Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Epiphany 2015
Start Date: 25th Jan 2015
Start Time: 11:15

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The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Sub-Dean and Rector of St Margaret's

Isn't it amazing how personal circumstances alter the way that we read and understand Scripture?

Before I go any further, and for the avoidance of doubt, I should make clear to any of our Roman Catholic or Orthodox friends that both marriage and children are legal for priests of the Church of England!

My own personal circumstances changed very much for the better with the announcement of my daughter's engagement and forthcoming marriage to a very fine young man.

However, it does make me read Scripture ever so slightly differently. Nothing could be more true that with the Wedding in Cana of Galilee. Because now the dilemma facing the hosts at the wedding party is no longer simply the 'fall-guy' for the spiritual point of the miracle, or a matter of mild theological interest, rather it's a very real anxiety that I have to face as Father of the Bride.

Of course, when you first read a passage of Scripture, it's often the narrative which stands out. Sometimes that's enough, but it runs the risk of staying on the surface, being superficial. Perhaps there's another layer, an intention—a parable or a miracle with a purpose which illuminates what's going on at the surface level. And thirdly, underpinning it all can be a spiritual purpose, a general understanding without which the text can be colourless, black and white.

If we take this way of interpreting scripture—which the early Church fathers described as body, mind and spirit—and apply it to the Wedding at Cana of Galilee, we might find a rich depth that's not obvious at first sight.

On the surface, the bodily interpretation, this encounter is extraordinary enough. Jesus is attending a wedding at which his family are guests and the unthinkable happens: the wine runs out. No one holds a party and runs out of food or drink. It's unthinkable. You always over-cater, and in the Middle East, then as today, it would have been social death. And the preacher, the miracle-worker is called upon: "do what he says" and the results are spectacular.

But such is Scripture that you can't possibly read it in this very surface-level way. The Bible won't allow you that luxury: there is an intention, a mind which must be heard.

First of all, its position in the gospel of John, chapter two, comes directly after his baptism and recognition by John the Baptist. Jesus is set apart for something—and here we have the first indication. 'Do whatever he tells you' says he is a man of power and authority, and Jesus realises this himself: 'My hour has not yet come'.

Secondly, there is a sense of destiny about this new preacher and not merely a destiny to supply wine for those who should have provided properly for the guests. The miracle is a sign, a sign-post and not a destination. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

So, a story about a miracle; a miracle that is a sign: but now look closer at the underlying spirit of this Scripture. The wine that was provided was not enough, it ran out half-way through the Wedding celebration. So, what does Jesus do? He instructs them to fill up the water jars set aside for Jewish rites of purification, and in doing so, to everyone's astonishment, he creates the new wine: 'Everyone serves the good wine first … but you have kept the good wine until now'.

The Gospel's Jewish audience would not have been able to hear these words without reflecting on a revolution: the old wine had run out, the old traditions had proved insufficient for the day, so instead Jesus uses the jars of the old religion to create the new wine, which will become the new wine of the kingdom. This is a revolution: the old order is gone, the kingdom of Christ is on its way. The old wine has run out, the new wine will be drunk in the feast of heaven.

But in case we come away from Scripture unperturbed, feeling slightly smug that we are part of the new order, I want to move on to a challenge.

Within Jewish-Christian dialogue, this kind of interpretation of the Bible has been deeply problematic because at the heart of it lies what we might call 'replacement theology'. That's to say, God's original covenant with his people Israel, mediated through the religious practices of the Second Temple, has been replaced and superseded by a new relationship in which the sacrifice of Christ alone makes atonement for our sins.

We had a good example of this on Thursday when the Abbey hosted a special evensong for Parliamentarians, to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Simon de Montfort Parliament in 1265. The Old Testament lesson was the Holiness Code from Leviticus 11; the New Testament was the replacement of this in the injunction to St Paul in Acts 10.

It is easy for us as Christians to overlook how dismissively this can be heard, however well intentioned. Our joy at celebrating the new things of Christ and our sharing as Gentiles in a covenantal relationship with God should not be used as an excuse to regard the Jewish faith as something of the past, a St Paul makes clear in Romans 11: "As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake: but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable".

No is this 'replacement' confined to Jewish-Christian relations. The death this week of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is a timely reminder of the power of religious revolution from which we are not immune.

Rightly, much of the attention has been focussed on the role the House of Saud has played in the fight against terrorism, the struggle against the Islamic State and even the Saudi Human Rights record. If we had followed Saudi tradition—as Graham Bartram, the Chief Vexillologist pointed out—no flags would have been lowered because the Saudi flag contains the 'Shahada', the Islamic declaration of faith.

But you might have noticed that the Prime Minister referred to the late King, not by name first but as the 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques'.

This refers to an event after the end of the First World War when the House of Saud, under the leadership of King Adbulaziz, Abdullah's father, took control of the most holy sites of Islam—Mecca and Medina. This was a profound transformation—the victory of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi tradition of Islam. It did so by expelling the Sharif of Mecca, whose sons, Abdullah and Faisal, had by then been installed as Kings of Transjordan and of Iraq respectively

This dramatic re-shaping of the Middle East has had a fundamental impact on the make-up and fractures in the region to this day.

And the challenge for us is that we Christians should not regard ourselves smugly as 'the new wine' in relation to Judaism, but be mindful that we may be swept away and replaced by Islam. Our prayer must be that we are not judged to be the old wine, nor insufficient for the day.

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