Easter 5B (April 29, 2018)

“About whom does the prophet Isaiah write, himself or someone else?” It’s the most important question in the world for this man Philip meets. Luke tells us much about him. He is an “Ethiopian,” which in the Bible refers to the upper Nile in present day Sudan. So, he is a black African. He is the treasurer of the Queen of the Ethiopians. So, he is a big deal. He traveled to Jerusalem to worship. So, he is someone who studies scripture and tradition, maybe worships with Jews in their synagogues and believes in the God of Israel. But he is not Jewish. He can’t be. He is a eunuch. I promise you I did not say to myself, “You know what I’d like to talk about in church on Sunday? Eunuchs!” And yet here’s this guy, before us as he was before Philip, and he asks the most important question in his world: is this passage from Isaiah about the prophet or someone else?

Judaism in those days consisted of many factions fighting over who was properly Jewish. This is much like Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes fighting over who is properly Lutheran. Regardless of your branch of Judaism, eunuchs are a problem. The Law is clear in Leviticus 21 and Deuteronomy 23: “No one who has had his testicles crushed or his penis cut off shall be allowed in the assembly.” (I always need a cleansing breath after reading that one.) In Leviticus, eunuchs are lumped in with those who are blind, lame, scar-faced, have one limb longer than another, broken boned, hunchbacked, dwarfed, have cataracts or have rashes. These are people who do not fit the ancient Hebrew concept of how a person is supposed to look. (That’s a troublesome concept and a troublesome list.) In Deuteronomy, eunuchs are lumped in with children born out of wedlock, and Ammonites and Moabites (nations who were mean once to the Israelites and thus eternally hated) People categorically banned from life in God’s people. There are an awful lot of people who aren’t allowed near God. One of them is this eunuch, this eunuch who believes in God enough to travel from Sudan to worship at a Temple that won’t admit him. He needs to know if the faith can be rooted enough to welcome him, if the God of Scripture is great enough to include him despite Scripture’s prohibition. He needs to know if the prophet speaks of someone else—points from the tradition to something new—or speaks of himself, and points back into exclusivist Judaism.

He needs a radical faith, radical in the fullest sense of that English word. Our English “radical” can mean extreme and comprehensive, but it also means “of the root”—from the Latin radix, “root.” The Eunuch needs a faith so rooted in the love of God and God’s command to love others that it is a faith extreme and comprehensive enough to include him. He thinks he sees that in Scripture. In Scripture he sees a faith tradition that says God’s people are to bear witness that God loves the world, a faith that preaches care for the poor, orphans, and widows, that frowns on slavery, welcomes refugees, protects women better than anyone else around, and for which the eunuch ban was, probably, originally as much a prohibition on making eunuchs as it was on being one. That’s the faith the Ethiopian eunuch needs, now.

The Judaism of his day is not up to it. Whatever political faction. The Sadducees are cozy with Rome, prosperous and powerful. Do you think they are going to risk that to include a castrated Sudanese in worship? The Pharisees love a good interpretive challenge as much as the next but are busy excluding people. Foreigners who are missing parts are not going to get included. The Essenes would rather live in the desert than worship at the Temple because the high priest was picked by Rome. Try getting them to include a eunuch, they might explode. Who is going to go to this person?

God sends Philip. Philip bears a faith radical enough, rooted enough in God to welcome the forbidden. The eunuch asks Philip, “Does the prophet speak of himself or someone else?” It’s a great question. The passage probably was about the one we call Second Isaiah, a prophet who preached God’s love for all and who called Israel to live for the sake of the whole world. And, in the spirit of Second Isaiah, it is about more than Second Isaiah. Philip offers a radical interpretation. Philip tells the Eunuch that the text is about Jesus. “In his humiliation justice was denied.” That’s Jesus. For preaching good news to the poor and feeding the hungry, Jesus gets thanked with a kangaroo court, mockery, assault, crucifixion and death. Justice denied is Jesus’ story.

It’s the Eunuch’s story, too. He would’ve been mutilated on someone else’s orders because the Queen wanted eunuchs. Eunuchs are great: they can’t steal your girlfriend, there’s no question of them secretly fathering one of the Queen’s children, and they don’t have any children to inherit their stuff so it reverts to the Queen when they die. All you have to do is violate them, disfigure them, destroy basic possibilities of life for them, and render them people who are forbidden membership in God’s assembly. “Does the prophet Isaiah speak of himself,” the eunuch asks, “or someone else? Does the prophet speak of me?” “Yes,” Philip says, “he speaks of you. The faith points outward, not back inward. The vine grows branches, not back upon itself. Jesus loves us enough to give life to the world. He loves us enough to keep giving us life as a vine gives life to its branches.” That is a radical faith, extreme and comprehensive because it is rooted in Christ.

Ours is a world full of people who are told they aren’t allowed near God. They’re told they’re not allowed near God because they’re scientists, because they’re gay, because they haven’t been in church in a while. They’re told they’re not allowed near God because of their job or their living situation. They’re told they’re not allowed near God because they have doubts about things they’ve been told, because they have big questions, like “Does the prophet write about himself, or…me?” Christ the vine calls upon us, the branches, to bear fruit that abides, fruit that feeds a world weary of the kinds of lies it is told about God.

Are we, the Church, rooted enough? Will we grow back upon ourselves, or are we rooted enough to offer such a radical interpretation as Philip offers the Ethiopian eunuch? Are we rooted enough in Christ to welcome transgender people? To share this space and this body with them, have them become part of us and us part of them? Are we rooted enough in Christ to embrace black citizens of Valparaiso, to hear when they say what God is doing for them, and to join them and say, “Yes, that is the God we know, too”? Are we rooted enough in Christ that when people whose living situation or job is the sort that makes the world go, “Tsk! Tsk! Tsk! God is not happy,” we will say, “Yeah, we’re gonna let God decide how God feels. In the meantime, get in here!” Are we rooted enough in Christ to welcome immigrants and refugees, to shout from the housetops that God’s people have fled their homes so many times we’ve lost count, and they’re still God’s people? Are we rooted enough in Christ to believe that this radical interpretation is for us? Because if we actually believe it’s for us, those other things become a lot easier to accept. If we don’t believe it’s for us—that there’s a limited amount of Christ out there and we currently have it—then we set up rules to protect it and ration it. Are we rooted enough to believe it is for us?

It is for us, because of Christ the vine. Christ says, “I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you do nothing.” With Christ, we have everything. Christ’s love is always here. The night Christ says these words, he commands his disciples to love one another as he first loved them. He says, “You have love because I give it to you, now share it. I keep giving it to you for that purpose.” That’s what he means when he says he is a vine and we are branches. The vine is always there. Life and love and faith and strength flow from that vine into us and nothing can take those things away. The only person with any authority to prune the vines is the Father, and Jesus tells us dad has already pruned what dad’s gonna prune. You are on the vine.

Your questions are big? You are on the vine. You have doubts about things? You are on the vine. Your job doesn’t fit the status quo’s idea of respectable? You are on the vine. Your living situation isn’t exactly Victorian? You are on the vine? You simply are not the person society expects one with your body to be? You are on the vine. You had to flee everything you know? You are on the vine. The world you knew is upside down? You are on the vine.  You are on the vine. We are all on the vine. We live because Jesus loves us, and by loving the world we remain in him. We are rooted, we are radical, we are able to answer the Ethiopian: “Does the prophet speak of himself or, someone else? #AskingForAFriend” Yeah. This is about you. You belong here.