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When Water is Thicker Than Blood

Text: Acts 8:26-39

Only weeks after the first Easter, Philip finds himself in the desert in the noonday heat. It is not long before an Ethiopian Jew, who is a eunuch, stops for a break on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So, Philip decides to make a pastoral call.

         It is odd enough running into a Jewish African eunuch in the middle of the desert, but stranger still is that the eunuch is coming from Jerusalem. It makes no sense why a eunuch would ever visit the holy city. Surely, he would have known that due to his physical abnormalities he was never welcome there. He certainly was not welcome to do anything other than gaze upon the magnificent Temple, because by Jewish law a eunuch was forbidden to enter it.

         Stranger yet, the eunuch sits in the Queen’s chariot reading the Bible – what would be our Old Testament. It is the very book that fellow believers have used all his life to exclude him from the religious community (Deut. 23:1). He knows too well all the exclusionary passages in the Mosaic law; he knows them by heart. He knows that a eunuch is considered less than human and has no place among polite religious society. He knows all those who love to quote Scripture to support their prejudice and to keep the love of God tightly reserved for the deserving.  

        On the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the eunuch is not reading the painfully familiar law, but instead, he is reading the perplexing words of the prophet Isaiah. This prophet writes more of how things will be in God’s intended future than how they are right now. The eunuch stops the chariot when he reads these words, “He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. He did not open his mouth. Justice was denied. He was cut off from the land of the living. Who will declare his posterity?”

         Is it any surprise that these words pique the eunuch’s interest? When Philip climbs into the chariot, the eunuch wants to know, “Who is Isaiah talking about in this passage? Is he referring to himself or to someone else?” Whoever Isaiah is talking about, the eunuch can identify with him. For despite riding in the Queen’s chariot and holding a prominent government position, he knows that he will never have any biological posterity. He knows, all too personally, what it means to be “cut off from the land of the living.”

          Even the prominent political position held by the eunuch, an official agent of the queen of Ethiopian, cannot gain him access to the Temple in Jerusalem. For the religious law pronounces him to be unclean, unworthy of welcome into the holy site, unworthy of welcome into the family of faith.

         About this strange encounter in the desert, former Duke Chaplain, Will Willimon writes, “We get back from the cemetery, the sound of Easter trumpets fades and the Jericho walls which once fell are rebuilt. The deadly walls seem impervious even to the assaults of a living, let-loose Savior.

         “And sometimes the most insidious boundaries are the ones we love the most, the walls that provide us such sure space that we don’t even know they are walls. We don’t see how confined we are behind our safe barriers.”

         “Take the family, for instance,” Willimon goes on to write. “We love our families . . . It is difficult to imagine a more cherished human arrangement than the family. Most of us are not violent people and yet nearly all of us would die for our families. Blood is thicker than water. Our family is the source of our name, our values. The church is often praised as an institution that supports the family.”

         What most Christians often forget in their zealous rhetoric about family is that the church has always had a healthy dose of caution about the family. The early church was cautious about how easily the family becomes a barrier that others can never cross or a breeding ground for ugly habits that die hard or never die at all.

         The New Testament scholar, Wayne Meeks, in his book The First Urban Christians notes that pagan Roman society had no more cherished belief than that of the primacy of the family. Every Roman institution was based upon the family. The most serious charge the Romans leveled against the fledgling church was that Christians are destroyers of the family.

         Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas opens his class on Christian ethics by reading a letter from a parent to a government official. The parent complains that his son, who has received the finest education and was headed for a good job as a lawyer, has gotten involved with a weird religious sect. Members of this sect are controlling his every move, taking his money, and demanding all his time. The parent pleads that the government intervene.

         Hauerwas then asks his class, “Which weird religious group is this letter describing?” They typically respond with some of the most extreme sects of the time, when actually the letter is composed of complaints from third century Roman parents about a group called “Christians.” The Christian church has long known from the teachings of Jesus that love of family follows from, but never precedes, love of God.

         The Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip after reading the passage from Isaiah, “Who is this man who was also cut off from the land of the living?” Philip says, “That man was Jesus of Nazareth. He was cut down in the prime of his life. He had no family, no children, and yet he created the largest family in the world.”

         Then the eunuch asks Philip what must have been the most difficult of all questions to ask, a question about which everyone until that moment had given him a neat and tidy answer, an answer to keep him outside the family looking in. The eunuch asks, “What is to hinder me from being included in this family? What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

         As soon as those words came out of his mouth, the eunuch cringes, waiting for the other shoe to drop as it had always done before. He waits for Philip to say, “Well, my friend, Jesus does certainly also love eunuchs, but the church cannot lower its standards by accepting sexual deviants into its membership.” He waits for Philip to go on to say, “I don’t think the church is ready yet to accept eunuchs into the family. We are afraid if we accept your kind then good members might leave.” He waits to hear the patronizing words already etched in his ears, “You don’t have to be part of the church family to know that God loves you.”

          Philip could also have said, “Friend, stop reading Isaiah and read the books of the law. What hinders you? Everything. Scripture hinders you. Tradition hinders you. Common sense hinders you. Go on your way, man, and never ask such a stupid question!”

         That, though, is not what Philip says to the eunuch. In fact, Philip says nothing. Instead, he takes the Ethiopian eunuch, the excluded one, the one who has always been on the outside looking in and he dunks him in the river, baptizing him in the name of Jesus, giving him a wet welcome into the family of faith.

         Tertullian, another African and an early bishop of the church said that the church family grows not from the “loins of people” but by the “waters of baptism.” The church family grows as it washes away the walls and the labels that divide us – straight, gay, transgender, bi-sexual – labels that keep some safely in and others always out. The church family grows by the cleansing, renewing, life-giving waters of baptism.

         We know very little about the ministry of Philip, but we know this much from this one story. Philip knew that in this family that follows Jesus water is always thicker than blood. Always!


         Thanks be to God!



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