by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Now it happened that an Ethiopian had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem; he was a eunuch and an officer at the court of the queen of Ethiopia, and was in fact her chief treasurer. He was now on his way home; and as he sat in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Acts 9: 26-40

“Our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. 1 John 3: 18-24

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower…I am the vine, you are the branches…” John 15: 1-8

At the outset of this reflection, I alert readers to the fact that I am departing from my normal practice by referring to the story of the Ethiopian pilgrim. It is to be found in Acts and was the first reading for Thursday of the Third week of Easter. I begin with some thoughts on the readings of this Fifth Sunday of Easter.
In today’s gospel-reading from John, we are reminded by Jesus that, through our baptism and close relationship with him, we are grafted into the life and love of God. The consequence of that is that, in all our efforts to love and care for others, we are touching them with something of the goodness and love, the mercy and compassion of God. However, we rarely stop to think about that as one activity blends into the next in the busyness of our daily lives. Most of our days end up being a succession of activities, and many of those activities involve engaging with other people. Those engagements vary from transient exchanges with shop assistants at supermarket checkouts, to requesting boarding passes at airline check-in counters, to detailed personal consultations with medical practitioners. Our waking hours are so full of activities that we might begin to think that we have been designed or wired for action. Yet, every now and then, our activity grinds to a halt when conscience, acting rather like a sentry, challenges us to check an action on which we are about to embark. We are confronted by questions like: “Why this action and not something else? Wouldn’t it be better to do something a little less confrontational?” Today’s second reading from John invites us into a reflection on the role of conscience and morality in our decision-making. Eventually, with wisdom gained from the moral challenges that arise in our lives, we come to develop a basic moral identity that equips us to live with moral integrity. John, in today’s second reading, suggests that the best indicator of a good conscience in operation is action motivated by love. But he proceeds to add that we can take comfort from knowing that, when all is said and done, God is greater than conscience. Underneath that is a clear message that God can cope if our conscience is not without flaws. God is not picky, not even watchful, waiting for us to slip up because of an under-developed conscience. God can cope with our slip-ups better than we can. God knows that each of us is much more than our morality. God is more interested in our getting down to living our lives with purpose and selflessness and much less interested in wanting us to live inside our heads, struggling to satisfy ourselves that every decision we make is absolutely flawless.
When we sit with the Gospel metaphor of Jesus declaring that he is the vine and that we, as its branches, are consequently nourished by his life and love, it is worth noting that our connectedness to Jesus is all that is required for our lives to be productive of things like goodness, mercy and compassion. A grapevine branch doesn’t set for itself the agenda to focus on making grapes. As part of the vine, it just makes grapes, not figs, beans or bananas. Being connected to Jesus means that we will produce the fruit of Jesus. It may not be perfect, but it will nourish those who come into our lives.
With that, I come to my promised diversion. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is part of the Common Lectionary prescribed for reading this Sunday in many of the churches of other Christian denominations. Moreover, it’s a story that has relevance for all of us. It starts with a description of the Ethiopian Queen’s treasurer reading the prophet Isaiah as he was heading in his chariot down the desert road to Gaza. What struck him was that he had something in common with the suffering servant whom Isaiah was describing as part of his prophecy. Completely ignorant of the prohibitions levelled at eunuchs in Deuteronomy, this pilgrim had stumbled on a passage in Isaiah describing a man with whom he identified: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb silent before its shearer so he does not open his mouth. By force and by law he was taken, would anyone plead his cause? In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can imagine his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living.” (Isaiah 53: 7-8)
This eunuch, probably forcibly castrated, had been cut off from the land of the living, with no hope of ever having children. Though Isaiah wrote about somebody else, the eunuch realised that was a picture of him, too. So, when Philip turned up unexpectedly, the eunuch was eager to find out who it was that Isaiah was describing. Being a foreigner, he was probably unfamiliar with Deuteronomy, in which it was stated: “The eunuch shall not have a place in the assembly of the Lord.’ (cf Deuteronomy 23: 2-4) Had Temple officials known that the Ethiopian pilgrim was a eunuch, he would have been forbidden to enter the Temple. We are not told if he had read further into Isaiah. If he had, he would have discovered a spark of hope: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say: ’The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; Do not let the eunuch say: ‘I am just a dry tree’. For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths…I will give a monument and a name better than sons and daughters’ “ (Isaiah 56: 3-5).
When the eunuch asked Philip just who it was that Isaiah was writing about, Philip explained that it was Jesus of Nazareth who, though excluded and rejected himself, was intent on excluding nobody. Having spent much of his public ministry reaching out to the rejected and excluded – lepers, prostitutes, public sinners, tax collectors, people possessed and disabled – Jesus had finally taught his followers that nobody was to be excluded. There’s a message there for those who still want to exclude others whose sexual orientation is different from theirs. After his long experience of rejection, the Ethiopian found acceptance where he had least expected it.