In my job I get to see the inside of a lot of people’s extended families, as well as my own of course. Families can be wonderful things, networks of love and care. But let’s be honest, they can also be pretty difficult. Most of the extended families I have come across have at least the occasional moment of tension, a few members who really don’t get along, the odd argument now and then…
But however deep the resentments, there is one rule that they all seem to share, and that is that while members of the family are allowed to criticise one another all they like, heaven help an outsider who tries to do so. Everyone in the family might agree that Uncle Dennis is a pain in the neck, but pity the hapless visitor or next-door neighbour who tries to suggest that he might be anything less than a saint. “Who do they think they are to butt into our family business? It’s nothing to do with them?”
Recognise the scenario?
It’s exactly the same in workplaces, clubs and other organisations. You only know you really belong when you can complain about something without being lynched for overstepping your welcome, when you can make a suggestion without feeling that everyone is looking you as if to say “What would you know about it anyway?”
It was the same in the first century. The first followers of Jesus hadn’t intended to found a new religion – they just thought they were reforming the old Jewish religion that most of them had been born in. But very soon people started joining them who weren’t Jewish, people who had grown up in Greek and Roman cultures – Gentiles as they were known - with very different ways of living and attitudes. It was a real struggle for these two different groups to get along. The Jewish Christians thought the Gentile Christians should take on board the kind of rules they’d grown up with –give up eating pork and so on. But the Gentile Christians said that the whole point of Jesus’ message, as far as they could see, was that those sort of rules didn’t matter anymore. To add to the trouble, the Jewish Christians found that their old Jewish friends weren’t so friendly any more – in fact they were making it pretty clear that they weren’t part of that family at all now. They were accused of betraying their heritage, turning their backs on their old faith. Who belonged? Where did they belong? Who was in and who was out – and what were they in or out of? And who got to decide? These were questions which really bothered the early Christians, and they run all through the New Testament.
In today’s Gospel Jesus talks about the kingdom of God as a grapevine. It was standard practice to graft grape vines onto a different rootstock – it still is. It means you can combine the strength of one grape with the flavour of another. Jesus says that the old rootstock – the Jewish faith – is still there, still strong, with God’s life in it, but new branches are being grafted onto it so that new and old share God’s life. If you know anything about grafting, though, you’ll know it involves having to cut into both the old wood and the new before they can be bound together. If the vine could feel, it would tell us it was a painful process, and full of uncertainty. Will the graft take? Only time can tell. No wonder those first Christians were struggling, and our first reading showed us one example of them doing so.
In it, we hear of the Apostle Philip sent out in the wilderness by an angel to go to the help of a very confused court official from Ethiopia – possibly a Jewish man by birth, who just happened to live in Ethiopia, possibly an Ethiopian who was interested in the Jewish faith. Whatever his background he was returning from Jerusalem where he had been to worship in the Temple, or at least he had tried to. What the story doesn’t spell out – because it would have assumed it to be obvious – was that this man’s visit had almost certainly been a bit of a disaster.
Jewish law was very strict on the issue of who was allowed into the Temple. In Jewish thought, God was utterly holy, and that meant to them utterly perfect too. Therefore, the law said, everything and everyone that came anywhere near God also had to be perfect. When you offered a lamb for sacrifice, it had to be a perfect lamb, not blemished or injured, not the runt of the litter, but the best you had. And those who came to worship had to be healthy and whole as well. If you were ill, disabled or disfigured in some way you couldn’t come in. Disease and deformity were thought to be signs that you had done something wrong, so you weren’t fit to come close to God; if you did you risked bringing down his wrath not only on yourself, but on the whole community.
So, what’s the one thing we know about this man in the story, apart from the fact that he was a court official from Ethiopia? It’s that he is a eunuch. Sorry if it makes you wince, but the man’s been castrated – probably deliberately and not by his own choice - and according to Jewish law that ruled out completely any chance he had of getting into the Temple, ever. This poor man had trekked all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship, across the desert, risking God-knows-what threats and dangers, but at the end of his journey he would have been turned away, through no fault of his own, and there was nothing he could do about it. How would he have felt? Humiliated, frustrated, baffled, rejected. He is a lonely man as he travels back to Ethiopia, and he is also confused.
When Philip meets him he is reading from the Prophet Isaiah, words that any Jewish person would have known well. In it, Isaiah talks about what a true servant of God is like. He’s looking forward to a day when God will send a servant like this to help his people. But it is a strange picture. This servant of God would be like a sheep led to the slaughter, someone who had to endure mockery. The rest of the passage talks about him being “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” He would be disfigured and wounded, someone others could hardly bear to look at. It wasn’t the picture you’d expect. God’s chosen servant wouldn’t be some comic book hero, all rippling muscles and effortless power. He’d be someone whom life had treated very badly indeed, someone who didn’t look the part at all; in other words, someone not so very different from this Ethiopian himself. But despite all this, God’s suffering servant, said Isaiah, was faithful to God and loving to others, just as the Ethiopian was trying to be. It didn’t make sense. Did God love people like him, or not? Could God welcome and use people like him, or not?
The Ethiopian asks Philip to explain, and Philip tells him about another man who was wounded and disfigured, treated like dirt and rejected, and yet a man whom God had blessed, in life and in death, raising him from the grave. He tells him about Jesus of Nazareth, who had touched lepers and eaten with people others despised, who had treated everyone as children of God, precious and valued, part of the family, whatever had happened to them, whatever they’d done. The Ethiopian is bowled over. He learns that he might not be welcome in the Temple, but he is most certainly welcome in the heart of God. “Look, here is water” he says, seeing an oasis by the side of the road, “what is to prevent me being baptised?” Nothing at all, is the answer, and so he is baptised.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, he discovers, God is there with you. You don’t have to trek to Jerusalem and beg to come into his presence; you’re already in his presence anyway. You don’t have to be something you’re not. Belonging to him isn’t about keeping some rule or other. You belong simply because you are, simply because he loves you. When we baptise Joanna, Olivia and Amelia in a minute we’ll be affirming something that is already true, that they are God’s children, loved by him and known by him long before we ever knew them. Over the centuries the Church has often forgotten that, taking on itself the task of setting and keeping the boundaries of God’s love and approval, but every baptism we do should be a reminder that it was never up to us to decide anyway. It was always in the hands of God.
That Ethiopian went home knowing that whatever some Temple official might have said, God’s word to him had been “welcome home” as he stepped into the water. I pray that Joanna, Amelia and Olivia, and all the rest of us, will hear those words for ourselves too, and hold them fast, no matter what anyone else says to us.