Whenever I hear the story of the wedding feast at Cana, I am reminded of one of my favorite Russell family stories.
Some years ago, my older sister, who some of you have met, was visiting my brother’s family in Virginia. Like a good aunt would, she offered to read some bedtime Bible stories to my brother’s two young daughters. Now, my sister would probably describe herself as “unchurched”. She, like all of us, grew up a pastor’s kids, but we each find our own path as adults. Meanwhile, my brother and his family were committed Southern Baptists for most of their married life.
So picture my sister sitting with her two young nieces in their bedroom, reading these stories which she knew pretty well herself. When she got to the wedding at Cana, my sister added a little commentary. When she read, “And Jesus turned the water into wine,” she added loudly, “Party on, Jesus!”
Needless to say, she wasn’t asked to read to them again…
But in the end, I think my sister was on to something. I believe she captured in one funny moment a central aspect of the character of God. God likes parties. And more pertinent to our readings today, God loves weddings. Jesus, of course, was no different.
Throughout the Bible we hear the metaphor of weddings, brides and bridegrooms used to describe God’s relationship with his people. From the very beginning we hear God’s opinion, “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Thus began the dance, the relationship between God and humans that, much like marriage, was born in love and commitment but afterward faced some incredibly bad times that tested the strength of the love and the depth of the commitment.
God often punished the nation of Israel because they had been unfaithful – again, marriage language. But when they reconcile, God does not take back his unfaithful bride begrudgingly. He doesn’t exile her to a guest bedroom. He rejoices over her just as a bridegroom would his bride. We hear this language in our reading from Isaiah this morning.
Despite all her unfaithfulness God loves her as when they first were married. To this day we pray prayers of forgiveness and though we have been unfaithful, with the things we have done and left undone, there is no question that God is ready to forgive. We do not have to wait and see if God will forgive. We don’t have to wonder whether or not we will celebrate the Eucharist or not. It is part of God’s character, God’s very nature to forgive, again not begrudgingly, but with joy and feasting.
It is this faithfulness we hear celebrated in Psalm 36. We hear of feasting and abundance. God is the very source of the water of life, and it is in God that we even find light. God loves to bless us, his people.
The wedding at Cana reminds us about that part of God, but it also tells us a lot about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Most of the times you see this scene depicted in a movie or even a painting, you see Jesus standing off to the side at the wedding, not really “at” the wedding, just sort of waiting around until he is called on to do this stupendous trick. He creates wine before their very eyes, his halo glowing even brighter! And you see the freeze frame moment of shock and delight when the water is discovered to be wine. What we don’t see is Jesus enjoying himself at the party. This was a wedding feast, and he was celebrating with everyone else, not hanging back, waiting for the right moment to astound the crowd.
What does it say about Jesus and his future ministry that his first miracle isn’t a healing or a prophetic oracle? His first miracle is filling the cups of partygoers with really good wine!
But there’s even more going on here that we might miss if we don’t read carefully. Note what the gospel writer says about the water jars. These weren’t some random jars that happened to be sitting around. These were the water jars that were supposed to be used for a purification ritual.
It’s not just any water, but water from these sacred vessels that Jesus turns into wine. While most of the party goers were so happy to have more wine. There were, no doubt, some who were there who couldn’t believe what was happening. Can you hear the gasps and the whispers of the altar guild? “But Jesus, we were supposed to use that water for something else!” It is from jars set aside for purification that Jesus gives them the best wine. Which do you think Jesus cared more about here, ritual purity or celebrating?
They’d better get used to this. Jesus repeatedly turns the tables of the religious establishment. He confounds their expectations. This is an early sign of what his ministry was going to be like – people instead of purity regulations, joy instead of legalism.
Think about how many times Jesus uses wedding feasts as the setting for some of his most memorable parables. Remember the parable of the wedding feast when no one would come. All the important people are invited, but everyone makes excuses. So the host of the banquet invited those who were on no one’s guest list. God is ready to celebrate and invites everyone, but like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, the regular party goers resent those who had gotten in without a proper invitation.
We were in the news this week! Did you see it? Not St. Brendan’s, but the entire Episcopal church! All of the Presiding Bishops and Archbishops in the Anglican Communion (known as the primates) were summoned to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury in London. Now, as often happens, the news media got the story wrong.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is not our pope. He has no real authority over us or any of the churches that make up the Anglican Communion. We are a collection of, mostly, former British colonies who agree to meet and work together for the common good. We build relationships with churches in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America, not to mention island nations. When we pray the Prayers of the People, you hear us pray for those “in the Anglican Cycle of Prayer”. That’s who we are talking about gathering for this meeting.
We have been causing trouble…again. In the 70’s when we moved forward with ordaining women to the priesthood, LONG before the Church of England or most of the other members of the communion were ready to make that step. There has been tension ever since. Not every member of the Anglican Communion ordains women. Culturally and theologically, some of the countries and peoples represented just aren’t ready for that step. We disagreed back then, and we disagree today. Of course, both sides show how the Bible supports our case.
The reading from Corinthians reminds us this is nothing new. It shows us how diverse the Body of Christ is – there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit; a variety of services, but the same Lord; a variety of activities, but the same God. The Body of Christ is diverse. We see things differently from other Christians and even other Anglicans, but that doesn’t mean we don’t belong to each other. We are one in Christ.
These days, The Episcopal Church, along with the church in Scotland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and other countries, have been seeking for justice and equal rights for our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members. These are our members — baptized, confirmed, ministering! We’ve even taken the bold step to extend God’s grace to all by offering to bless same-sex marriages. And yet, many members of the communion are just not ready for that. The Church of England itself is deeply divided over the issue.
We have a reputation for going forward with making changes that aren’t always popular with more conservative members of the union, hoping that we can still come together, celebrate the Eucharist, the symbol of God’s grace, and agree to work together despite our differences. But, when we do this, there are usually repercussions.
For us, this is an issue of both justice and grace. Do we need to wait until everyone is on board before we pursue justice? Some would say yes, others would say no. Did we wait until every state was ready for integration before we pursued it? No! Was everyone ready for women’s suffrage? No! But justice is God’s future for us, and it is God’s grace that sustains us during the struggle for justice.
A few years back, a majority of the primates voted to suspend our voting rights at these global gatherings. This week, they extended that suspension. We were sent back to “time out”. They also extended their ban on any of our members serving on any of their committees, which lead a Facebook friend of mine to quip, “Only in the Anglican Communion would it be considered punishment not to be allowed to serve on a committee!”
Some would prefer we weren’t invited to the party at all. But, for now, we’re still invited, but some have decided we shouldn’t be allowed to speak.
After these decisions were announced, our brand new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, reminded the entire world what we are about.
Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being “a house of prayer for all people,” as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome. Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.”
For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain. For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.
Does being treated this way by our brothers and sisters hurt? Of course it does. Does it change our mission? No way!
God loves us ALL, even when we disagree. God has invited everyone to the party. While some get bent out of shape over purity laws and who deserves to be invited to the feast, look at what Jesus is doing. He’s turning water into wine, and he’s breaking all kinds of religious and cultural norms while doing it.
God invites us, ALL of us, to his table to receive grace and forgiveness. You’ve been invited, come and be filled!
For a few laughs, revisit this classic “take” on turning the water into wine by Rowan Atkinson: