The Ethiopian eunuch is cut off in every way. A precious part of him has been sliced off, and this loss defines him: for we do not know his name. Instead, we just know that he is a eunuch. And as a eunuch, he has been cut off from having children, and from establishing a family line. He is an Ethiopian, a Gentile. Even so, something in Judaism has attracted him: perhaps from the Isaiah scroll which he studies so carefully in his chariot. Perhaps it is the promise from Isaiah 56, that God’s heart extends to the eunuch and the foreigner; that they, too, may become members of the covenant. And perhaps with this promise ringing in his ears, the Ethiopian eunuch travels to Jerusalem to worship.
What is he looking for? Perhaps the promise of welcome, and participation, and inclusion; the promise that he too will be made joyful in God’s house of prayer; the promise that he, too, shall have a name that shall never be cut off. Heart full of hope, seeking belonging, he arrives—but he encounters only exclusion. For the law of Moses is clear: as a Gentile, he is excluded from any but the outer court of the Temple; as a eunuch, he is excluded altogether. Yet again, he is cut off.
Welcome the stranger, the churches say. Let the children come, the churches say. Draw in the marginalised, the churches say. They promise welcome, and participation, and inclusion; they promise joy in God’s house of prayer. And the stranger comes and, all too often, no one invites them to eat. The children come and, all too often, they are shunted into another building, or herded into a soundproof room. People with diverse gender and sexual identities come, and encounter limits on their participation—or, even more often, are asked to change or leave. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, God’s people come in all their glory, hearts full of hope, seeking belonging; but in a hundred different ways, both implicit and explicit, from full participation they are cut off.
Rejected once more, the Ethiopian eunuch leaves Jerusalem. As he travels home, he pores over the scroll which promises so much. Where did he go wrong? What did he miss? And as he wonders, Philip comes alongside him and shares the good news. Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and in Christ we are promised a new covenant and a new creation. Even better, these promises are for all people. For Jesus said of himself, “I came not to judge, but to save,” and no one who seeks him will be cut off.
Heart pounding, scarcely able to believe, the Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What is to stop you from baptizing me?” Perhaps he is wondering, Where’s the catch? For he has encountered catches before. But there is no catch, and Philip baptizes him then and there, grafting him into the body of Christ. He is no longer cut off, but bound now to the source of all life. No wonder he goes on his way joyfully! No wonder he is said to have become the first missionary to Africa! And Philip too travels on, sharing the good news throughout the region, good news which is for everyone.
Who has been cut off from the churches in our region? Who has been marginalized, condemned, or told to keep their kids at home? Who is hurting and confused, and wondering why those who say they love Jesus don’t seem to love them very much? And is there someone you are called to meet: someone on the wilderness road; someone who is feeling rejected; someone who needs you to journey alongside them for a while?
Whoever it is, do not leave them dangling. Go to them, and share the good news, that they too might experience Jesus’ extraordinary hospitality; that they too might be grafted into the source of all life. For Jesus is the true vine. Those who are united in him will find life; and, through their baptism into God’s family, they will be granted an everlasting name that will never, ever be cut off.
As we share this news, some people will hold onto their rejection, hurt, and anger. Fair enough. But I reckon others will be overjoyed to hear that God’s promises are for them too; and overjoyed to be invited to the house of the Lord. And if I am right in this, then we can expect to see this house, and many houses, become places of prayer for all peoples. Thanks be to God! Ω
A reflection on Acts 8:26-40 and Isaiah 56, with allusion to John 15:1-8, given to Sanctuary, 29 April 2018 (B36) © Alison Sampson, 2018. Image shows The Baptism of the Eunuch by Rembrandt (Public Domain).
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