Including the Excluded
One of the lectionary readings last week (29th April) was the story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. Whenever I encounter this passage it calls to mind the passage from Isaiah 56 which is printed below.
3 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.'
4 For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
5 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.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant -
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
The encounter Philip has, is with one who is both a foreigner and one who is outside the blessing of offspring and descendents. In the passage I perceive that we find biblical humour in the reference to a 'dry tree' and the irony of promising a eunuch, that he 'shall not be cut off'.
The eunuch who meets Philip is full of questions and struggling to feel accepted in the regimented temple religiosity that he would have been greeted with in Jerusalem. What Isaiah says describes the Lord speaking of a different order. Whilst it does not dispense the cheap grace of anything goes, it does wonderfully proclaim a warmth of blessing for all who desire to be in a deepening relationship with the Lord (Yahweh). They are invited into the full holiness of his 'house of prayer for all peoples'. Beyond the foreigners and eunuchs in particular we are invited to hear many more categories of those who are beyond the pale, because I would suggest it is not meant to be an exclusive list, but was indicative of time and culture. We are therefore invited to imagine who that would also embrace for our time and culture.
The 5th verse for me is so deeply relational and abundant in generosity.
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. (my emphases)
The deeply relational is gathered in the repetition of 'I will give' and 'my'. Whilst the abundance overflows through 'better', 'everlasting' and not cutting off. Contrary to restrictive religiosity God declares an abundance of acceptance and grace through the prophet Isaiah.
How do these words of challenge and comfort; of exclusion and embrace sit with us today?