Isa 62:1-5, John 2:1-11
Box Hill Baptist Church, 20 January 2019
Gospel of John Context
Let’s look at the context of today’s gospel story. John begins with a hymnic celebration of Jesus as the incarnated Word, the initial witness of John the Baptist, and gathering of his first disciples. These events are structured as successive days to emphasise interrelatedness for interpreting his story of Jesus’ origin, identity, relationship to God and humankind, the importance of witness and meaning of faith and discipleship. Jesus told Nathaniel he would see greater things and in chs 2-5 we see the first realisation of his promise. We have the wedding at Cana on the third day, the cleansing of the Temple, conversations with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and healing of the official’s son. These are set in Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and return to Galilee. They all demonstrate the authority of Jesus’ words and works. Jews and non-Jews, the orthodox and heretical, women and men all see and hear ‘the greater things’ Jesus says and does. Nicodemus is a Jewish authority who knows so much that he fails to recognise Jesus as Messiah, or be open to new possibilities. The royal official is a pagan authority who does recognise Jesus’ life-giving power and comes to faith through his word. These are historically based, symbolic characters, representative of anyone and the responses they choose. Most of John’s characters are nameless. This namelessness enhances their power to represent the many without losing the particular, and point us beyond thin literal interpretations to the spiritual meaning within them. Like peering through a keyhole of great poetry, the closer we get, the more we see.
These stories open up possibilities of new life and faith and the decisions individuals are called to in the face of those possibilities – the drama of John’s gospel in miniature. This section is shaped by 2 signs, John’s preferred term for miracle or wonder stories, both performed in Cana. These signs are 2 of 7 symbolic actions told by John, almost all different to the stories in the synoptic gospels, 7 emphasising the fullness of the divine witness to Jesus’ identity by his words and works, and containing the full spectrum of responses, from committed faith to rejection.
Wonder Stories – I avoid using the word ‘miracle’ because, while it’s used a lot in secular society, to many religious people, it means a supernatural act of God that violates the laws of nature in what we know is an interactive, dynamic and self-determining universe. In view of ongoing political rhetoric, we may call it miraculous had Australia accepted Rahaf Alqunun from Saudi Arabia, or freed the refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus prisons. Deliberate inhumanity and cruel torture detailed for us by Imran, the Rohingya asylum seeker accepted by the US from Manus, and especially by Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish Iraqi journalist and poet, who smuggled out as accumulating texts the outrageous, heart-rending No Friend But the Mountains, and is still in PNG. What has become of us! Or was always there in our treatment of our indigenous peoples!
A relational God acts with us and on our behalf for our good, but not unilaterally against the agency of creation or its beings. Through most of history, creation has been understood as a physical world open to the operation of both divine and demonic powers, a world desacralised in the modern West by a God-denying materialism, helped by a dualist theology of separation between God and the world, developed in the context of empire-building. But it’s not as simple as fully re-embracing or rejecting that different worldview, because wonder stories created inexplicable dissonance then. There was a strong sense then, as now, of the difference between the ordinary and the incredible. We can see this in the indications of people’s amazement. The wonder stories tell of occasions when God’s power surprises people way beyond their normal expectations, so they try to explain them away, reject Jesus or embrace the extraordinary, seemingly impossible, in faith. The wonder is almost always an act of God’s gracious help, available for bodily needs and dangers, although we are also told of wonders of punishment. The main types are: exorcism – the power of God over evil forces, healing, provision, controversy stories emphasising objections and Jesus’ authority, rescue from threat, and lastly, epiphany – a showing of Jesus’ identity.
We’ve looked at 2 epiphany stories in the last two weeks. Firstly, Matthew’s birth story showing Jesus to the Gentiles, when unnamed magi from the East, perhaps Zoroastrian priests, come with hope, seeking meaning, and find it in the God of the Bible – from the present Iraq and Syria (where Abraham was called to be a blessing to all peoples) to Jerusalem (where the Temple was to be a house of prayer for all nations) and to Bethlehem (from where the new age would arise). The story discloses God’s presence in all things, God’s reign available among all nations and religions, supremely recognised through Jesus, and the appropriate response of worship. It also speaks of some Jewish opposition and hypocrisy, both of the religious leaders who know the scripture, but do not act on it, and of Herod’s claims of wanting to worship, but with murder is his heart. Secondly, John describes Jesus’ baptism as showing his identity as Lamb of God and Spirit-anointed Messiah.
Wedding at Cana
Today’s wonder story, both epiphany and provision, follows the standard form: setting, preparation, the wonder, conclusion.
Vs 1-2 Setting Story placed at beginning of Jesus’ ministry as the significant inaugural event, similar to Luke’s inaugural sermon we’ll consider next week, a vivid enactment of the life-giving good news he has to offer. We are given only essential details: when (3rd day), where (Cana), who (the mother, Jesus, his disciples) and why (wedding feast). Other details we could be curious about are irrelevant to the point of transformation of water into wine.
Vs 3-5 The preparation is that the wine has run out, and Jesus’ mother assumed her son would somehow attend
to the problem. This is a joyful community occasion in which Jesus, no ascetic or hermit, fully participated and added to the festivities by providing an abundance of excellent wine. But Jesus is the only person named. The disciples, the servants, the steward of the feast, the bridegroom are all unnamed. Not even mentioned are the bride, or the parents who are the central focus and hosts of Eastern weddings. What does it mean that the bridegroom is represented as the host? Even as a key character, why is Mary not named, nor ever is in John’s gospel, but called the mother of Jesus? It’s not that John or Jesus is disrespectful of Mary. John often stylises rebuff as a stimulus to faith. This story depicts a warm connection, as Mary shows no offence at Jesus’ freedom from human control, even a mother’s privileged claim. She has pondered her son’s identity and God-awareness all his life, understanding his priorities, obviously believes he has unusual powers, and trusts his ability to act, so confidently tells the servants to do what he tells them. Obedience is not about simply doing as you’re told, but responding in vital relationship.
Vs 6-8 The wonder itself begins with a detailed description of the water jars, their number, composition, purpose and size. Everything is exaggerated in order to emphasise the extravagance of the extraordinary transformation about to take place, but how it happened is not actually described. These are empty vessels waiting to be filled to the brim with water, Jewish purification jars filled with a wondrous new gift. It’s meaning is not that water is inferior to wine – water is one of John’s core symbols of life in Jesus. It’s not a rejection of purification and hence of Judaism. The guests have already had wine, so it’s not an allegory of Jesus replacing the old religion, but a symbol of the creation of something new in the midst of Judaism. Weddings are about new beginnings, and relationships, full of hope and joy. The extravagant proportions here, and in other stories, show us the super-abundance of gifts available through Jesus’ Spirit, which are described for us in the 1Cor lectionary reading.
Vs 9-11 In the conclusion of the story, the steward verifies the astonishing transformation, the servants witness to Jesus as its source and to the astonishing beneficence of the best wine, provided by Jesus the true Bridegroom. His gifts are given because he is from God and symbol of the joyous arrival of God’s new age, as in Isaiah’s vivid symbolism. The steward didn’t understand that, trying to make sense by thinking the bridegroom must have shown unusual hospitality. His focus on the wine amazingly transformed from water is apt but still superficial, his perplexity pointing to a shattering of conventional reasoning and expectations. The disciples see in the abundance a sign of God’s presence among them, and they put their faith in Jesus.
Mary as Symbol of Faith
The role Mary has is unique to her as physical mother, and also universally symbolic of reflective disciples of faith. Mary’s motherhood, as all his kinship relationships, is not dismissed but relativised by Jesus. The faith community included many of Jesus’ natural family. He belongs to the world, his spiritual family being disciples who hear his word and keep it. Mary saying ‘Do whatever he tells you’ is like Martha saying after the death of Lazarus ‘even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you’. Jesus tells her ‘Your brother will rise’ which is understood in terms of eternal life which does not yield to physical death, then ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ which gives a new dimension of depth, the possession of eternal life here and now, the spiritual experience of union with the risen Christ in this life. Heaven is not something we die into, but awaken into.
The mother of Jesus is symbolic of all who thus see his world-changing vision. Her character demonstrates faith in the word of Jesus. She and the servants anchor that trust in the ambiguity of human and natural experience. They and the Jewish community represent the range of possible responses to the action by which Jesus reveals his glory, his identity as the true Bridegroom, described by John through the gospel, symbolic of Isaiah’s God as Bridegroom. We don’t know who else believed, but the disciples find faith by allowing their conventional boundaries to be shattered and categories of life to be reshaped by the possibility of the inbreaking of God. John wants to challenge our assumptions about order and control, about what is possible, about where God is found and how God is known. The impact of the wonder event derives from its extraordinariness, the ambiguity it creates, and is lost if we don’t ask questions. Wonder is about astonishment and wondering. The grace offered and the glimpse of glory provided run outside conventional expectations and place us at odds with how we think the world is ordered and how we go about losing our little life to find the bigger one. What new things are inviting our awareness and decisions?
If we don’t experience a sense of dissonance in the story, and ask the big questions, we can’t experience its wonder either. Responses in terms of belief or disbelief in the supernatural or of rational explanation miss the mark as attempts to domesticate acts of extravagance, transformation and new possibilities. By having open hearts and minds, the faith community is freed to receive extraordinary gifts, centred on Jesus, to live life with generosity, abundance, fearlessness and beauty that mirror the Divine.
Hour, Glory and Participation
By referring to Jesus’ hour and glory John explicitly points beyond the astonishing story itself, wanting us to see deeper into Jesus’ authority and showing of himself and of God’s power and radiance. John calls it a sign, something that points to a separate object somewhere else, but that can be reduced to problem-solving – how can we get more wine, how can life be made better. The story may better be thought of as symbolic, within events, tangibly both revealing and concealing, ambiguously resisting explanation, but giving meaning. Signs are about information, symbols about relationship and life stances. These stories speak to our depths and the paradoxes of life. In mediating mystery, symbols are about aspects of experience, personhood and ultimately the Divine. To embrace symbols is to spiritually participate in an event brought into the present, here and now, by a real, though partial, relationship with the transcendent. This process is transformative and must develop and deepen into an evolved consciousness or die. We see these alternatives nowadays in contemplative renewal and institutional decay of Christianity.
Hour, glory and participation are themes of theological significance for John. He never presents Jesus’ death, as in the synoptic gospels, as kenosis, a self-emptying, which is then vindicated by resurrection. Rather, Jesus is glorified in and by his death, his hour, his exaltation, the final and definitive disclosure of who he is and what God desires for humankind and the whole creation. Jesus signals his hour on his last night, knowing he had come from God and was returning to God, by washing his disciples’ feet, an act of self-giving service, analogous to the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. His discourse tells them its meaning, so they would believe. Works and words. He summarised his exaltation in his prayer ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’. His intimate love abolishes inequality among friends, signalling their access to everything he received from God, even his glory. ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, brought to complete unity .. so that the world will know.’ Not the same being, but a mutual inter-dwelling. What a wonderful image of true marriage!
John’s account of Jesus’ ignominious passion and crucifixion is transformed into a glorious victory march by his calm trial and pronouncement of completion from the cross. This glorification makes possible his ascension to the Father and the resurrection narratives as his interior return to the disciples as his Spirit, to become his risen body in the world, witnessing as the faith community incorporating all who believe. John’s stories call us to trust Christ as mediator of God’s grace, liberator for the suffering and excluded, and giver of abundant life. It is our participation in Christ, each of us together, in relational abiding, that resources our actions of compassion and grace to do even greater works than the earthly Jesus had done. The community is the real symbolic presence of the glorified Jesus in the world, Christ’s way of being present in every time and place. May it continue to be true of us here in Box Hill. AMEN