When the Family Lines is Cut Off
A sermon on Acts 8:26-40 by Nathan Nettleton, 14 May 2006
In baptism we are adopted into a new family that is radically inclusive of those who have been cut off.
The dominant religious tradition in our society is to worship the family. Theres nothing new about that. Most societies throughout history have done the same. Ask most people in our day or in times past what they would be willing to lay down their life for, and the most frequent answer, by a very long margin, will be their family. The Christian faith is often described as pro-family. Preachers exhort us to embrace traditional family values and campaign to defend the family from perceived threats. Churches market themselves as being family friendly, and see family ministries as not only being a sure fire growth strategy but as integral to the nature and purposes of the Church. The emphasis on families and family life can be quite alienating for some people. If perfect happy families are the ideal image of the Christian life, not everybody is able to measure up. For some, the experience of family life has been one of oppression and fear, or even outright brutality. For others it has just been awkward and disappointing. Many have been determined and courageous in their attempts to partner and parent perfectly so as to do the family thing right, but have ended up picking up the pieces of shattered dreams after torrid battles in the family courts. Many others have longed to create families of their own, but for any number of reasons have been unable to partner, or have partnered and then found themselves unable to conceive a child. And the more we enthrone the family as the centre and pinnacle of the Christian life, the more we leave them feeling like failures and misfits.
In our first reading tonight, we encountered just such a person; someone who was finding himself on the outer of family focussed religion. We are told he was a high ranking public official, a man of considerable political accomplishment, and probably quite wealthy as a result. But he was also a man with a hunger to find his place in the life of God, and he had travelled a long way to make a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple to worship God. We are not told what had happened when he got there, we are given enough detail to know that he would not have been made welcome. We are told that he was from Ethiopia, he was an African. He was, therefore, a gentile, and there were ethnic barriers to full participation in the worship that took place in the Jerusalem Temple. Gentiles could only go into the outer court, so as an African, he could come only so close to the centre of the religious action. The law barred him from coming any closer.
But he was not only an African. We are also told he was a Eunuch. His genitals had been cut off, probably when he was a baby or a very small boy. 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, precisely because of their inability to father a family. There lack of family commitments made them more available to their monarchs, and their lack of offspring meant that there was no danger of them establishing any sort of rival dynasty. They were especially favoured as the high officials of female monarchs, because their obvious sexual impotence served to prevent salacious rumours about the relationships between the queen and her closest officials. And indeed the eunuch who we encounter in this story is a top official of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, so he certainly fits the description. However, although being a eunuch may have had some political advantages in Ethiopia, it certainly had no social or religious advantages in Jerusalem. Bearing offspring was socially essential in Jewish society. My Jewish friends tell me that nothing much has changed there, and it certainly seems that this remains true in many churches. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible speak of a sizeable brood of children as the most desirable of possessions and a sure sign of Gods blessing. A eunuch, being unable to father children, was pitied and despised, and regarded with deep suspicion for his abnormal sexuality. His social acceptability has literally been cut off. And when it comes to religious participaton, he is legally cut off. The law of Moses was quite explicit on this: No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD (Deuteronomy 23:1).
So what was he doing making a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem? Wouldnt he know that he would be refused entry? Well probably. But he would also, in all likelihood be a man with a pretty strong desire to find a place of belonging, a place of acceptance, a place where he was not cut off on racial and sexual grounds. And perhaps he had found reason to think that the God of Israel might accept him. Afterall, when we meet him, he is sitting in his chariot reading the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and not far from the passage he is reading when we meet him, we find the following promise:
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 sabbaths,
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 sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
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.