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Signs and Gifts 1 Cor 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Introduction
A customs officer who was examining a priest’s luggage asked him, ‘What’s in this bottle?’ ‘Holy Water,’ answered the priest. The customs man took the stopper out and sniffed the contents, then said, ‘It smells more like vodka to me!’ The priest exclaimed, ‘Praise the Lord! Another miracle!’

Some things are not always what they seem at first.

The First Sign
In the gospel reading we heard the story of Jesus turning water into wine. It is sometimes read at weddings because of its setting, but it is also read in the season of Epiphany because it reveals something of who Jesus is. St John says that it was the first of the signs that Jesus performed and thus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. John’s gospel is built around signs and symbolic meanings. You could say it was a highly poetic or contemplative gospel, quite different in character from the other 3 biblical gospels.

We may be familiar with this story of the miracle at the wedding, and so miss certain things which are worth noticing or asking about. Some things are not always what they seem at first. There are a number of questions which may not necessarily occur to us because of our familiarity with the story.
What exactly was it that the disciples believed about Jesus at this stage? It says they believed in him because of the sign, but what was it significant of at this stage? Then we may ask what was it that made Mary think Jesus could do something miraculous? We don’t have any previous record of miracles in the gospel, so was Jesus already capable of the miraculous? Why does Jesus talk to Mary in the way he does, apparently quite brusquely or off-handedly? What does that say about their relationship at this stage in the gospel? Asking such questions may help us uncover something more of what is going on beneath the surface and how John builds up his picture of Jesus through signs and symbols.
When the first signs of spring start to show themselves we know from experience that they are nothing like full-blown summer foliage. For someone who has never experienced life in a temperate zone, and who arrives in the middle of winter, it may look like snowdrops and daffodils are all that might flourish in such cold countries. They may have no idea what chestnut trees and dahlias might look like. But when in mid-summer we look back, we can see that the first stirrings of life in early spring are signs that point to the fullness of summer abundance.

Like a good drama or novel, you only realise the significance of certain things that happen earlier on when you know the whole story. But then, good art reflects life, doesn’t it? Life is like that for us: we only realise the full significance of something that we have experienced when we look back. The life of faith is especially like that: it is only when we look back that we can see in a series of experiences where one thing led to another that the hand of Providence was there all along, even though we might not have realised it at the time.

So it is in John’s Gospel. The sign of water being changed into wine at the time was merely a pointer to the power of Jesus, a preacher and a miracle-worker. That was obviously enough and maybe all the disciples needed at that stage, to continue following Jesus. They had little idea of where it would all end, but once they did get to the end, looking back, they could see in this miracle signs of what was to follow and come to completion.

Unlike the synoptic gospels where the cleansing of the Temple is set in the events of Palm Sunday, John puts that event next in his story after the water was changed into wine. Although the wedding is a happy context for the miracle, it soon leads to the beginnings of that ultimate confrontation between Jesus and the religious and worldly authorities of the day. That conflict would lead to the cross and the wine would take on the significance not of saving the face for a family who ran out on their wedding day, but of saving the world by his shed blood. Some things are not always what they seem at first!

Transformation
To go back to the wedding at Cana, there are other dimensions of the sign to note. Judith Dimond comments that there are many changes taking place in this story, changes which the water being turned into wine symbolises quite powerfully. At a wedding a woman is changed into a wife, a man into a husband: their new status confers on them new responsibilities towards each other and society. Mary herself has changed from being a young woman who conceived in miraculous circumstances and gave birth, into a mother. She may even by now, be a widow, if Joseph was a lot older than her. But now she must change from being simply Jesus’ mother into someone who lets go of him, recedes into the background, becomes one amongst his followers. Maybe that is what lies behind his rather distant way of speaking to her: “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” “Woman” not “Mother”. It is echoed again at the foot of the cross when Jesus says, tenderly, but using the same word, “Woman, here is your son.”

But even if we have returned to concentrate purely on the wedding and how the changing of water into wine symbolises the changing of peoples lives, there are still resonances of universal significance. A wedding feast in religious meaning is a symbol of that ultimate celebration when heaven and earth come together, when God and humanity are reconciled and a celebration banquet takes place in heaven. The changing of peoples’ lives was a result of the gospel being spread throughout the world. Their lives run out, like the wine giving out. The old ways, the stone water jars and the rituals they provided for, are no longer sufficient. The good news of Jesus and his power to change lives spreads and becomes something potent, joyful, abundant. What began with the disciples realising that Jesus was more than just an extraordinary local hero, was confirmed in this miracle of nature, grew into them proclaiming him to the be the saviour of the world. He can change the water of your life into the wine of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Things are not always what they seem at first. The changing of water into wine is a sign that points to the transforming power of Christ for the world.

A wild variety of gifts
This joyful, transforming power began to show itself in the appearance of local communities of Jesus’ followers around the Roman Empire in the decades after he had died, risen again and ascended to heaven. The believers in Corinth, a rich and prosperous Greek town, were especially gifted in the Spirit. It was a way in which the wine of the kingdom poured out, in a stunning variety of gifts, a joyful but also potentially dangerous array of displays of the Spirit. St Paul, in an effort to make sure that the bubbly stayed in the glasses and didn’t get wasted in frothy foam that no-one could drink, wrote to the Corinthians to help them channel this power. Your lives have been changed, remember, he writes. The lifeless idols you once worshipped have been changed for the life of the Spirit of Christ. The sign of that Spirit-filled life is the variety of gifts that are evident in your church. But Paul has to emphasise that they all come from the same bottle, the same source: the Spirit. They are in danger of splitting apart, so much energy is there. There may be an explosion of signs but they all point in the same direction: to the Lord. They are all for the same purpose, the common good of the body, of which we are all a part. That body was to live in order that people may be transformed by the power of Christ, each being changed in their own way, with their own gifts. They were to live as people of the Third Day, resurrection people.

Conclusion
The Church is facing a challenge in our day. The world is different now and we must respond appropriately. The old ways may not work any longer: stone water jars have to be transformed. What are your gifts? Are you open to being transformed? What are the signs that you notice, to what might they be pointing? The disciples followed because of the early signs, but they stayed with Jesus through to the fulfilment of those signs. Stay watching, for things are not always what they seem at first!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith


   


 
 

Eternal Lord,
our beginning and our end:
bring us with the whole creation
to your glory, hidden through past ages
and made known
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen


 

 



Acknowledgements