January 18

A New Awakening

By Marsh Chapel

The undergraduates in Chapel today probably like John’s story of the wedding at Cana better than did the very sober Christians of my youth. What do we learn from the story? First and most obviously, Jesus liked to party. The names of the married couple are not mentioned, and we can assume from the story that they are friends of Jesus’ mother rather than Jesus himself. Cana is nine miles from Jesus’ home, and that is a long walk if you don’t like parties for strangers for their own sake. We know from the story that Mary too liked to party, because she was the one who had been told by the steward that the wine had run out. We learn from the story that Jesus didn’t want to use any special powers but did so because his mother insisted, sort of a caricature of the relation between a Jewish mother and her son. Not only were Mary and Jesus not teetotalers but we don’t see much of the discipline of moderation. If we suppose that the host had ordered and served the wine he expected to be sufficient for the party, then Mary and Jesus must have been having a good time, which they wanted to continue, for them to want to make more. Now if you calculate six water jars holding 20 to 30 gallons apiece, filled to the brim, that’s between 120 and 180 gallons of top quality wine from Jesus the Good Vintner. It’s a good thing they had a nine-mile walk back home. Psalm 104 says that among the great things of creation God made wine to gladden the human heart, and this must have been a glad party to end all parties, even if the married couple seem peripheral to the story.

Nevertheless, the sober Christians of my youth were somewhat uncomfortable with this story, and with good reason. Whereas wine might have been the preferred beverage in rural Galilee because they didn’t have much clean drinking water, we know the damage drinking can do when drivers drink, when excessive drinking ruins health, when inappropriate drinking ruins work, projects, friendships, and families; we know alcoholism to be a serious disease, something not at all understood in Jesus’ time. It might be strange to hear me say in this instance that you should not do what Jesus did but rather what the University says: don’t drink if you are underage and drink in careful moderation if you are old enough; know also that a little alcohol might lead you to do things you wouldn’t do when sober and for which you nevertheless are responsible. So why then is this over-the-top party story in the Bible, especially at such a pivotal place in John’s Gospel?

The clue is in the first four words of the first sentence: “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee.” The third day from what? It was the third day from the calling of the core disciples, whom Jesus then brought to the wedding. John’s Gospel has a different account of the calling of the disciples from Matthew, Mark, and Luke who describe a seaside calling of fishermen. In John’s account, Jesus went to be baptized by John the Baptist at Bethany, near Jerusalem. There he met two disciples of John the Baptist whom the Baptist sent to get acquainted with Jesus. One of those was likely John, the brother of James, by repute the eventual author of John’s Gospel, and traditionally identified with the Beloved Disciple. The other was Andrew, Peter’s brother. The two disciples of John the Baptist were so impressed with Jesus that Andrew found his brother Peter, who apparently also had been involved with the baptizing phenomenon, and brought him to Jesus. The next day Jesus left the Jerusalem area for Galilee and found Philip, who was a neighbor of Andrew and Peter. Philip then found Nathaniel who confessed Jesus to be the Son of God and the King of Israel.

It was three days after Philip brought Nathaniel that Jesus took his new band of disciples to the wedding at Cana. John does not record that Jesus took them first to a mountaintop for an exhilarating new experience, as happened later at the Transfiguration. He did not take them off to pray. He did not preach or lecture to them, or take them to a communal meal. The first thing he did with the disciples, according to John, was to take them to a wedding party and make sure they enjoyed it.

John’s Gospel differs from the others in being the last written and having the heaviest theological interpretation. Although John is likely to be the most accurate historically, it is written from the standpoint of people who already know the end of the story. The end of the story, as John tells it, is that Jesus has triumphed over the world, that he made a place for his disciples with God, that he himself is with God and has sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers forever. The point of John’s Gospel is that God has triumphed in Christ and that God’s Holy Spirit is with the people to see them through. So God’s victory should be celebrated right off with a party. Although the disciples could not understand it at the time, Jesus initiated their ministry with a celebration of God’s victory. That the party celebrates a wedding, with an unnamed bridal party, prefigures or symbolizes the marriage between God and the God’s people. The real bridal party is God and Israel, God and the disciples, God and the Church, indeed God and the whole world including the Gentiles.

The story of the wedding in Cana is the first of a series of increasingly complex and startling miracles that Jesus performs in John’s narrative, ending with the raising of Lazarus from the dead and finally Jesus’ own resurrection. All along the way people who do not understand Jesus slowly come to do so. Remember poor Nicodemus who thought he had to return to the womb to be born again in the Spirit? The closing scene of John’s Gospel is the fish breakfast Jesus cooked for his disciples after they thought he was dead. He healed the spirit of poor Peter who had denied him three times by getting him to say three times that he loved Jesus. He told Peter to feed those whom Jesus loved. Peter asked Jesus about Jesus’ special relation with the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus responded to the effect that it was none of Peter’s business because Jesus’ relation with each person is different, a poignant lesson with which to end the Gospel.

Now I am not asking you to believe in miracles, turning water to wine, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing the sick, or raising the dead. What to believe about miracles is a very important topic for another time. But I am asking you to live in God’s time after the first party. Or rather, regard this time as our party of the Christian life, even if our time look like anything but a party. This is our time, like the disciples in their time, for learning what it means to be God’s people, and we shall make foolish mistakes before we get it down. Living in God’s world is not what we might expect. Great armies do not come down to drive out the Romans or protect us from terrorists. Too many Christians defend racism rather than remove it. The Christian movement is not a government that rules with righteousness; in fact it has to live subversively with governments that usually are not righteous, as the early Christians did. The strong and proud are not our real leaders, the humble and poor are: witness Martin Luther King, Jr. In so many ways, the Christian life is lived contrary to all expectations of victory and greatness. Resurrection to spiritual life is obtained through spiritual crucifixion, through suffering the blind and evil powers of the world, and through keeping the faith when all hope is given up. Dr. King was a martyr.

How do we awaken to this strange, up
side down story of Christianity? We’ve heard it so often it no longer startles us. Many answers to that question exist. Sometimes world events shock us so that we ask with new urgency what it means to be a Christian. I remember the shock of Dr. King’s assassination, and with several other ministers in my area preached on the Grapes of Wrath the next Sunday. The events of 9/11 and the war in Iraq have had that effect for many. Sometimes a vision of the poor lets us see Jesus. Sometimes we meet a person or group who startles us to awareness of the seriousness of Christianity. For many of us, it takes a tragedy such as the death or serious illness of someone close. What I want to urge today, however, is none of these stimuli from the outside. I ask instead that we turn inward and inquire how it is with our souls. Isn’t that the question you should ask of your best friends, in order to be a friend yourself? Of course such questions are embarrassing, and only the best of friends can ask that question straightforwardly. But asking the question of ourselves does not involve embarrassment, only confusion, shock, sometimes grief, and sometimes joy.

“How is it with my soul?” is a very Methodist question. Last week I urged us to not settle for being what John Wesley called an “almost Christian.” Wesley preached a sermon in 1741 called “The Almost Christian” in which he distinguished that from the “altogether Christian.” An almost Christian has what Wesley called the “heathen virtues” of morality and a strong regard for justice, truth, and giving assistance or charity to one another. An almost Christian also has the “form of Christian godliness,” by which Wesley meant living by the stringent moral code of the New Testament and participating in all the means of grace in the Church, including private prayer. From the outside, an almost Christian can look very like an altogether Christian. But what is lacking, he said, is inner sincerity. When we look into our soul, you and I, do we recognize deep sincerity?

Sincerity, Wesley said, involves three things. First it involves genuine love of God, not sentimental feelings of gratitude but genuine love. Loving God is very difficult, because God’s creation involves destruction as well as construction. Second, sincerity involves loving our neighbors, not just behaving charitably toward them, not just being good to them. Sincerity involves genuinely loving them, which is a disposition of the heart that can be difficult when our neighbors are our enemies. Third, sincerity involves real faith in the inward heart. By faith, Wesley did not mean just belief, although true understanding is part of faith. Wesley had a quaint way of making this point. He said that devils, because of their supernatural knowledge, know the truth of all the Christian history, witness, and doctrines, including that Christ had died for their salvation. Yet they are still devils because their hearts do not accept that salvation. What the devils lack, perfect theologians that they are, is the inward acceptance of God’s saving love and the rejoicing, the returning of God’s love, and the loving of neighbor out of the excess of joy.

This brings us back to the wedding at Cana. An altogether Christian, sincere in loving God, loving neighbor, and rejoicing in the convictions of faith, knows that discipleship is a party. We usually don’t understand how it is a party—coming to understand how it is, is part of discipleship. It usually does not look or feel like a party—most of Jesus’ disciples were martyred and he himself was crucified. Our own lives are filled with many confusions, failures, betrayals of others, of ourselves, of our ideals, of our Christ, just like Peter’s. Yet in loving God in total sincerity, and loving neighbors in total sincerity, and abiding in the deepest faith in which God dwells wildly and joyfully, the altogether Christian knows that this life is a party given by God. It is our very own wedding party.

Wesley knew his sermon had a little trick to it. Most of us are not anywhere near being even an almost Christian. We aren’t very moral, truthful, just, or even fully observant of the forms of the Christian life. The point is that if we get the sincerity, that which distinguishes an altogether Christian from the almost Christian, then the virtues of the almost Christian will come along in time. Begin with the sincere love of God, the sincere love of neighbor, and the sincere faith that God’s love and power for salvation already resides in your heart, and all the rest will be added through the practices of sanctification. Love and faith come first, and they are available now.

So I ask you about your soul. Do you find there sincere love of God and neighbor, the joyful faith in God’s love and power? That question might take a long time to answer. I invite you into the Christian life in which that faithful sincerity can be awakened and made to glow. More specifically, I invite undergraduates to come to the Marsh Room downstairs this Tuesday and following Tuesdays from 5:30 to 6:30 to become what Wesley called a “Band,” a group for spiritual discernment and formation. We will pray, begin a spiritual discipline, and work to increase our ability to love God and neighbor, and to dwell in joyful faith. Our purpose is not psychological analysis or the invasion of personal privacy; people will be free to speak or not and can leave any time. Our purpose is mutual help and accountability in the pursuit of the spiritual life, beginning with care for the question, how is it with our souls? All undergraduates are invited. If others who are not undergraduates would like to begin a Wesleyan Band, which is not a musical organization, please contact the Chapel office.

Back to the wedding at Cana. Given that Jesus was instructing his disciples to become aware of the love of God and the fulfillment of being a disciple within God’s world, I’m sure that the Good Vintner used the 30 gallon containers and made a full 180 gallons of the very best wine. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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