Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Grafted in or cut off?

Sometimes I wonder at God's sense of humor. Our reading from Acts this week reminds us not only of His power to redeem but of His humor. To see both, we need a bit of background information. Eunuchs in the Ancient near East were an interesting class. Sometimes, free men or slaves were castrated for political purposes; sometimes they were castrated for religious reasons. Since the men had been castrated, the eunuchs were viewed as trustworthy and unbeset by a lot of the passions that drove "intact" men. Kings obviously did not have to worry about Eunuchs sleeping with their wives and concubines. Kings also thought they did not have to worry about the eunuchs stealing or playing politics, as the source of ambition (i.e. providing for the well-being of their family) had been removed.

Unlike much of the rest of the ANE, however, Israel did not value the role of Eunuchs in society. When conquering other nations, and in contrast to many nations in the ANE, Israel was not allowed to castrate any captured slaves. Further, eunuchs were actually excluded from worship! Leviticus 21:20 and 22:24 excluded eunuchs from serving as priests or Levites. And Deuteronomy 23:1 went a step further by stating that anyone with any genital damage was excluded from worship. Why the harsh judgment and exclusion? Some commentators argue that castration marred God's image of man, and so eunuchs could not be allowed to participate in the worship of Him. Others argue that eunuchs may have been outwardly visible reminders of the voluntary religious acts practiced by the Canaanite peoples which were to be rejected utterly by Israel. Others note that possession of the Land was an outward and visible sign of the covenant with God. If one could not have children, one's inheritance would be lost. Whatever the reason, eunuchs were excluded from the assembly of the people and the worship of God.

Yet, as with so much of His story of redemption, the plight of the faithful eunuch is not lost upon God. In Isaiah 56, God takes up the great sadness of the eunuch who loves God. Isaiah reminds us that a eunuch can love and worship the Lord; yet that faithfulness and love seems unrequited by God. So, in verses 4-5 of Isaiah 56, God promises the eunuchs who keep His sabbath and His torah a name and memorial far greater than any sons or daughters. Such a promise must have seemed impossible to both the eunuchs and faithful Israelite who read the passage. How can God give a eunuch a memorial greater than sons or daughters?

Fast forward to our passage in Acts 8 this week. You and I might think we have any number of ideas for reading during a cross country trip than Isaiah, but can you imagine any better book were we God-fearing eunuchs? Isaiah would have been the promise of hope for all faithful eunuchs. And so, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah on his way back from Jerusalem. This eunuch is returning from a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage which will have reminded him of the fact that he is seemingly excluded from God's promises. And, there, along the side of the road, the faithful eunuch meets one of God's apostles and learns of redemption through the saving work of Jesus!

Philip strikes up a conversation by asking the eunuch if he understands what he has read. The eunuch says that he has not. And so Philip tells the story of Jesus of Nazarus and how He was the One of whom Isaiah wrote. Quickly, the Ethiopian eunuch grasps the story. His hope for a name and for a memorial greater than sons and daughters is in Jesus, the Messiah of God!
As God would have have it, a pool of water is nearby as they are traveling. The eunuch asks what prevents him from being baptized? Philip says nothing, and the last of Jesus' commands to go and proclaim the Gospel in Judea, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The first person to hear and be converted by the Gospel of Christ from the ends of the earth is an Ethiopian eunuch! And we so often like to think of God without a sense of humor.

There are any number of lessons applicable to our modern life in this story. Chief among them would be God's caution to us about appearances. So often, we think we know what other Christians ought to look like. For whatever reason, we forget that in the eyes of God, everyone looks like someone who does not belong until they die to sin and are reborn in Christ. We continue to focus on the outward appearance and try to discern whether the stranger or other among us truly belongs. Yet God's offer is really quite simple. Believe in His Son, accept His offer of salvation, and He will give you a memorial and name greater than any sons or daughters. We are, if we truly accept His offer, adopted into His family or, to use Jesus' imagery from this weekend, grafted into His vine. And so we should not be surprised, as members of His holy family, that our witness sometimes draws others to Him and His offer of saving grace. And, instead of turning a cold shoulder to them, we should offer the strangers among us a hand, a welcome, warm eye contact, and the love which He first offered us.

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