This week we meet Dorcas. Dorcas is one of my favourite New Testament characters. She’s the first woman to be described as a disciple – although she was clearly not the first woman to be a disciple. One of the things we learn about her is that she has a talent for dressmaking – and is clearly skilled at that – the women around her were very keen to show off the garments that she had made. As someone who aspires to be better at sewing than I am, I greatly admire Dorcas and her gift.
Let’s think about the Scripture, about why Dorcas appears in the Acts of the Apostles and what she has to teach us. The reading opens with a couple of facts about Dorcas. We’re not told where she’s from, or what she does or even much about who she is. What we learn is that she was a disciple and she was devoted to good works and acts of charity. We are meeting a woman who is known for living her faith. The fact that we don’t learn till later in the reading that she had particular practical gifts gives an even heavier weight to this information.
The story of the healing of Dorcas comes immediately after the healing of Aeneas. Peter was in and around Joppa and performed both of these healing miracles – the story would suggest pretty well back-to-back. Many theologians would suggest that the story’s primary purpose is to tell us something about Peter and the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. I can’t argue with that big picture perspective, but I want to focus first on the smaller more detailed picture, and not to lose sight of a rare story about a named woman.
Devoted to good works and acts of charity. Let’s unpick that a bit. Not just interested, but devoted to good works, to making a difference in the world. Seeing need and responding. But remember, this isn’t actually the first thing we’re told. The very first piece of information we get is that she is a disciple of Jesus Christ. The information about her passion for good works is secondary. One follows from the other, her activities are linked with, perhaps an expression of, her discipleship.
As twenty first century disciples, the choices we make about how and where to direct our energies follow on from our commitment to turn to Jesus and to follow him. We’re reminded of that in our Gospel reading: I know my sheep and they follow me.
The worldwide church keeps this week as Vocations Sunday – taking that imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to inspire and encourage those who are called, in particular, to ordained ministries. We’re asked to pray for those who are exploring such a call.
Vocations Sunday was first designated in 1964 by the Roman Catholic Church and has been adopted by other denominations over the years.
Some of you were perhaps worshipping in this Cathedral in 1964 – I imagine it was a very different set up from the one we have now. There was a time when our Dioceses were staffed with many more clergy than we have now. A time when the only voices you would hear on a Sunday morning would be those of male clergy. A time when clergy did, and lay people were done to.
That was neither right nor wrong; it wasn’t necessarily better or worse than the situation we live with today – it was different. For many reasons, there are fewer clergy; fewer people called into full time ministry. The church is resourced in a different way. It can be easy to assume that different way is inferior, or an unfortunate response to a changing world.
But just as the healing stories in the chapter of Acts that we read today tell us something about the movement of the Spirit in Peter’s life, so the changing situation in the church may be telling us something about the movement of the Spirit in our lives. If this Cathedral was in a different financial position, would our first priority be to increase our clergy resource? If the Diocese had more clergy than churches, would deployment be different? Perhaps not.
One of the massive changes in relatively recent years has been the increasing involvement of lay people and the recognition and valuing of the gifts of people who are not in authorised ministries but who bring something distinctive.
Those of us who are privileged to exercise a full-time ministry depend on the support and input of those who freely give their time and their energies.
Vocations Sunday has its roots in a church that was clergy focussed and clergy dependent. I would like to think that we are now rooting ourselves in a church that honours and supports the ministry of all its people, a church that recognises that there are complementary and interdependent roles, a church that seeks to become something that is more than the sum of its parts, that seeks to be the body of Christ in this place and time. I hope that we are moving towards becoming a church that sees its primary mission as outward facing and inclusive. A church that has a commitment both to those within its walls and those without and that recognises that the work of mission is the work of the whole church, not a task for the clergy alone.
We are all disciples, and as disciples of Jesus Christ we are all called to follow him. Dorcas rooted her exemplary care for others in her discipleship. She found a way to make it not about her, but about people who were more vulnerable and amongst whom she was able to make a difference.
One of the tasks for those who are in ordained ministries is to support others to fulfil their potential as disciples. That means recognising the giftedness of others, it means encouraging people to use those gifts, it may mean supporting people to discover gifts that have so far been hidden. It means honouring those who have gifts that are very different from our own.
One of the tasks for those who are lay members of the church is to recognise that some disciples have a particular calling, a calling to leadership and service within the church, a calling that flourishes when it is affirmed and supported.
The task of discerning who might be called to be the next generation of clergy is one for all of us. Clergy are called by the whole church to serve the whole church. They are called into a distinctive role, but that role is only fulfilled when they have the support and trust of the people they serve.
Vocations Sunday is a day that makes a particular demand of each one of us. Vocations, whether ordained or lay, only serve the community well when they are affirmed and owned by that community. Vocations Sunday demands that we take our discipleship seriously as a first step and then, and only then, discern the expression of discipleship to which we are called. Vocations Sunday also requires us to honour and respect the expressions of discipleship to which others are called. We are called to different kinds of good works and acts of charity, but each one is a call from God. By honouring every call, we enable the formation of the Body of Christ in this space and the lived expression of our collective calling.