Building the Movement: Finding Leaders
Emmanuel Baptist Church; Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff
May 12, 2019
So as you know, I’m new here. This is my first official Sunday as your substitute pastor while your actual pastor, Kathy Donley, is on sabbatical. I’m only going to be here for four months so I really need to get the lay of the land fast. So, quick question as we start off this morning. Who here is a leader in this congregation? Raise your hands, please! Is that right? Look around, everyone. Would you agree? Are these the authorized leaders—people who have elected leadership positions? What about the unauthorized leaders? This question is actually a tricky one, isn’t it?
Here’s another tricky question: in the story we read this morning from Acts, who is the leader? Peter is an obvious answer. Peter is the person who gets called in at a time of crisis. Peter is the one who has the authority to pray and Peter is the one who has the power to raise Tabitha from the dead. In fact, this story could even be read as offering proof of Peter’s qualifications to lead the church. Peter shows that he is Jesus’ successor by exercising the power to resurrect the dead, something that up to this point only Jesus has been able to do.
But what about Tabitha? She is clearly identified as a disciple—in fact, it is the only time the feminine form of that word is used in the New Testament. She is clearly someone who the other disciples recognize as important because when she dies the other disciples send word for Peter to “come without delay”. And what about the group of widows who are gathered around Tabitha’s body when Peter arrives. Who are these women? Her friends? The recipients of her charity? Or could we even call them her followers? These women show Peter the “tunics and other clothing” that Tabitha had made. Why would they bother to do that? There is something about the work of Tabitha’s hands that is worthy of admiration. Perhaps she is exceptionally skilled. Perhaps she has long been known for her craft because it is sold widely and valued by many.
There is much in this story that isn’t explained, but that is often how women’s stories are preserved in the historical record. To hear them, we have to pick up on a few clues and fill in the rest of the story with our imagination. When it comes to Tabitha, based on a few clues and a lot of imagination, I would suggest that she is another leader of the early Christian movement—a woman who had some measure of power and influence, a woman who had a following.
So if Peter is a leader, and Tabitha is a leader, how did the two relate to each other? Here’s where our imagination can really run wild, can’t it? It would be easy to imagine that there would be a rivalry between them. It would be easy to imagine that when Peter goes to her bedside, he puts on a sorrowful face but inside he is rejoicing, thinking, “Now all these people are going to be on Team Peter!” But that isn’t what Peter does. Peter kneels and prays and then turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, get up!” Tabitha returns to life and in a poignant detail, the text tells us that Peter “gave her his hand and helped her up”.
This is an important story, friends, an origin story. This is a story that tells us what the early Christian movement was like. Peter went to the deathbed of another person who was a recognized leader in the community. And instead of celebrating the elimination of a possible rival, he made it clear to God and to Tabitha that she was still very much needed. Peter gave her his hand and helped her up. “We still need you,” he told her in actions and perhaps in words. “Let’s do this together.”
It didn’t have to be that way. Think of all the stories in the Bible that describe a single leader who anoints a single successor. Think of the kings—Saul to David to Solomon. Think of the prophets—when Elijah comes to the end of his life on earth, he anoints Elisha as his successor. These are the stories of the culture that produced these early Christians. Jesus famously says of Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” a passage that is still used to explain while the Roman Catholic Church is ruled by a single male leader. But Peter was a leader who extended a hand to another leader. Just as Tabitha was slipping out the back door of this life, Peter caught her and through the power of God pulled her back. “Let’s do this together.”
Peter’s actions might have been surprising, but they certainly weren’t unique. Jesus, after all, called twelve disciples, not one. And as he traveled around, teaching and healing, he called out other leaders. “Zaccheus! I’m going to your house today!” he says to a tax collector who by the end of the meal he shares with Jesus becomes a leader in financial reparations. Jesus heals a demon-possessed man who lived among the tombs in the Geresene region, and then commissions that man to tell the people in his region “the great things the Lord has done for you”. And as Paul spreads the teachings of Jesus, he doesn’t write to a single leader of a particular church—he writes to the entire community, and sends greetings to multiple leaders in each place.
What are we to make of all of this? To me, it’s clear that the Christian church in its formative years was a movement, not an institution. Movements build leadership because they want to build power—they want to tap into lots of people’s networks, draw on lots of people’s ideas and experience. Institutions consolidate leadership because they want to consolidate power. They want clear chains of command and unifying statements of purpose. Which brings us to an interesting question: Is the Christian church today a movement or an institution? Is Emmanuel Baptist Church a movement or an institution?
Maybe there’s a question behind those questions. Would you rather be a part of a movement or an institution? And that’s not a trick question—everyone in here supports and benefits from institutions like the State of New York or the University of Albany or the Albany Public School District or the Albany Public Library. The clear succession of leaders within an institution is part of what gives our world stability and order. It can be very nice to know that someone is in charge—and it isn’t you! It can be very nice to know that there’s someone to blame when things fall apart—and it isn’t you!
But that’s not how it works in a movement. Movements need lots of leaders, people who lead in all sorts of different ways. Movements generate leaders because they make room for people to contribute their ideas and their energy. You don’t have to get elected to be a movement leader. You don’t have to be certified to be a movement leader. You just have to show up and pitch in.
Friends, without a doubt, the church that we read about in the Book of Acts is a movement, not an institution. And while that movement went on to form thousands of institutions, it feels to me like the stories that ground the church, the energy that propels it, and the Spirit that leads it are all about the movement. And when we get caught up in fretting about the institution of the church—its policies and procedures, its buildings and its budgets—that movement energy is still there like an underground river, flowing and fresh and free.
Friends, I don’t know about you, but when it comes to the church I don’t just want to cry at the bedside as something that I love dies. The story of Jesus has grabbed hold of my heart because it is the story of resurrection—the story of new life that defies the forces of death. I am a Christian because I want to be a part of a movement propelled by resurrection energy. But if I join in with that movement, I know I’m going to be called to be more than a loyal citizen. Joining a movement means being a leader in my own way, contributing my gifts and adding my energy. And it means recognizing the leaders all around me—reaching out my hand and helping them up and saying, “Let’s do this together.”
Are you with me? Are you on board? Let’s start this now—turn to someone next to you, someone behind or in front of you, extend your hand to them just as Peter did to Tabitha. Say to them, “Let’s do this together!”