Easter 5B Sermon (1994)

5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 15:1-8;
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 3:18-24


We are five Sundays after Easter, that bright Sunday morning when once-dead Jesus burst the bonds of death and came forth from the tomb. Life stepped over the boundary of death. The stone was rolled away, and death stepped out into the life of a new day. The impossible, inconceivable happened, and the future was cracked open with fresh potential. Perhaps many of those other boundaries in our lives could begin to be crossed — some are natural boundaries, like death, but many boundaries are of our own making in order to keep life more manageable, under control. God gave us stewardship over the whole earth and created all people as our human family. But that’s too much, isn’t it? So we construct boundaries, make our little pieces of the world, and then maybe we can at least be Lords in our little part of the world.

Jesus came to give us our full life back, to help us live without so many boundaries. And on that first Easter he even did the unthinkable and stepped over the boundary of death itself.

But five Sundays from Easter is a long time. The sound of Easter trumpets fades away, and we wonder what, if anything, really changed. The Easter sun goes down. The sun rises again on Monday; and it’s the same old sun, the same old world, the same old you and me, back to our business of erecting boundaries, to make our lives as cozy and comforting as can be. The Fifth Sunday of Easter is a long way away from the new life which burst forth from the boundaries, from the tomb, of death. And the deadly walls seem so impervious, even to the assaults of a living, let-loose Easter Savior. And sometimes the most insidious boundaries are the ones we love the most, yes, the ones we love the most. We love the walls that provide us such sure space that we don’t even know they are boundaries. We don’t see how confined we are behind our safe barriers.

Take the family, for instance. We love our families. During the previous presidential election, protection for and funding on behalf of the family became a major political concern. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more cherished human arrangement than the family. Most of us are not violent people. Yet nearly all of us would die for our families, even kill for them, wouldn’t we? “Blood is thicker that water,” as they say. Our family is the source for our name, our values. Everything evolves around our families. The church is praised as an institution that supports the family. Churches have family night suppers and build family life centers much larger than their sanctuaries.

Yes, church is very much about the new family that Jesus created, but we might need to be more careful about the church’s relationship to the biological family. Once people came to Jesus in a house saying, “Your mother and brothers are outside asking for you.” “Who are my mother, my brothers?” Jesus replied. He indicated that his family was the new gathering of people called disciples.

We have thereby papered over, indeed forgotten, how deeply ambiguous, even negative, the early church was about family. Ancient historian Wayne Meeks notes that pagan Roman society was similar to ours in that it had no more cherished belief than that of the primacy of the family. Every Roman institution had its basis in the family. Where was the early church in this family-oriented Roman society? A major criticism of the Romans against the Christians is that they destroyed the family.

Professor Stanley Hauerwas opens one of his classes by reading a letter from a parent to a government official. The parent complains that his son, who had received the best education and was headed for a good job as a lawyer, had gotten involved with a weird religious sect. Members of this sect controlled his every move and had taken his money. The parent pleads with the government to do something about this weird religious group. “Who is this letter describing?” Hauerwas asks his students. Some think the Moonies. But the letter is composed of complaints from third-century Roman parents concerning a group called the church.

Yes, family can be one of our most comfortable boundaries. But can the offer of a new family in Christ help us be honest that sometimes those comfortable boundaries of the family can also close us in like a tomb?

The family is the source not only of our greatest gifts, but also of our greatest damage, isn’t it? When psychiatrists are counseling deeply troubled persons, they don’t talk about much else other than family. In our day, family has seemingly become the one, the only place of our identity and direction. This has led, perhaps, to a kind of tyranny of the family. Lacking other effective institutions in our lives with the power to stand against the barage of global images and values fired at us every day, we hide behind the boundaries of family. Is the sad state of many American families, not that we don’t love our families, but that perhaps we love them too much? Are we asking our families to bear far too much moral and spiritual weight, to be all things for us, so that they crack under the strain? Do we then simply hide deeper within the confines of family to the point of being closed in like a tomb?

Let’s face it, most of the really serious damage that is done to us, occurs in family. The blood of the family is thicker and more indelible than any other attachment in our lives. But, the good news is that, in stepping over the boundary of death, Jesus’ Spirit of new life created a new family for us to be part of. Can we still be that Easter family so long after Easter? Is blood thicker than water — in this case, the water of baptism which calls us into new family?

It is a while after Easter, and Philip is awakened by an angel with an outrageous demand. “Get up!” says the angel, “Go into the middle of the desert at noon.” Even more amazing than the request, Philip just does it. And, on that deserted road, at a time least likely to encounter anyone else, he meets a eunuch – a sexless, celebate male chamberlain from the court of the Ethiopian queen. He is returning from the temple in Jerusalem, reading Isaiah. The eunuch has come to that passage in Isaiah 53 that we read on Good Friday: “God’s servant was led like a lamb to the slaughter. He didn’t open his mouth. Justice was denied. He has been cut off from the land of the living. Who will declare his posterity?” Who is going to declare his posterity? Usually, it’s at least our families who declare our posterity. You know: at least family shows up for the funeral to say some nice things. But the Ethiopian will never have any posterity because he too, like the servant in this passage from Isaiah, has been “cut off,” without generation. So, when Philip climbs up into this Ethiopian’s chariot, his first question is, “Who is that?” Is the prophet talking about himself or somebody else?

Do you see why this eunuch is so interested in this obscure passage from Isaiah? It’s because he’s a eunuch. He’s cut-off. Another part of Scripture, the law of Moses says, “The eunuch shall have no place in this congregation” (Deut. 23:1). He will never have a family. This sexless person will never have a family, and Israel’s survival is based on the family. Throughout scripture children are praised as a reward from God, a sign of divine favor. So the law says that the eunuch can never enter the temple and praise God with the rest of us who have been blessed by God with family.

But this eunuch is reading Isaiah, not the law. Who is this who is cut off, he wants to know, “cut-off from the land of the living,” without posterity, therefore without future? Who is this? Is this the prophet or is this someone else? And, in another passage, Isaiah prophesies, “The days will come when the eunuch will not longer say, “O I am just a dry stick.” The days will come when the eunuch who loves me, and my house and my covenant, shall have a name written in my house, and in my covenant, which shall be better than a thousand sons and daughters and will be remembered forever” (Isa.56:3). Wow! What good news for a person like the eunuch. Had he come across this passage in studies in Ethiopia and decided to go find out more about it at the source, in Jerusalem? This man has been to Jerusalem foraging around in the Bible trying to find his own name. He has been up to the temple, but they won’t let him in. Despite that passage of hope in Isaiah, the law of Moses says clearly, “Don’t let him in.” But, now, on his way back home, he has at last found a place in the Bible that offers hope. He has at last found his own name. “Who is this?” he asks Philip.

“Why, that was Jesus of Nazareth,” says Philip. “He was cut-off, too. He had no family, no issue. And yet he created the largest family in the world. He created a new family that knows no boundaries, a home to live in surrounded by God’s love and care.”

“What is to forbid me from joining his family?” asks the eunuch, “Can I too be adopted, baptized? Look, here’s water!” And right there, in the desert, a white man and a black man, a Jew and an Ethiopian, Philip baptized the eunuch. There was water in the desert. In this new family, water is thicker than blood.

Come, then, for our family dinner! Be nourished by the healing love of our Lord. And let us be God’s family together!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, May 1, 1994

1. Based on a sermon by William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 22, No. 2 (April – June 1994), pages 19-21, adapted from Peculiar Speech; also, The Christian Century, April 10, 1991.

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