As I begin my twenty-sixth year in this parish I find I have many good memories to look back on, though of course there are also many painful memories. I can smile as I look back on some of the things that I think we really got right, such as opening up our unused space early on for use by the local community, and I look back less happily on things I didn’t get quite right.
One early decision that I Iater came to regret was offering free beer at the first church BBQ we put on together. I can’t remember now whether we took the money out of church funds to buy the beer or (more likely) whether a few of us just chipped in to purchase a couple of slabs. Either way, I remember that we did get through it all. It may be that we were a somewhat earthier congregation then than we are now?
I won’t say more about that event as most of those then present are no longer with us and so can’t defend their reputations. Let it suffice to say that it was decided afterwards that the money had not been well spent! Even so, had I been looking for a Biblical justification for the decision I need have looked no further than today’s Gospel reading where Jesus miraculously supplies a party (indeed over-supplies a party) with an enormous amount of alcohol.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you. Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” (John 2:3-8)
You know the rest of the story, I’m sure. Jesus somehow converts the water into a massive amount of wine – and I do mean a massive amount!
I did some quick sums on this. We are told in the narrative that there were six large jars in play, each holding between 20 and 30 gallons of liquid. When ‘filled to the brim’ you end up with a total of 180 gallons, which translates roughly into around 818 litres! If we can imagine that in terms of 750ml bottles (the standard size) that’s more than a thousand extra bottles of wine!
How many people were there at this party? Let’s assume it was a really big bash with two hundred guests! That’s still more than five extra bottles of wine per person (more than ten extra bottles each if there were only 100 guests)!
This raises a number of questions, doesn’t it – not the least of which is ‘how on earth did the Temperance Society ever find a foundation in the church?’
I think this passage really should disturb us if we come from a spiritual tradition that disavows all alcohol. Having said that, this passage should probably disturb us no matter what spiritual tradition we come from, for there is much here that is disturbing!
For one thing, there’s the apparently dysfunctional relationship between Jesus and his mother. “What have you to do with me”, says Jesus (John 2:4). What was going on there? Then there’s the nature of the miracle itself, which seems more like a party trick than a genuine spiritual miracle.
When I was a young lad I used to fancy myself as a bit of a magician and I once had in my possession a ‘change water into wine’ magic trick. I remember performing it in front of my parents when I was probably about ten years old!
Unfortunately, it was a trick that you could only perform a couple of times as it involved lining the cups and jugs that were used with various chemicals that caused a colour change when mixed with water, and you couldn’t offer anyone a glass of the ‘wine’ to drink at the end of the trick either as the resulting liquid wasn’t just poor vintage but was quite toxic. Indeed, it came with dire warnings on the sides of the packets of chemicals saying ‘do not drink’. This stands in stark contrast, of course, with Jesus’ creation which, according to the chief steward, was so good that you couldn’t stop drinking it!
My trick, at any rate, was just a trick, just as Jesus’ miracle seems at first like some sort of trick, not only because such things aren’t possible but because miracles, as we usual conceive them, are generally designed to help people.
It’s a miracle when a lame person walks? It’s a miracle when the deaf hear or the blind see or when a hungry person is fed or when someone with a terrible disease is healed of that disease, but what disease is being healed here?
What problem was Jesus solving through this miracle? We could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus wasn’t solving any problem but was creating one! After all, I assume the reason the wine ran out was because these people had already been drinking a lot! Did they really need any more alcohol?
This as a serious question. Don’t think I’m being flippant about the problems of excessive alcohol consumption. Not only have I seen more than enough alcohol-inspired violence in my time but I spent some years in my late teens and early twenties doing volunteer work in an alcoholic men’s home. It was a sobering experience!
I remember asking one hardened alcoholic there once how much he drank. ‘Would you consume as many as twenty schooners in a day?’ I asked him. ‘Mate’, he said, ‘I’d spill more than that most days!’
My memories of that church BBQ that I mentioned are a bit vague now, but I have a feeling that when someone eventually said to me, “Dave, we’ve run out of beer” my response was probably “thank God!” I won’t swear to that, but what I am certain of is that I did not say “let’s see if we can’t get hold of another thousand bottles!”
This Gospel narrative is a disturbing story from a number of angles, and quite frankly one of the most discomforting parts of the narrative for me is the way it concludes: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)
This was the first of Jesus’ miracles according to John, revealing His glory, and causing His disciples to believe in Him! What was it, I wonder, that they came to believe about Him on the basis of this experience?
They say that first impressions are all important, and this was Jesus’ great first impression on first century Judea and on His disciples in particular. This experience impacted Jesus’ disciples, John tells us, as no doubt it impacted everybody who had an inkling as to what had really gone on there that day. No doubt it shaped their understanding of who Jesus was such that they now say Him as … what? As the guy you always want to have at your party? As the guy who turns good times into great times?
If this was Jesus’ way of introducing Himself to the world, let’s be honest and say at least that this is not the Jesus we generally try to introduce people to! We want people to meet Jesus the healer, Jesus the saviour, Jesus, the lover of my soul, rather than Jesus the party-guy!
- What was Jesus thinking?
- Why did He do it?
- What is it that we are supposed to learn from this miracle?
And perhaps most importantly …
- Why is the Gospel writer, John, so keen to depict this bizarre episode as Jesus’ way of introducing Himself to the world?
The answers to these (and many other similar and equally sensible) questions are not immediately obvious, are they? And at the risk of disappointing you, I have to confess that I don’t have any definitive answers to these questions either. Even so, as I was pondering these questions through the week, I did find it helpful to think on something that I’d heard from Bishop Will Willimon (my preaching mentor) when he was explaining why he refused to distribute grape juice at the Communion table. I can’t remember the exact quote but it was something like this:
‘Grape juice is a pleasant, if somewhat insipid, thirst-quencher on a hot day. Wine, on the other hand, is volatile stuff. If you have too much of it, you can start to get a little crazy! Passions get enflamed. People become dangerously amorous and even get into fights! What sounds more like the Gospel to you?’
Wine is volatile stuff, and the Gospel of Jesus is volatile stuff!
Most churches and most of us preachers do our best to conceal this, I think, and pretend that the Gospel of Jesus is the bastion of middle class morality but in actual fact it is not!
What is the Gospel (the ‘good news’) of Jesus Christ? It is the proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God? It is the daring assertion that peace is on its way and that love will rule and that forgiveness is freely available to all! From a religious perspective this is crazy talk!
Ask any good, self-respecting Rabbi what religion is about and he will tell you. It’s about doing the right thing by God. It’s about obedience to the divine law. It’s about submission and service and ultimately about reaping the rewards and/or punishments that are due to you. To assert instead that everyone is loved and everybody is forgiven … this is crazy talk!
I mean what’s the point of being religious all your life and doing your best to serve God faithfully and sacrificially for all your years on this planet if everyone gets forgiven and everybody gets the same reward?
That’s the problem that the workers in the field had, you may remember, in the story Jesus told, where those who snuck in an hour before quitting time got paid the same as those who’d be working since dawn (Matthew 20:1-16)! ‘What’s the point of working all day?’, they said, and what did the boss say? He said ‘it’s my money, and who are you to tell me that I can’t be generous with what’s mine and spread it around?’ I’m paraphrasing, of course, but I think you know the story.
But surely you can’t go on lying, stealing and fornicating and then expect Jesus to say to you “I don’t condemn you either”, though this is, of course, exactly what He says to the adulterous woman in one of John’s other stories about Jesus (in John 8:1-11)?
But does that mean that we should sin more so that grace may abound? Well … I think you already know the Biblical response to that one (Romans 6) so I won’t go there now.
The Gospel of universal love and forgiveness is frustrating if you want something theologically coherent and it’s downright scandalous to the morally upright. Even so, for those of us who are struggling and hopeless and who know that we’ve left undone the things we ought to have done and have done the things we ought not to have done … it’s something that’s worth drinking to! It’s something to celebrate!
This was the first impression that Jesus made on His disciples – that Jesus was someone you could celebrate with – and we all know that there’s only one thing that impacts us more than someone’s first impression on us, and that’s their last impression on us! And if Jesus’ first impression on His disciples was as one who provided them with wine, what was the last impression He left with them before his crucifixion? If you know the Gospels, you know the answer to that. He was pouring them another drink!
At the very beginning of His earthly ministry and at the very end of His earthly ministry, Jesus shared a drink with His disciples! Good times, warm times, passionate times, crazy times! They shared a drink together, just as we, His modern-day disciples come together still at the Eucharist to share a drink with Jesus, to celebrate with Him and to engage our passions with His!
John tells us that this was how Jesus chose to “reveal his glory” to His disciples, “and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 17th of January, 2016.