cut off

9 05 2012

When one of the older ladies shouted out ‘castrated man’ from the back row during my sermon, I got the feeling it was something she has wanted to do for ages. Thankfully it wasn’t her opinion of the vicar or a new feature from the liturgical commission, but an answer to the question ‘what is a eunuch?’ The eunuch story is one of my favourite passages. 

From a sanitised, wholesome and avoiding-awkward-rawness-of-life perspective, it’s inconvenient for church. If only it was the Ethiopian nobleman, or the Ethiopian king, or even the Ethiopian farmer. But no, it is the Ethiopian eunuch. The story of a castrated man. Why do we need to know that? It seems a little unfair that of the sparse details we are told about this man, this is the one we know. Maybe some of us can identify with being known only by our origin and our disabilities, where we are from and the way we look.

I had to be careful with pictures for this one

We are not told why this man was a eunuch. Castration was sometimes done to slaves as a punishment, to subjugate them, or to make them ‘safe’ so they could faithfully attend to the King’s women. Royalty could also promote them without fear of them producing children who might try to usurp the throne. Eunuchs were mocked, ridiculed and despised as sexless and pointless. This particular eunuch had risen in the ranks of his queen, become treasurer; but was still known by his willy. Or lack thereof. 

So why was this black African from what would have an exotic foreign land – actually modern-day Sudan – doing worshiping the God of the Jews in Jerusalem? He was probably a Jewish convert, or had been a born a Jew. He had come all this way, and when he got to the Temple, he would only have been allowed into the outer courts. The man was excluded from the covenant community, alienated from God’s household – and unable to produce a household of his own. Pretty desperate and lonely situation. 

 So we meet this man, on his way home, reading aloud from Isaiah. And he was reading this section:

 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him… nothing in his appearance that we should desire him… he was despised and rejected by men…” (Isaiah 53)

 This man understood what it meant to despised, rejected.

Philip did not regard it as bad luck or socially dangerous to be seen talking with him. Instead, he saw how easy it would be for the eunuch to feel like a lamb with it wool cut off, humiliated. 

What would we do at this point? If we met someone who felt rejected by the community, cut off from society, seen as without usefulness or purpose?

Philip told him about Jesus. He told him that Jesus was despised, rejected, led like a lamb to the slaughter; the Jesus death was on behalf of us all. And that Jesus was raised up, exalted, resurrected, glorified. Shame replaced by honour. Rejection by glory. That we might all be welcomed into the family of God. 

It is an odd family, a family full of everyone, the ordinary and the oddballs. The poor, the disabled, the rejected; the wealthy, healthy and accepted. An odd family, but a wonderful family. Into this family the eunuch was introduced. He was so excited, he was baptised, there and then. Because for him this meant that the centuries-old divide that kept him out was gone. The man was in the covenant community, the family of God.

For what it’s worth, church is a family. We are a place where you will not (should not?!) be known by your origins or your disability, your looks or your circumstances. Being in God’s family means being a child of God, adopted and loved and chosen. 

 I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch read on from Isaiah 53. If he did, he would have read this in Isaiah 56:

3 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, 

        “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
        And let not any eunuch complain,
        “I am only a dry tree.” 

4 For this is what the LORD says:
       “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
       who choose what pleases me
       and hold fast to my covenant- 

5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
       a memorial and a name
       better than sons and daughters;
       I will give them an everlasting name
       that will not be cut off. [pun intended]

This is the gospel. This is why it is good news. When people who are on the edge of the covenant community, who are excluded from society, in any of its various forms, discover the welcome of God. My hope is that the eunuch would find such a welcome in our covenant communities. That our politeness and religiosity and piety and genuine desire for holiness would not be the knife that cuts people off and marks them forever as being outside. 

No-one is a dry tree here. 

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4 responses

10 05 2012
c2drl

I agree. But sometimes I wonder whether Christians go out of their way to be rejected, as some kind of badge of office. Their behaviour almost seeks out rejection. The Bible makes it clear that rejection os not a sign of being good of elect, and is not something to be sought, but that it may happen when we make a stand for Jesus. Like so many things it is not ours to seek or bring about, nor should we compare ourselves with others. We should walk the walk that Jesus calls us to travel with him.

10 05 2012
Kevin

Indeed, we are not called to a victim mentality; but this is more about those who society treats badly, and who can find a welcome in Christ, and with his church. Through him we see healing take place as people with physical and mental health problems, and so many other things that can separate us from each other, are given confidence and wholeness and a knowledge, however small at first, of being loved and accepted for who they are, with all their (our) issues.

11 05 2012
c2drl

Agreed. God does amazing things for people and we continue to pray for more. I do sometomes wonder whether Godd’s work is frustrated by people in the Cghurch who hang on to their victim mentality and don’t allow themselves to receive all that God can do, because it is a bit scary. Not only do they miss out themselves but they also set a lower expectation fo others. However, let he who is without sin throw the first stone, so I will keeo quiet!

11 05 2012
Kevin

I’m sure that is true as well – for so many people, illness or misfortune or other aspects can become so entwined with identity that to remove them, even to heal them, would damage the person; or at least, for those things to be let go of can be too big an ask for us.

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