Saturday, June 28, 2014

WHOLENESS (A meditation on Acts 8:26-40)

   by Alan Reynolds

      Philip the Apostle, the disciple of Jesus, is not a prominent figure in the Gospels. Here, in the eighth chapter of the book of Acts, he comes into the spotlight in the early years of the church, first as a preacher or evangelist to Samaria, and here in an encounter with a “man” from Ethiopia. “Man,” in quotation marks, because he was a “eunuch.” “Eunuch” – emasculated, not a man. Literally “bed guard” from the practice in oriental courts that the keeper of the king’s harem be castrated to remove any temptation.

     This man was not “whole.” He was “disabled,” or in a politically correct age, challenged. The point is, we’re all “challenged,” mentally challenged, visually challenged, physically challenged. None of us is “whole.” We have all “fallen short of the glory of God.” We are not what God intended us to be, what we ourselves would be. And because he was not whole, he could not be holy. Eunuchs were not allowed in the temple, nor to be part of the worshipping congregation. No eunuch, whether accidental or intentional, “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1).

     And he had traveled all the way from Ethiopia. Here he was, in that hot and barren desert region south of Jerusalem, symbol of the barrenness of his own body, maybe his own life. He was reading Isaiah 53 and wondering what it meant. “Who is this of whom the prophet speaks?”

     Isaiah 53 is one of the “Songs of the Suffering Servant,” found in the last twenty-six chapters of the prophet recorded simply as Isaiah. It was a message very different from the first 39 chapters, a message of one who would come, not in power, but in love, who would redeem the people through his suffering. In this figure, the Suffering Servant, the early church saw many of the qualities they knew in Jesus, a very different Messiah.

     Phillip shows the relevance of Jesus, his death and resurrection: despised and rejected by men, like a lamb led to the slaughter, he opened not his mouth; who made himself an offering for sin.

     This man, this eunuch, would see, would feel, the relevance of this passage for himself, for his own lack of wholeness. Cut off from the land of the living (verse 8). When he makes himself an offering for sin he shall see his offspring (verse 10). This eunuch, who had no sons, no offspring to speak for him, would be made whole.

     They come to water, toward the coast, from the arid desert to a place of life, of fruitfulness. The eunuch requests baptism and Phillip raises no objection. It is astounding – a black man, a eunuch. I remember a colleague who was criticized for baptizing a man who was mentally challenged. Philip had no hesitation. Perhaps Phillip (Acts 8:35), “starting with this scripture,” went on to the following chapters of Isaiah.

     In chapter 54, the prophet turns from lament to a song of joy, a barren woman is promised so many children that she will have to enlarge her tent, her dwelling space:

Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child.
Burst into song, shout for joy, you who have never been in labour.
Because you will have more children than a woman who has a husband. . . .
Enlarge the place of your tent; stretch your tent curtains wide.

Chapter 55 is an invitation to all, “whosoever will may come.”

Come all who are thirsty. Come to the waters.
All peoples, black, white, yellow or red, can come to God seeking grace.

And chapter 56:

Let not any foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let not any 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 not be cut off.”

     Today, the church in Ethiopia claims descent from this man. He has many children.
The point is we’re all challenged. We are none of us whole. We are all called to be more than we are. That is the desire that calls us to worship, Sunday after Sunday, that we may become, in God’s grace, what we are meant to be.

     To us, the promise also is given – even though we are not whole, we may find joyous acceptance in God’s household. We may be part of the family of God. We may have a name, “an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” And in God’s time and place, we will be what God has called us to be.

Alan is the author of Reading the Bible for the Love of God, and A Troubled Faith: Affirming Christian Faith in the Twenty-first Century. Both books won awards from the Word Guild.
He lives in Richmond, B. C., and is still married (since 1962) to beautiful, blue-eyed Brenda. They enjoy great family times with four children and their spouses (all above average), and eight wonderful grandchildren.

1 comment:

Peter Black said...

Alan, what a marvellous and lovely message! It is rich in biblical and scriptural depth, and bright in inspiration, while warm and encouraging in application.
Thank you for sharing these insights into Phillip's ministry and the Ethiopian Eunuch. ~~+~~

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