This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the online worship service for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021. We are grateful to Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Worth, for offering the use of their beautiful St. Mary’s Chapel for the service.
There are times when I wonder if the Church — the whole church, not just St Stephen’s or the Episcopal Church in North Texas — I wonder if the Church is a bit too pro-family. Attracting families is the goal of so many congregations. In the churches I’ve served a particular emphasis is placed on families with young children. It’s listed as a priority in most parish profiles. I’ve spent countless staff meetings in the larger churches I’ve served reviewing the list of visiting young families from the previous Sunday, feeling like we were discussing winning lottery tickets instead of people of God. Children in the pews signify life and vitality in the church, and growing churches often do all that they can to minister to these families. Family ministries become integral to the identity and purposes of the church.
What I’ve often noticed in parish ministry, though, is that the emphasis on families and family life alienates some people. For some, the experience of family life has been one of oppression and fear, or maybe even outright cruelty and abuse. For others it has been disappointing. Then we have couples who long for children yet cannot conceive them. Couples who have chosen not to be parents. We have single members of our communities by choice or circumstance. Our churches are so much more than our families, and I’ve come to understand that the more we celebrate the family as THE center of the Christian life, the more likely we are to alienate those whose households look differently.
In our reading from Acts this morning we encounter such a person – someone who finds himself on the outside of a religion that focuses a bit too much on family. We are told he is a high-ranking public official and probably quite wealthy as a result. I assume he is also a man with a hunger to find his place in the life of God because he has traveled a long way to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. We are not told what happens when he arrives, but we know that he was from Ethiopia and because of that he would not have been welcome. As an African he is a gentile and during this time there are ethnic barriers that prevent him from fully participating in worship at the Jerusalem Temple. Gentiles like him could only go into the outer court; his skin color would prevent him from ever reaching the center of the religious action.
But not only is he African, this man is also a eunuch, which means he is castrated. The practice of castrating boys of a certain servant class was not uncommon in the ancient world. Eunuchs were often the preferred candidates for various positions of political authority, because of their inability to father a family. Their lack of family commitments made them more available to serve their monarchs, and their lack of offspring meant that there was no danger of them establishing any sort of rival dynasty. They were especially favored as the high officials of female monarchs because there was no risk of inappropriate relationships or rumors of such relationships.
Being a eunuch may have political advantages in Ethiopia, but it certainly does not have social and religious advantages in Jerusalem. Bearing offspring is socially essential in Jewish society. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible describe offspring as the most desirable of possessions and a sure sign of God’s blessing. A eunuch, being unable to father children, was pitied, despised and regarded with suspicion. Hebrew law is quite explicit about this in Deuteronomy 23:1, a verse that’s been making teenagers giggle for centuries…but when read in conjunction with today’s lesson is incredibly insightful:
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
So why is this Eithiopian eunuch making a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem? Surely he knows that he won’t be allowed inside the Temple. I think it’s pretty simple and very much like many people who stumble into churches today – he’s looking for a place to belong, a place to be welcomed and affirmed as the person he is, a place where he is not excluded on racial or sexual grounds. It seems the eunuch has found reason to think that God might welcome him.
In our text today he is reading the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and not far from the passage he quotes to Philip we find these words,
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbath, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than offspring; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56.3-5, NRSV)
Did you catch those last two words?
For a eunuch whose biological future and social presence has been “cut off,” the promise of an everlasting name that shall never be “cut off” is a promise this eunuch must explore. Perhaps he travels to Jerusalem in search of a religious community living out this promise, one who will welcome him into their family. But when we meet him in our lesson today, he is on his way home, and his questions are still unanswered. Philip finds the eunuch in his chariot studying the words of the Isaiah:
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
The NRSV translation of these two verses is
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. (Isaiah 53.7-8)
The eunuch invites Philip to sit beside him in his chariot, then asks him who Isaiah is talking about. Who is this person also cut off from the land of the living and despised by people? The eunuch notes that this person will be accepted and honored by God, so he must wonder if the same could be true for him. Could God also embrace him?
“Yes,” says Philip, “God can! God will!” And starting with the words of Isaiah, Philip explains the good news of God’s love & affirmation made known in Jesus. The story is remarkably brief here: Philip explains the good news, and then the eunuch spots water by the side of the road and asks if there is anything to prevent him being baptized right then and there. And because there isn’t, they stop the chariot & Philip baptizes.
No longer is the eunuch on the outside of the temple, unable to fully participate in worship. Now he is welcomed into the family of God just as he is. There are no conditions made on his acceptance for baptism. There is no call to repent like so often happens in Luke’s writings. The eunuch is baptized, no questions asked. His invitation into the household of God is not conditional on his willingness to behave like other followers of Christ. Unlike other religions of the day, this new family is not founded on conformity.
This is good news for all of us. It’s important for us to remember as we welcome new members into our churches. Remembering that many people have been excluded from faith communities in the past, and so when they show up at our doors, they bring with them pain, grief, fear, and anxiety.
This story is good news for these folks, those who know how it feels to be “cut off,” to be unable or unwilling to fit the stereotypes of a traditional family model. For all who come to this story from that side, Philip and the eunuch offer a wonderful promise of hope. Even if God’s people sometimes fail to embody it, God is more than ready to welcome you into the family. God welcomes you with open arms, and takes you without hesitation to the waters of baptism where you are formally adopted into the new family that gathers around Jesus the Messiah.
It is strange but true that Jesus himself is actually quite unimpressed with the importance of traditional families. Jesus speaks dismissively of family ties, and in the culture of his day that was even more radical than it would be now. Jesus instead speaks of a new type of family where all who follow the will of God are his siblings. And the way into this new family, open even to those who have always before been cut off, is through trusting Jesus and being adopted through the waters of baptism. Because in Christ’s family, water is thicker than blood.