Gifts 1 Cor 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
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!’
are not always what they seem at first.
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.
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!
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.”
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
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
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!
© Rev Paul Smith