St Bride's: Sermons

Water into wine

Water into wine
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We have just heard what must surely be the weirdest miracle story in the whole of the New Testament. Just about every other miracle that Jesus performs is in response to an individual (or a group of people), in great personal need: he heals the sick; he liberates the possessed from their demons; he feeds five thousand hungry people; he stills the storm when the disciples are in fear of perishing. But to see him in today's Gospel reading nobly stepping in to rescue a party when the booze runs out, is a little odd, to say the least.

And as if that isn't strange enough, the conversation that takes place within our story is even more bizarre. The mother of Jesus comes to him and says: 'They have no wine.' His response seems abrupt to the point of rudeness: 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?  Mine hour is not yet come.'  But despite the fact that Jesus has apparently made it clear that he is not remotely interested in the problem, nevertheless the mother of Jesus instructs the servants to 'do whatever he tells you.'

So Jesus tells the servants to fill the six enormous stone water jars that are standing nearby with water, then to draw some of it off and to take it to the chief steward. This they do. And the steward, to his absolute astonishment, pronounces it to be a particularly fine vintage - the best wine has been kept till last. And there is an enormous amount of it: six stone water jars each holding up to thirty gallons, and filled to the brim - that would make for one heck of a party. What on earth is going on here? 

Now, one of the distinctive features of John's gospel is that almost everything within it - the stories, the events and the sayings attributed to Jesus - they all operate on more than one level. You cannot simply take them at face value - you have to dig deeper to find their true meaning. And in today's story there are all kinds of clues to alert us to the fact that there is much more going on here than meets the eye.

The first clue is the setting - that of a wedding feast. Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus wants to describe the kingdom of heaven, he often does so using the image of the wedding feast. So what we seem to have here is something that is, in effect, a 'living parable' - an incident that is embodying and symbolising for us a very important truth about the ways of God.

And this ties in with the second clue - which is the baffling exchange between Jesus and his mother, in which Jesus ends by declaring, rather perplexingly, 'my hour has not yet come.' Again, it is absolutely characteristic of John's Gospel that whenever you come across a dialogue that seems to makes no rational sense, you can be absolutely certain that you need to look below the surface to find its true meaning. 

And the final clue is the ludicrous and excessive quantity of wine that is produced. For those of you who know your Gospels, this, too should be ringing all kinds of bells. In the parable of the mustard seed, the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree so enormous that birds can rest in its branches - the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is like that. At the feeding of the multitude, five loaves and two fishes not only provide a meal for five thousand people, but generate twelve baskets full of leftovers. The kingdom of God is like that. Hence the ludicrous quantity of wine in today's miracle story - far, for, more than anyone could possibly want or need, even in the most wild and extravagant of wedding parties. The Kingdom of God is like that.

So it is fascinating to see that here, at the very start of John's Gospel, in the first of the signs that Jesus performed, even though his hour has not yet come (which in John's Gospel is a reference to Christ's crucifixion), we are shown something utterly extraordinary. The story of the miracle at Cana is about far more than Jesus helpfully rescuing a wedding reception by performing a particularly impressive conjuring trick. On the contrary, it is a story of massive and lasting significance, which is why it comes at the beginning of the Gospel. It is a story that testifies to the extraordinary, and extravagant and mind-blowing power of God in Christ. And it is a power that can be unleashed in our very midst in the most ordinary and unpromising of circumstances.

My church in Edgbaston was quite a lot bigger than St Bride's - at full capacity we could seat an entire secondary school full of pupils and quite a lot of their parents as well. But, aside from the big services we had each Christmas, it was relatively rare that we ran out of seats. 

But one very surprising occasion on which the place was absolutely packed to the rafters was the funeral of one of my congregation members. She had died in her eighties - precisely the age when frequently life-long friends and siblings are either too frail to travel, or have already died - which is why those kinds of funerals are quite small affairs. But at this particular funeral, despite the size of the church, there was standing room only. Indeed, so many people turned up for it that the funeral director, curious to know more, sidled up to me and said: 'Good heavens - there are an awful lot here - What was she? I mean, she must have been something!'  'What was she? She must have been something!' Well, let me tell you the answer to his questions.

The woman who died was Kath. Kath was a very warm and friendly but rather quiet and unassuming woman, who was devoted to her husband and her one son. I don't think she had ever had a job as such - certainly not a career. She just looked after her family. They lived a rather ordinary and unremarkable life, in a modest house on a housing estate. And in terms of what she was, there is not much more one could say about her.  ut the question of who she was was a different matter altogether. 

The late Russell Harty used to divide people up into two basic categories, which he described as 'radiators' and 'drains': 'radiators' are the people who generate warmth and comfort - those who improve the quality of life of those around them simply by being there. And 'drains' are the kinds of people who suck the life out of you, because their own needs and demands are always centre stage - because they take, but seldom ever give.

And Kath was without doubt one of life's radiators. Her circumstances were utterly ordinary; her impact on the lives of those around her was utterly extraordinary. In her, one could see a living example of how water, the most unexciting commodity of life, can become transformed into the richest and most abundant of wine, bringing joy and hope and delight to the lives of those around. And that is precisely how God works in our midst, in us and through us. He takes the most basic and unspectacular of elements: water, bread, wine, your life, my life - and transforms them into something utterly extraordinary and life-giving.

All of us, as followers of Christ, are called to be counted amongst life's radiators, communicating the warmth and consolation of God's love to the lives of those around us. The key to which, as Mother Theresa once said, is not doing great things - but rather doing small things with great love. That is what Kath did. And if that is our calling, that calling is even more apparent in the lives of our Guild members. To those of you who are members of the Guild of St Bride, we are richly blessed by your continuing commitment and contribution to the life of St Bride's and to our community. We give thanks for all that you do to help make this holy place a beacon of light and an oasis of peace for all who come. And, in wearing your gowns and your medallions, you are called to do that, and to be that, in a very visible way - helping to enable God's love to turn the most ordinary things of life into the glorious wine of the Kingdom.

Thank you for your willingness to respond to God's call, and to commit yourself and your gifts anew to the service of our church. But this is a ministry that we share - and a ministry to which we can all contribute - because we are all of us, whether Guild members or not, called to be God's radiators - channels of his saving and transforming love. And thanks be to God for that.

 Amen.

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