God brings about resurrection-like reversals, turning one who violently persecuted the church of God to one who is willing to be bound and even die for it. Why is it thought incredible that God raises the dead? Or transforms the violent into peacemakers? Or turns mourning to dancing? Or forgives sinners? Or works through the lowly? Or loves the unlovable? Or makes a denier and a coward into the rock upon which the church is built?

This week is a week to proclaim with confidence that our God is a God of compassion and life, the One who has special concern for the most vulnerable and the power to raise the dead. Do we think that incredible? Do we believe it to be possible?

In my role as editor of the Outlook I have the great gift of speaking to various church folk in various settings. I go to session meetings, presbytery meetings, worship services, conferences and retreats. I give keynotes and sermons and have all manner of discussions. It is a great gift and I am amazed at the depth and breadth of faithfulness I encounter. I have, however, noticed something – a pattern, a common thread. Almost always if I have lifted up God’s promises of power or presence or provision, someone will raise their hand and say something along the lines of, “I am uncomfortable with claiming that God has called and equipped me. I am no Moses or Mary or Peter.”

Agreed. None of us are Moses or Mary or Peter, but their God is our God. It isn’t anything within us that raises the dead. God acts: on us and through us. Elijah doesn’t raise the widow’s son; God raises him. Peter doesn’t raise Tabitha; God raises Tabitha. We don’t enact the great reversals of our own lives or of others’ lives or of history or of culture or of the church; God does. The question for us is do we think such things incredible for God? Do we believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead or is our faith futile and should we be the ones most to be pitied?

I recently had two memorable conversations with people in two different settings. The first one was at a party. I knew the person I found myself talking with, but not well. He wanted to share with me his divine revelation. He even said something along the lines of: You heard, no doubt, of my earlier life. I had. He went on to tell me how he’d had an encounter that had totally transformed his thinking about race and systemic racism and now he couldn’t help but share what he now saw. Like Paul, he didn’t care the consequences of sharing his newfound sight. He was ready to use it as God chose. Frankly, I found the reversal, well, incredible.

Then, just days ago, after I had given a “minute for mission” type presentation at a church, a woman I did not know came up to me and said, “I want to tell you something. You are looking at a miracle.” She went on to tell me how she’d lived despite unbelievable odds, how she’d had an encounter with the divine and how now she wakes up every day and prays, “God, please show me how you can use me today.” I confess, some of what she shared, was incredible.

And yet, both of these stories are undeniably true, no less real than what the widow witnessed in Zarephath of the crowds saw in Nain. What if, instead of finding such reversals, resurrections and new life incredible, we expected it? We looked for it? We prayed for it? We counted on it?

Why shouldn’t we? We are post-Easter people. Jesus has been raised and therefore we will be, too. Our God is a God of compassion and life. Our God stops to care for the most vulnerable and brings resurrection to those weeping and on the way to the grave.

If we didn’t think that so incredible, we would be bolder, braver and maybe even fearless. We would go to the widows of Zarephath and Nain, trusting that God is already there, knowing that Jesus promises that those who weep are blessed and will laugh, and proclaim resurrection hope until the day resurrection happens.

This week:

  1. Do a word study of “weep” and see what other texts have this word in Luke and Acts. Who is weeping and why? What does Jesus have to say about weeping?
  2. Take a look at the other texts where “rise up” or “raised” is used. How often is it used in reference to Jesus and how often to others?
  3. Read Acts 26 for the details of Paul’s “earlier life.” Notice that he, too, is told to rise up.
  4. Who are the widows of Zarephath and Nain in our world? Who are the vulnerable of the vulnerable? Do we see them and have compassion?
  5. Paul talks about the knowledge he received from God and how it is absolutely authoritative for him. Have you received such knowledge and been compelled to act on it? Is it dangerous to claim unequivocal, divine revelation? How do we know it is really from God?
  6. Pray daily for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in your community and in the world.

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