Today’s passage can be read here.
Matthew Parris is a journalist and former MP. He is one of my favourite political commentators, specialising in what he describes as a ‘wry look’, and he is also, sadly, an atheist. In 2008 he returned to Africa after 45 years having lived there as a child and wrote a fascinating column for the Times entitled; ‘Why Africa needs God’. It’s still available via the Times website but now, only through subscription. In it, he talks about the contribution Christians are making across the continent; through Christian charities but also through countless Non-Government Organisations where African Christians serve the poor. Matthew Parris was honest enough to admit his conclusion made him uncomfortable and brought back positive memories of Christians he had known as a child. For Christians, this information is encouraging but not new; believers have always had a heart for the marginalised. It goes back to Jesus as we have seen in Luke’s Gospel and it continued in the early Church as we see in today’s passage.
Luke has been focused on Saul for all of chapter 9 so far but now turns again to Peter. He has been ministering through the country and at this point arrived in Lydda on Israel’s coastal plain. The passage centres on two remarkable miracles but before we look at them it’s a good opportunity to look at the Churches in Lydda and Joppa. Peter was visiting the believers when he met Aeneas so it seems Aeneas was a Christian. We have read of wonderful healings in the Book of Acts yet here we find a believer who had been bedridden for eight years. He is with them so it would seem that Aeneas was still considered very much part of the Church – a Church that cares for sick and disabled people. In Joppa, Dorcas was always doing good and helping the poor. So we see Churches that are not selfish but seeking to meet the needs of the poor and marginalised. If we are following Jesus, that’s what we should be doing.
These miracles are recorded in because they were exceptional. Peter made it clear; the healing of Aeneas was the work of Jesus. There is no sense that Peter is trying to enhance his own reputation, he is merely following his master. We simply don’t know why the Christians in Joppa sent for Peter. Did they want him to comfort the grieving Christians or did they expect him to raise the dead? Perhaps the fact that the body had been washed in preparation for burial suggests the latter. Whatever their intension, Peter was walking in the power of the Holy Spirit and sensed God was about to do something amazing. In both miracles, Peter followed the practices of Jesus; in telling the disabled man to take care of his mat (Luke 5:24, Acts 9:34), in sending out the crowd (Matthew 9:25, Acts 9:40), and in simply instructing a dead person to get up (Luke 8:54, Acts 9:40). Both miracles affected the people around. In Lydda and Sharon ‘all who saw him turned to the Lord’ and Joppa, the raising of Dorcas led to many more to become believers.
There is another miracle in the passage that isn’t immediately obvious. Luke states that Peter stayed in Joppa for many days with a tanner called Simon. For orthodox Jews that information would have been shocking. Tanners earned their living from treating animal skins and would therefore have been constantly ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the law. This led to tanners often being despised and pushed to the edge of their communities. The fact that Peter, a Jew who sought to keep the law, was staying in the house of a tanner points to a change in Peter and that God was already preparing him for what was about to happen. If the events we have considered today were remarkable, what God was about to do would far surpass them, though probably not for Aeneas and Dorcas!
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire
to work and speak and think for thee;
still let me guard the holy fire,
and still stir up thy gift in me.
Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat,
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make my sacrifice complete. (Oh Thou who Camest from Above – Charles Wesley)