Epiphany 2 January 17, 2010

Isaiah 62:1-5                                                                       

I Corinthians 12:1-11                                                        

John 2:1-11

 It is said that the purpose of a sermon or homily is to relate the readings from Holy Scripture to our lives and the world around us. As the theologian Karl Barth said, the preacher goes into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. My usual technique in doing this is to start with the daily newspaper, with our lives, our situations – an incident, a person, a situation we all know about or can relate to. We aren’t very familiar with the Bible, we don’t most of us read it at home, and to start with it always seems to me to turn people off.

But St. John’s gospel is hard to preach on that way. It doesn’t have neat little parables, interesting characters, “morals” or “messages” that can easily be related to everyday life. St. John’s is a mystical gospel. It was written late, by the only disciple of Jesus who did not meet a martyr’s death but lived into extreme old age, reflecting and meditating and polishing his thoughts about the Lord he had known and who loved him especially. John’s gospel is poetic, symbolic, every word heavy with meaning, often coded meaning.

The community for which St. John wrote (each of the gospels was written by a different author for a particular community of believers) was an embattled one, a group that was being forced out of Judaism because of their belief in Jesus as Messiah. Through most of the first century, believers could have it both ways: be Jewish and also be “Christian,” followers of what was known as “the Way.” But for John’s community, this was no longer possible.

All this is important to remember as we turn to the gospel this morning, the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. It is a traditional Epiphany story, a “showing forth” – in the words of John’s gospel a “sign” – of who Jesus is. But it doesn’t preach in any simple, straightforward way. It would really best be presented in the context of a retreat, with plenty of time to pick the symbolism apart, to pray and reflect on its meaning and only very slowly come to understand how it speaks to our lives. Alas, we don’t have that luxury this morning! But we’ll do our best.

First, we know that feasts, and particularly wedding feasts, have great symbolic significance in the Bible. They are eschatological: that is, they represent heaven, the coming of God’s kingdom, the way life can be even now when lived in the fullness of Christ. In Christian tradition, Christ is the bridegroom and the Church, we as his followers, are the bride. So this is the mystical setting for what transpires.

At the center of the action in the story is Jesus turning water into wine. At one level, this is simple enough: wine is better than water, and this wine is “the best” wine. It also comes not first, as would be usual before the guests were drunk, but last. So the story is about Jesus transforming life, making it better or richer or fuller. There is also the clear message that this miracle at the wedding is only the “first sign” of Jesus’s transformative power; we will have to wait for the end to understand fully. This is typical of John, and indeed of all the gospels. It is only the end, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, that reveals Christ’s full glory.

There is also a drama going on in the story that relates to the conflict between traditional Judaism and emergent Christianity which I referred to. The stone water jars were used in “the Jewish rites of purification,” for washing people’s hands and feet and the serving vessels. There are six of them: the six days of the “old” Creation. The significance here is that the “old rite” is finished, played out. The “new rite,” the rite based on the shedding of Jesus’s blood on the Cross, is being revealed. The old way of reconciling people to God is “washed up”; the new rite, which we enact here each week in the Eucharist, has come in Jesus Christ.

There are a host of other coded references in the story, each of which we might explore if we were on a retreat. This all takes place “on the third day” of St. John’s gospel. Three was a number symbolizing a complete cycle; the Resurrection takes place, we remember, on the “third day.” Obedience to Jesus’s instructions is stressed in the story: “Do whatever he tells you.” The steward or leader of the feast, the man in charge, doesn’t understand how the water became wine. But the disciples, the followers, and the “servants” do. The mother of Jesus is presented as clueless too, but she has faith in her son. And so forth, on and on. There is always another layer of meaning in John’s gospel.

Now what in the world does all this, fascinating as it may be to pick apart, have to do with us? St. John would say, that is up to us to figure out. The reason he writes symbolically, mystically, in code is that literal meaning, rules and precepts, can’t convey the fullness of the glory revealed in Jesus Christ. Only by “believing in” Christ – the key concept in the Fourth Gospel – can we be incorporated into the mystery by which we are one with God the Son as he is one with God the Father. And “believing in” doesn’t just mean “head believing.” It means heart and soul and body and life believing. In the last analysis, this is not something to be resolved in a homily like this, but to be pondered through a lifetime like St. John’s, into the holiness of old age.

But not to send you off just on this note, let me suggest some “take homes”: 1) Faithfulness, prayer and reflection each day, Eucharist each week: believing is built up over time. 2) Commitment to the long haul in life: believing grows from long, slow practice. 3) Wondering: believing depends upon cultivating a stance of wonder towards life, looking for the deeper meanings to be revealed beneath the surface. 4) Patience and humility: believing is God’s work, God gives it to us, we cannot seize it. And 5) thanksgiving: believing is built on being thankful for everything, since everything is filled with God, even the things which, in our blindness, seem darkest to us.

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