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Life of the Party

When we think of the kingdom of God come near, we often think of Jesus’ acts of healing and deliverance and justice for the oppressed. We think of the deaf hearing, the mute speaking, the lame walking, the dead rising. We think of the powerful and the arrogant being brought down low and the lowly being raised up. When we read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, we’re used to Jesus arriving on the scene to declare that God’s kingdom is about all that is wrong in the world beginning to be made right.

We’re perhaps not as used to the kingdom of God being the announcement of party!

Last Sunday’s gospel text was John 2:1-11, the famous story of the wedding at Cana. In John’s version of the story, Jesus’ very first miraculous sign is to provide more wine to keep a party going!  Jesus begins not with focusing what’s wrong with the world but with a miracle in the middle of one of the things that’s right and worth celebrating.

In Jesus’ day and in Jesus’ cultural context, a wedding wouldn’t have been a few hours on a Saturday, but quite likely a few days worth of celebrations, full of dancing and eating and drinking. The hosts run out of wine and Jesus’ mother tells him to do something about it. We’re not sure what she expected, but Jesus tells the servants to fill up the six stone water jars that were used for ritual purification. They fill them with water and when they take a sample to the master of the banquet, it’s been miraculously turned into wine! And not just any wine! Jesus doesn’t cheap out and produce the equivalent of the stuff you’d find in a $6 box. It’s the very best stuff.

The master is incredulous! They’re at the stage of the party where he’s accustomed to bringing out the inferior wine because the guests are too drunk to notice or care. And here’s this mystery man from Galilee bringing out the vintage wine!

It’s a remarkable story. And the story is not just about the miracle, is it? The miracle is impressive, of course. Anyone would be amazed at someone turning water into wine. Those present certainly were! But this passage isn’t just a demonstration that Jesus can perform some pretty cool tricks. There’s some symbolism and foreshadowing at work here, too.

We might think of Jesus’ later words about new wine and wineskins as a metaphor for the inbreaking of the newness of his kingdom. We might think of the reputation Jesus would later acquire of being a “glutton and a drunkard.” Jesus would regularly at and drink with the wrong sorts of people, and this would win him few friends with uppity religious leaders!

We might even think about John’s reference to the six stone jars for purification in this story itself. Why does John include this seemingly insignificant detail? The Jewish law and its myriad accretions required frequent washing to avoid contamination or ritual impurity. The Pharisees and other religious leaders at the time were famous for going to great lengths to avoid touching the wrong things or eating the wrong things or doing the wrong things on the wrong days or any number of other things that they believed had to be avoided to preserve their “separateness” from others.

Might these stone jars represent the Jewish religious system of maintaining boundaries and keeping pure? Might Jesus’ filling of vessels ordinarily used for washing off contamination with the finest of wine be a symbol of what he would later demonstrate in his life and teaching? That cherished and dutifully maintained boundaries between “pure”/“impure,” “worthy”/“unworthy,” and “clean”/“unclean” must now give way to the new reality of the kingdom of God where all are invited to the party?

There are almost certainly layers of symbolism in this passage, but at the very least we see Jesus here adding his blessing to earthy things like human love, community, celebration, and joy. We see in Jesus that God is not some austere deity who’s always keeping his eye on things to make sure no one’s getting too carried away!

So often, the life of faith can be reduced to a rather grim list of things to do or things to avoid or things to believe about God.  Discipleship can come to seem like little more than the plodding performance of a laundry list of duties to appease a severe and humourless God.

Many people associate religion with the restriction of pleasure, the stifling of desire, and a generally joyless tramping through life trying to do enough right things to make God happy. The wedding at Cana reminds us that this is not the Christian God. This God has has no praise for teetotalers who can hardly afford to crack a smile as they make their way through life trying to chalk up enough good deeds to force God to give them a gold star on the final exam.

This God actually delights in human pleasure. This God smiles when we smile.  This God is more at home at a party in Cana than a temple in Jerusalem.

——

The preceding is an edited and abbreviated version of a sermon preached January 17, 2016 at Lethbridge Mennonite Church.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    You express important understandings here, yet they should be approached with caution and concern.

    In my generation, many used the occasion at Cana to justify some kind of, “hippy, party Jesus…Jesus wirh a joint”. I’m pretty sure I was one of those people.

    I think it important to remember the austerity and deprevation that prevailed in those times. I can see our Lord looking sympathetically on the experiences of drunkenness at Cana. I don’t see approval. I can’t. I have seen too much damage caused by drunkenness.

    In Cana, I see God’s affirmation of the sanctity of marriage. An event so important to the life of His community that all struggle and severity are temporarily postponed. It is a time for celebration….sometimes excessively so…”to everything there is a season”….It is a time to give thanks.

    Like all Catholics, who take the time to examine their faith, Cana is important in its reflection of Marian theology.

    It is Mary, not Jesus who recognizes the need. Jesus, is certainly reticent, perhaps even indifferent. Mary mediates. Mary commands the co-operation of both her Son and the wedding guests. It is, for us, a sign of her ministry and magesty.

    January 22, 2016
    • Yes, it’s important to look at the broader picture, I know. Alcohol destroys many lives and its abuse must never be exalted. The same Jesus who kept the party going also spent time in the wilderness of self-denial and singular devotion to God’s purpose. We need to see both (and everything in between). For those who consider the life of faith to be an exercise in grim teetotaling duty, we have a riotous celebration of marriage. For those who want a “hippy party Jesus,” we have a life of discipline and simplicity. Jesus refuses to be pinned to our agendas and preferences. He always insists on transcending and reorienting our smaller visions.

      January 22, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        ….”transcending and re-orienting” I think this is so and yet I’m not sure these outcomes are necessarily incompatible with our smaller visions. In one sense, at least in so far as moral truths are concerned, smallness of vision seems to be a prerequisite. Treating others as we would wish to be treated is a simple enough maxim. It’s complexity is in applying it faithfully in all aspects of our dicision making processes.

        Good rules are simple rules that reflect love of self and others. People who seek goodness like good rules, often need, simple to understand rules.

        Conflicting ideas about propriety and goodness often lead to confusion and contempt.

        I guess what I’m saying in response to your comment is that I’m not sure Jesus is calling us to expand our visions…” see both and everything in between”….I for one, in spite of my efforts, find that goal discouraging and impossible.

        I think it more likely that Jesus is calling us to partner with Him and see our smaller visions with greater thoroughness and integrity. Just learn to be what we say we are. To love and be loved….

        I will say this also about “teatotallers”. Grimness should not apply to this behavior or to any other but a sober person who learns to laugh, sing, play and party is to my mind happier, healthier, stronger and safer to be around then his drinking counterpart.

        His peace be with you, Ryan.

        January 22, 2016

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