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Whose Side is God on? Reading Scripture with a Eunuch

May 2, 2015

EunuchJohn 15:1-8              1 John 4:7-21              Acts 8:26-40

 

Please forgive me if I try and say something about all three texts today… Each is important and reinforce each other. But you might need to concentrate. Fasten your seatbelts!

 

The Vine and the Branches… How could we summarise that reading. Let me attempt a short summary: If you don’t live your life in the life of Jesus (I would say the cross shaped life of Jesus) you die. If your life is not given its fruitfulness by the life of Jesus it will wither and dry up. You either live in God or you don’t live. John’s gospel is a bold and sharp as that.

 

It doesn’t say how we might do that… (it may be that there are many atheists in the world who live their lives in the cross shaped life of Jesus and who don’t think of themselves as disciples…there might be many piously religious people who talk about Jesus but whose lives bear no resemblance to Jesus). The passage doesn’t deal with that. but it does make it very clear that God has given us a life and a source of fruitful existence on this planet… the life of Jesus.

 

John’s Epistle extends this point. The life of God that makes us fruitful people is nothing less than the love of God… seen in our world.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: [says John] God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning (or in contemporary language, the transforming) sacrifice for our sins.

 

We don’t have access any other way to this life but through the active love of God towards us. Love starts with God’s active love for us.

John continues…

No one has ever seen God (Abba, sender of Jesus); if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…. Love has been perfected among us in this: [in what?]… because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment

 

Here is the message of the tradition of John (gospel and epistle)… The love of God is visible, active, alive among us… and because of Jesus, ‘the true vine’, the same love takes its shape in our life (as he is so are we in the world). And importantly it does so without reference to fear or punishment. If we think we are a Christian because we otherwise we will be punished by God… then we are not really Christian (we are just looking out for our own skin). John says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.”

 

That’s kind of a big message! A message that takes a lifetime to soak in. But we also have a story… a story about how that message was soaking in as the church was born. The conversion of a Eunuch.

 

Who is this man? The Eunuch? He is a leading public figure of a foreign nation – in a chariot… no doubt with full courtege and bodyguard. The treasurer of Ethiopia… (modern Sudan)… He must be important because he has a bible… a scroll… long before the days of paperback bibles. It was very hard for a gentile to get such a scroll… perhaps it was a gift he received at a public visit.

 

But perhaps most interestingly, this man is one who embodies in himself the struggle of Israel! What do I mean? There are two significant references in the Scriptures to Eunuchs. The first is Deuteronomy 23:1 (Eunuchs are explicitly excluded from the faith of Israel). The second is in Isaiah 56:3-5 (Eunuchs are accepted by God’s boundless loving-kindness). If he was a would-be-worshipper-of-the-God-of-Israel… and a Eunuch then he would have known of these passages. So no wonder he responds to Philip… with ‘how can I’ understand what I am reading?’ The Scriptures themselves don’t agree. They are themselves a living argument about the nature of God and God’s people. The Eunuch has stepped into a fight. For the Eunuch this argument is not theoretical, it’s not a theoretical debate about a contradiction in the bible. It’s personal. Is he in or is he out? Is there a place in the people of God for a man of questionable masculinity? A man whose sexuality doesn’t fit the normal pattern? It matters for the Eunuch. He’s in a tricky situation here.

 

Although the Eunuch probably knew about clash between his situation as a Eunuch and Jewish faith, it wasn’t those passages he was reading in his chariot that day. He was reading an extraordinary passage in the Hebrew scriptures – the point where the prophet Isaiah is waxing lyrical about a figure he calls ‘The Servant of the Lord’. The Servant is one who suffers unjustly – who is the people’s scapegoat, who is brutally punished (sacrificed) by the people as though he were to blame for their iniquities. This brutalised victim, this ‘righteous Servant’, Isaiah says … is the one through whom God brings redemption and hope to God’s people.

 

The Eunuch reads this from Isaiah 53:7-8

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 

And yet Isaiah suggest that although those who kill this man cannot imagine him having any future generation, any offspring. God, who allows this to happen and is at work in all of it, will ensure (in some sense) offspring for him. Isaiah says, “through him, the will of the Lord will prosper” (v10). … It is, in my view, the most extraordinary part of the Hebrew Scriptures.

 

The Eunuch asks “Is the prophet speaking about himself or another”? It’s a great question. Philip doesn’t answer directly. What he does do is use the passage to tell him the good news about Jesus.

 

It doesn’t matter (for these purposes) … what the prophet intended… what matters is how the passage is fulfilled… what matters in the end is how it bears witness to God… It may not be an empty text (able to mean anything at all)… but its not full either. It’s a text waiting to be filled up (fulfilled) as a vehicle of God’s word… It is incomplete… perhaps profoundly ambiguous in what ultimately matters… So we read, “starting with this scripture, [Philip]… proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”.

 

What strikes me about the Servant of Isaiah as an image of Jesus. Is the silence. He had preached the kingdom all his life. And now it was being rejected. The Servant Jesus responds to rejection in silence. Like a sheep led to the slaughter is silent. He has demonstrated the kingdom, he has announced it. But he will not force it on anyone. The end does not justify such means. He is silent. When other alternatives are exhausted he submits.

 

The silence does not last forever (thank God)… In the very next verse Philip, a representative of the Risen Christ, opens his mouth and begins to speak good news about Jesus. The Servant is silent. Philip can speak.

 

To return to the Eunuch’s dilemma as a would be Jew… Does the God of Israel come on the side of Deuteronomy or Isaiah in this particular debate? Is the Eunuch in or out? The first thing to see, as Philip explains the scripture to the Eunuch, is that God comes out on the side of Jesus – the Servant. The message of Isaiah and of the whole of the scriptures – as a living argument of many books – is only complete if you understand the good news about Jesus.

 

But that’s a good thing! Because it means for the Eunuch, in fact, that God comes out on the side of Isaiah (and not Deuteronomy). How do we know? Because it is clear to both Philip and the Eunuch that there is nothing preventing him being baptised. The Eunuch is a full participant in the people of God… according to Isaiah, interpreted in the light of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Perfect love casts out fear… Neither Philip nor the Eunuch are afraid to cross the boundaries and to go ahead with a baptism. The scripture makes new sense. The vine has new branches.

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Murray Rae permalink
    May 2, 2015 6:31 am

    Excellent sermon Bruce. Well done.

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