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.