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Acts 9:36-43: Roman or Catholic?

03/11/2015 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

The first-century church was full of catholics. Not Roman Catholics, but catholics -- people devoted to good works and acts of charity. There are over 50 million Roman Catholics in the United States alone which is an impressive number despite the Protestant impetus that shaped and defined our country. But there are many more non-Roman Catholic Christians who nevertheless fall into one of two categories: Roman or catholic.

You are one, or you are the other.

To say you are "Roman" is not to say you were born and raised in the capital of Italy. And to be identified as a "catholic" is not to be labeled as a follower of the pope. In fact, we're talking "small c" catholic here, meaning "universal."

So what does it mean to be Roman or to be catholic?

Truth be told, there is some Roman in all of us, and also some catholic. Romans build roads and great information systems.

Catholics, in contrast, are committed to loving outcasts in an extraordinary way. They volunteer in soup kitchens, run foot clinics for the homeless, play bingo with nursing home residents, and devote a week of vacation every year to doing mission work. Although the Roman approach to life is very different from the catholic concept, the two are not mutually exclusive. We can be both Roman and catholic, regardless of our denominational affiliation or our day-to-day job description.

The question is: What kind of focus does God want us to have? The world tends to reward Romans, but the Lord has an incredible incentive package for the catholics of this earth.

We look at the coastal city of Joppa, a town famous for piracy and other port-city problems. It is a rough-and-ready center of commerce, full of Romans anxious to find an angle, do a deal, and turn a buck. And when the apostle Peter comes to town, he stays with one of these local entrepreneurs, Simon the tanner --a man who works with animal skins, a ritualistically unclean profession -- something that must've weighed on his conscience, because it was on the rooftop of Simon's house that Peter has a vision of clean and unclean foods, and hears God declare, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean" (10:15 NIV).

That, however, is another story. In Joppa, there is a small Christian community founded by Philip the evangelist. One of the disciples is a woman named Tabitha, an Aramaic name that means "gazelle," and is rendered Dorcas δορκάς, in Greek. The first thing we learn about Tabitha is that she is "devoted to good works and acts of charity" (Acts 9:36), which means that she ranks as one of the true catholics of the world.

But wait -- we also discover that she is well known for making tunics and other fine clothing. She's a Joppa entrepreneur, a businesswoman who may have accumulated some significant wealth through her stitching. Along with her catholicism she's got a Roman streak as well.

As the story begins, Tabitha becomes ill and dies. This loss of a leader devastates the Christian community, and the church members send an urgent message to Peter, "Please come to us without delay." When Peter arrives, the widows are in an upper room, gathered around the body of Tabitha, weeping and holding her fine tunics and other clothing. Peter shoos them out the door, kneels to pray, and then says to the body, "Tabitha, get up." Miraculously, she opens her eyes, sees Peter, and sits up.

You can just imagine the reception she receives.

Tabitha is restored to life as a sign of the death-defeating power of God, and the news of this miracle races through Joppa, causing many to believe in the Lord (v. 42). But Tabitha is raised for another reason as well, one that is bound to hit close to home for many of us: The Lord needs Romans who are willing to behave like catholics.

The significance of Tabitha's life was that she blended together her Roman ambition and catholic compassion. She didn't keep the two apart, toiling over tunics 50 hours a week, and then performing an isolated act of charity with whatever time she had left over. We can keep our catholic and our Roman sides together by seeing our day-to-day work as an opportunity to treat every human being as a precious child of God. This devout female disciple [μαθήτρια,] is a model for Christian women; although she does not appear to be endowed with extensive property, she is charitable, to the full extent of her ability, to the poorest and most neglected class of all, to widows; she acquires the means by furnishing articles usually made by females, and these she prepares with unwearied diligence and self-denial. While charity thus prompts her to provide for the needy, she proves that she is a faithful disciple of Him who himself first showed mercy to her and to the entire world. No, the text reports that she was "devoted to good works and acts of charity" (v. 36), meaning that these activities played a central role in her day-to-day life. She may even have turned her sewing work into mission work, creating tunics and clothing for the widows and orphans of the community. She kept the Roman and catholic sides of herself together, united in a single, seamless existence.

We can pursue this goal ourselves by following the example of Tabitha, who turned her sewing work into mission work and had a powerfully positive effect on the city around her.

Perhaps your Joppa is a post office or grocery store. In these environments, clerks can endeavor to face long lines of customers without haste or confusion. They can engage customers with smiles and conversation, and in so doing erase the annoyance of waiting. If clerks see their daily work as mission work, they can turn everyday transactions into meaningful human experiences.

Perhaps your Joppa is a large company. In that type of workplace, professionals can look for opportunities to mentor a young person, compliment a subordinate, or assist a colleague in need. They can also do well by doing by making sure that business is done with honesty, integrity and responsiveness to the community. Good Romans can also be good catholics.

. If you want the new life that Tabitha enjoyed, you'll need to be a Roman who can act like a catholic, and love the outcasts of this world in an extraordinary way.

This means:
• Loving the homeless woman who asks for your spare change every time you walk by.
• Loving the teenager who bangs up the family car ... again ... and again.
• Loving the employee who can't concentrate because of a problem at home.
• Loving the teen that has some new body piercings.
• Loving the student with the multiple piercings and Gothic garb.
• Loving the neighbor with the rusty truck up on blocks.
• Loving the nursing home resident who can never remember your name.
• Loving the child you assist through a lunchtime Big Brother program.
• Loving the families you serve through a church mission project ... across town, or across the globe.

I am hopeful that as a Lutheran(ELCA) pastor that visited Rome recently we can go from Conflict to Communion and realized as stated in the document Church and Justification that "Catholics and Lutherans together testify to the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone and is received in faith. The recitation in our common creed, confessing one catholic and apostolic Church makes us all "catholics". This is the love that never runs out, because it is not a Roman commodity. Instead, it's a gift of God.

So find your Joppa, and be a Roman. Catholic.