Acts 8: 26-40: Philip is instructed to go to a certain road where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch on his way home after worshipping in Jerusalem. Philip finds him reading Isaiah’s scroll, and explains what the Scriptures say about Jesus. Then he baptises the eunuch
Psalm 22: 25-31: A psalm of praise and commitment in which God is celebrated for God’s provision and authority, and all people are challenged to worship God, to fulfil promises to God, and to proclaim God’s righteousness to unborn generations.
1 John 4: 7-21: An exhortation to love one another, because God is love. If we cannot love our brothers and sisters whom we have seen, we cannot love God whom we do not see, but, as God has loved us, inspiring love for God in our hearts, so too, we should love one another. Such love drives out fear.
John 15:1-8: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. God desires us to bear fruit, and to do so we must remain in Christ.
(Summaries of Bible readings by John van de Laar, Sacredise)
So, the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading aloud (a very common practice – if you had the ability to read, then you would read aloud) from the scroll of Isaiah (Ch53), a passage that has come to be associated with the passion of Jesus. What was this Eunuch doing reading this particular part of Isaiah? Well, the background is that Eunuchs were specifically excluded from the temple (as had been this particular Eunuch’s experience in Jerusalem), based on the application of the Deuteronomy text (23.1): “If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (NIV). But here, in the very section of Isaiah where the Eunuch is reading, is this text:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
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—
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 endure forever” (Isaiah 56:3-5)
A text of inclusion. It would have been a ‘favourite’ part of the Isaiah scroll for the Eunuch, one he would return to again and again, as it gave him a place of belonging. And, in the course of reading this text of inclusion, he would have become familiar with the surrounding text (no verses and chapter headings in those days!) including Chapter 53 that is the focus of the Acts 8 reading today (and for the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch):
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
After Philip gives witness to Jesus, the Ethiopian is baptized (in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy), and eunuchs find a place of belonging in the reign of God. That which was excluded has now been included.
It would have been a surprising and wonderful moment for both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Here’s a great reflection on this reading by Richard Beck.
(excerpt) The “eunuch story” may, at least in part, speak to the issue of social contribution or function. It seems that great emphasis was given to function in the old covenant “congregation of the Lord”. The “commission” of old covenant community focused around the growth of the Jewish nation, particularly in terms of the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. What we think of as evangelism wasn’t a primary focus — having and raising children with a particular worldview and a peculiar kind of monotheism was. Eunuchs could not contribute to this social mandate, and were therefore viewed as vestigials, as supernumeraries. There was a central religious goal, and these eunuchs were people who, having no way to further that goal, had no place in the religious community.
So, when the Spirit of the Lord went to miraculous lengths to ensure that the first known Christian non-Jewish convert was both of an alien culture and a “functionless” eunuch, the intention was to make us think about what it means to have “function” within the new covenant community of faith, and further: about how the Christian community, like a family, must embrace a non-utilitarian society”.
“When you remove the risk, you remove the challenge. When you remove the challenge, you wither on the vine.” – Alex Lowe
This image of vine and branches speaks to community, both healthy and withered. It has to do with the quality of our mutuality and interrelationships. The Old Testament used this image several times (Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15:6; Hosea 10:1). However, in these examples the vine itself is the community which sometimes is not up to the challenge of being God’s people in harmony. The vine is therefore destroyed. In today’s gospel Jesus, not the community, is the vine which is always true; and we are the branches. Therefore, if some branches do not produce fruit, the vine as a whole does not die. In this evolution of the image the plant is indestructible. Beware lest again we be tempted to be judgmental. Sure, the community will live on, but who of us are the withered branches that do not live up to the challenge? We might want to point fingers. Look in the mirror. The truth is that we all, each and every one of us, have fruitful branches as well as withered branches within ourselves. The pruning is not the destruction of certain individuals in the fire (John 15:6). Rather it is beautifying of each of us. Who does not need to be pruned? Perhaps the withered branch of judgmentalism needs to be cut from us. God stands ready to prune us into ever more healthy growth, into full bloom. But we need to let go. Why hold on to shunning, selfishness, revenge, envy, or dead end life plans, all petty twigs? Realizing our shortcomings is not a condemnation. This here is a resurrection theme. God is pruning us into life. We are still connected to the vine. At the Last Supper Jesus took the “fruit of the vine.” Every time we receive communion, drink from the cup, we drink to our health; and Jesus hosts the toast. (Bob Eldan)
Thom Shuman communion liturgy for Easter 5B: Thom Shuman