Cut off from the church? Here’s good news for you (and a challenge to the church)

The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch points to a faith which is radically accepting and inclusive. (Listen.)

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 even know his name. Instead, we only know that he’s a eunuch. And as a eunuch, he has been cut off from having children, and from establishing a family line.

He is also 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; that they, too, may worship in God’s house with joy. And perhaps it’s with these promises ringing in his ears that 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 despite the words of the prophet Isaiah, the law of Moses is clear: as a Gentile, he is excluded from any but the outer court of the Temple; and as a eunuch, he is excluded altogether. Yet again, he is cut off.

***

All welcome, the churches say. Let the children come, the churches say. Love your neighbour, the churches say. They promise welcome, and participation, and inclusion; they promise joy in God’s house of prayer. And so the stranger comes but, all too often, no one invites them home for a meal. The children come but, all too often, they are shunted into another building, or herded into a soundproof room. LGBTI+ people come but, all too often, they encounter limits on their participation—or are asked to change or leave. Like the Ethiopian eunuch at the Jerusalem Temple, God’s people come to our churches yearning and vulnerable, seeking a story and a blessing and a place to belong; 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 on the wilderness road, he pores over the scroll which promises so much. Where did he go wrong? What did he miss? As he wonders, the Holy Spirit leads Philip to come alongside him and share the good news. Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Philip says, and in him we are promised a new covenant and a new creation. And just as Isaiah foretold, these promises are indeed for all people. For Jesus came to reconcile all things, and all who follow him through the waters of baptism will be grafted into his life. There are no exceptions. No-one who seeks will be cut off.

Heart in his throat, scarce able to believe, the Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What’s to stop you from baptising me?” Perhaps he is wondering, Where’s the catch? For he has encountered catches before: the law of Moses, the temple priests. But this time, there is no catch, and Philip baptises him there and then, grafting him into the body of Christ forever. He is no longer cut off, but bound now forever to the source of all life. No wonder he goes on his way rejoicing! No wonder he is said to have become the first missionary to Africa! And Philip too travels on, sharing 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 marginalised, or condemned, or told to stay home? Who is hurting and confused, and wondering why those who say they love Jesus don’t seem to love them, their neighbour, very much? And is there someone you are called to meet: someone on the wilderness road; someone who has been rejected by other churches; someone who needs you to journey with them for a while?

Whoever it is, don’t leave them dangling. Go to them, and through word and action show how Jesus came to gather up all people, 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 know 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 good news, some people will hold onto their rejection, hurt and anger, and they are free to make that choice. But others will be thrilled to hear that God’s promises are for them, too; and overjoyed to be invited to the house of the Lord. So let us see to it that this house, and many, many houses, become places of prayer for all peoples; places where their joy overflows.

In the name of the true vine, Jesus Christ our Lord: May it be so. Amen. Ω

Reflect: Who has been effectively cut off from churches in your region? That is, who has been marginalized, condemned, or told to stay home? Is there someone you are called to meet on the wilderness road who needs to hear the good news of Jesus’ hospitality and acceptance?

If you enjoyed this, you might also be interested in a reflection on eunuchs, vasectomies and transgender identities, here.

A reflection on Acts 8:26-40, John 15 and Isaiah 56 by Alison Sampson, given to Sanctuary on 2 May 2021 (Easter 5B) © Sanctuary 2021, lightly adapted from an earlier version given on 29 April 2018. Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash, a painting he describes as ‘a simple celebration of inclusivity’.

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