Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Second Sunday of Epiphany: Sunday 17 January
17 January 2010 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
John 2: 1-11
The story we have just heard from St John’s Gospel includes some rather curious elements. I dare say many of us have been to a wedding at some time but I doubt whether, at any wedding you have attended, the wine ran out at the wedding reception. On the other hand, the prospect of a sudden late arrival of very large quantities of extra wine at a wedding reception, or indeed at any party, must be alarming to those responsible. I am sure there is no risk of parties getting out of hand when they involve the Queen’s Scholars of Westminster School, whom we are pleased to see in their places this morning with some of their parents and masters. But I imagine the possibility engenders contingency planning.
The events St John describes are these. Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding. His Mother is there and having noticed that the wine has run out tells her Son. At first Jesus refuses to do anything but then asks for six large water vessels to be filled with water. When the servants draw the water out it is wine. The steward and bridegroom testify that it is better than the wine they had before.
If we treat this Gospel account as a straight-forward story, we find several puzzling elements, especially why those great stone jars were there in the first place and why Jesus had them all filled to the brim, thus producing what our English translation calls 1,440 pints of wine. Considering these questions will help us get behind the story itself. We can be fairly sure that, whether or not this was an event that the author himself remembered, or failing that whether or not he had evidence of the event on powerful and trustworthy testimony, St John would not have included the account in his Gospel unless he could see its significance and could expect the reader or hearer of his Gospel to see its meaning as well. A purely naturalistic interpretation will not get us very far.
Nor should we simply see it as a miracle, a wonderful and amazing thing Jesus did. The miracles of healing were complete and had only a general significance beyond themselves. After all, the outcome of Jesus’ actions, if we were to think of it just as a miracle, was not to produce health and healing but an extremely good party and quite possibly a number of sick heads in the morning. Liking a party was on Jesus’ charge sheet. But we are not to think of this as a miracle. St John calls it a sign: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ [John 2: 11] We hear the story during the Epiphany season because it tells of the manifestation of Jesus’ glory.
So, what sort of sign? We can take as an initial key to our understanding the oddest feature, the six stone water jars. St John gives us a clue when he tells us that they are used for religious rites of purification. We are familiar with these rites even if we only know the practices of the time through the New Testament, indeed through this Gospel. At the Last Supper, Jesus takes water and a towel and begins to wash his disciples’ feet. Thus he takes on the role of a household servant, doing what is regarded as the most menial task. He demonstrates to his disciples the fundamental truth that leadership is about loving service. St John thus shows Jesus putting into action what St Mark quotes him as saying, ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’ [Mark 10: 45]
But back to the wedding feast: the water from the six stone jars would have been used by the household staff for the ritual washing of the guests, required in the religious tradition, as they arrived for the wedding feast. It probably seems to us entirely right and proper that we should for example wash our hands before meals. And, if you are arriving as a guest for a party wearing sandals having walked along dusty roads, it is hard to conceive of anything more pleasant or congenial than having your feet washed; no doubt it helped to keep the house clean too. So these washings seem to us entirely sensible. And yet, we see from the Gospels that Jesus had a problem with them. St Mark tells the story of some of the Pharisees, arch upholders of the religious laws, noticing that Jesus’ disciples were eating without having first washed. When they charged Jesus with being lax about the observance of the law, he in turn accused them of hypocrisy, thus giving rise to a dispute that would become more a more significant as his ministry progressed. They imposed the law, he said, but did not themselves observe it.
More profoundly, Jesus was rejecting the belief that observing the ritual law was important above all. St Mark quotes Jesus talking to the Pharisees on the issue: ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition.’ [Mark 7: 9-13] St Luke quotes Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The key here is that the priest and the Levite are going to Jerusalem for ritual purposes and dare not risk touching a dead body because that would make them ritually unclean. Again Jesus’ charge is of elevating religious ritual above care for someone in need. The Gospels quote Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the money changers and those who are selling the animals of sacrifice, the doves and the sheep. It would be trivialising and anachronistic to suggest that Jesus is trying to create a quiet and holy place or is against business and enterprise or is trying to save the lives of the animals. Jesus objects to the whole idea of animal sacrifice, the notion that killing an animal and offering its blood is somehow a worthy sacrifice that pleases God and recreates a loving and devoted relationship with his people.
What all this points to is the truth that it is only the wonderful transaction between God the Son and God the Father, Jesus’ own free self-offering to his heavenly Father, the triumph over evil of the self-giving love of an utterly good man, that takes away our sins and puts us right with God. As the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, referring to the priests of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem that would be destroyed in AD 70: ‘Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’ [Hebrews 10: 11-12] ‘He entered once for all into the Holy Place … with his own blood, obtaining eternal redemption.’ [Hebrews 9: 12]
That must also be the key to understanding what St John means when he says the disciples saw the changing of water into wine as a sign and came to believe in him. They would come to see that the old rituals are worth nothing in themselves. What makes the difference is the sacrifice of Jesus: his body broken and his blood poured. St John it seems clear sees in this sign at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Calvary, of the Cross of Jesus.
The wine so generously provided and so freely poured out is a foretaste of the wine of the Eucharist, which Jesus called His Blood. We shall hear Jesus’ words spoken over the cup of wine later in this service: ‘Drink this all of you; this is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ Drink this, all of you – Jesus’ invitation to a true relationship with God he offers to everyone. So he fulfils the vision of the prophet Isaiah: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ [Isaiah 55: 1]