Sermon for Eucharist
14 January 2007 at :00 am
The story that we have just heard from St John's Gospel of the water being turned into wine has been used for all sorts of strange purposes in the Christian tradition. Commercialism is one. If you go today to the village of Cana in Galilee you can buy, would you believe it, Cana wine, and I am told it is fairly strange stuff too, although I have never tried it. I hope no directors of the company are here!
But then the story has also been the occasion for some fairly odd speculation as well. A few years ago someone suggested that the only reason why the mother of Jesus should have been so concerned about the wine running out was because this was Jesus' own wedding, and this was the occasion when Jesus married Mary Magdalene. To describe the evidence for that as thin would be generous, but may be it just shows what strange things people can do with Biblical stories.
More reasonably, I suppose, there is the suggestion that this story shows that asceticism is not a particularly Christ-like path. John the Baptist, a figure from the desert, certainly followed the ascetic way, but Jesus seems to have been more a man of the towns, mixing where the people were, and, if this story from Cana is to be believed, one who was quite prepared to enjoy the pleasanter aspects of social life.
But none of those ways of looking at the story really captures the central message as the author of St John's Gospel meant it. For he places this in the introduction to gospel, almost right at the very beginning, and he describes it as 'the first of the signs by which Jesus revealed his glory', and Jesus' glory for John did not consist in him being some wonder working magician capable of doing strange tricks with water, it was something far, far more profound than that. As far as John was concerned Jesus' glory was as a person with a unique relationship with God, who through his life and death would transform the lives of those who responded to him. So if we want to see what John meant by this story we must look not simply to the miracle of water changing into wine, but to the deeper symbolism in the story. And John gives us images that would have spoken very powerfully for his first readers.
First of all he tells us that this happened 'On the third day'. Now the third day of what? There is the outline of a chronology in the first two chapters of the gospel but John was probably writing this story down some sixty to seventy years after whatever event provoked his account, and what day of the week it happened would have been as insignificant for his early readers as it is for us today. But for all of us here that phrase in connection with Jesus 'On the third day' inevitably reminds us of something else, the resurrection, and so it would have done for his first readers. This story, right at the start of the gospel, is linked with the resurrection, when Jesus' glory was fully revealed, and it points towards a far greater transformation than simply turning water into wine.
For what was the situation in this Jewish household? They had no wine left. There was nothing in their community to sustain the future. All they had was six stone pots, of the kind used for Jewish rites of purification. Now in Jewish thinking, as all the earliest readers of this gospel would have known, the number of completeness for the Jews was seven. Six pointed to something incomplete, something waiting for fulfilment. And what they were meant to contain is significant as well, water for Jewish rites of purification, an important part of ritual cleansing. That is what Jesus took and turned into wine. And of course wine had the same meaning for the early Christian readers that it has for us, for it would have reminded them as it does us of the wine of this service. John is the only gospel writer to give no direct account of the last supper, but the Eucharistic symbols of bread and wine are a constant theme though his gospel, for it is in John that we read that Jesus is the Bread of Life and the True Vine.
And going back to the story who knew how it all happened? Well, not the most important official there, the steward of the feast, he was nonplussed, only the servants, the word used is the one we use for deacons, who had approached Mary and then listened to the commands of Jesus, only they really knew.
So John's fundamental theological point for his first readers, and the reason why he put this story almost at the very beginning of his gospel, begins to become clear. What this man Jesus is about, claims the writer, is nothing less than transforming the incomplete and unfulfilling Jewish ritual way of approaching God, and turning it into something new, and vibrant and life-giving, symbolised by the wine of the Eucharist. It happens on the third day, in other words in the light of the resurrection, and it happens through those who listen to the voice of Jesus and obey. That is the real meaning of this story for John, and that is why it is the first of the signs.
So perhaps the first thing we should note from this reading is what sort of document we have in the Fourth Gospel. Sometimes with our twenty first century literalism, when we read the gospels we can easily assume they are documents like the ones we know, newspaper reports, for example, or historical biography. But in fact the New Testament documents, and particularly the gospels, are far more complex than that, often containing all sorts of layers of symbolism that may not immediately strike us as clearly as they would have done the first readers, and where the relationship between history and symbolic interpretation is very far from clear and often almost impossible to disentangle. This story is a good example, pointing as it does to a far more profound truth about Jesus than simply saying that he could perform remarkable nature miracles.
But of course the signs of Jesus' glory didn't end there. Jesus' involvement on behalf of God in the life of this world was not just in its moments of joy, but in its sorrows as well, and Jesus' entering his glory according to John, included not only this event and his teaching ministry, but his submission of himself to hostile authorities which ended up with his death on Calvary. 'I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself' John has Jesus saying later in his gospel, and that lifting up happened at Golgotha. The first sign of his glory according to John may have been a happy event in Cana, but the route to transforming that Jewish water into Eucharistic wine was not all happy, for it culminated in a gruesome death, which John saw was also part of Jesus' glory.
Now both of those dimensions are here in this service. For it is that wine that we are offered in this service. Not the Cana wine of contemporary commercialism, but the wine of the Eucharist, the wine of Christ's blood, the wine that symbolises not only joy and happiness, but sacrifice and death as well. By drinking this wine we certainly share in a feast; a feast to celebrate the meeting of God and man, revealed in Jesus and potentially there in all of us, but by drinking this wine we also bind ourselves to Jesus, who went on from Cana to Calvary, who shared on God's behalf not only human pleasure but human woe as well, and who thereby opened a window into the heart of God.
And what we then find is that the way to God does not need ritual purification, but only a heart open to knowing and listening to him. That is the potential for all of us as we come to receive this wine.