Sunday, January 20, 2013


Sermon preached in the Church of S. John Chrysostom, Peckham
at Parish Mass on Sunday, 20th January 2013


‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in Galilee,
and the disciples believed in him’ (John 2:11)

It was, by any stretch of the imagination, a miracle. Something dreamt about but hard to conceive in reality and now to be repeated.  President Obama will, this morning, once again be inaugurated as President of the United States, affirming the immense change that has occurred in that country.  A sign of not just for the United States, but for the whole world. 

His Inauguration Address in 2009 was inspirational.  Yet whilst it invited its hearers to recall the greatness of the American dream, it reminded them of the cost all must bear.  “The time has come”, he said, “to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

In a time of global fear there is always the temptation to look for a saviour; one who will – at a stroke – solve every problem.  Well, Obama hasn’t proved to be a saviour but the slow process of change has begun in the US.  Few believed it would be easy to change a country at a stroke even though many wished it were.  And tomorrow there will be a sign that the struggle for change is not only possible but is desired and happening. 

Today’s gospel reading is all about change and set in this season of new beginnings heralded by the Incarnation.  The changing of water into wine seems, at first sight, to be a ‘miracle’ – something hardly expected yet coming at the right moment.  Yet to think of this as a miracle would be to miss the point: this is a sign, the “first” of the signs by which the glory of Jesus was revealed.  And the purpose of the sign was to bring about belief that, in Jesus, change was possible: that all might share in the glory of God.

The account itself is unusual for here we have Jesus, in the middle of a wedding party, turning the contents of six water-jars, which would each have held 20 to 30 gallons, into wine.  This is abundance in the extreme and, in part, serves as a ‘sign’ of God’s abundance towards his people.   That’s why this isn’t just a miracle story, for miracles can usually be seen for what they are.  This account needs to be seen with the eye of the heart and the layers to it need to be patiently unfolded.  So, what are we to make of it?  Let’s look at three aspects – revelation, suffering and glory.

I mentioned that this reading has been set in the season of new beginnings heralded by God becoming flesh through the Incarnation.  The Church has always placed three events into the context of this revelation – first, the revelation of Christ to the gentile world through the visit of the Magi; then, secondly, the Baptism of Christ when God acclaims him as his “Beloved Son”, and lastly the first sign recorded in John’s gospel.  John, of course, has no account of the Incarnation; no stories about the birth of Jesus.  He begins his account with that statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and goes on to say: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” 

For John ‘seeing’ who Jesus is, and believing in him, is crucial.  So Jesus’ first public act is connected with a sign of his glory.  Through him, God’s abundance towards us is seen.  Can we grasp that truth?  Can we see that in Christ there lies this abundant compassion, mercy and benevolence towards us?  Can we see it with the eye of the heart and, if we can, how does that understanding change us?  As we reflect on this sign one might almost adapt President Obama’s words: “The time has come” to ask ourselves, “How does believing in God’s promise of abundant life change me?”

Secondly we need to recall that odd exchange between Jesus and his mother when she tells him that the wine has run out and his reply: “Woman, what have you to do with me?  My hour has not yet come.”  So often, Jesus seems to treat his mother in a strange way.  Not as we might treat our mothers but as some sort of symbolic figure:  “Who is my mother … Whoever does the will of God is … my mother.” 

So, what might Jesus have meant when he said ‘My hour has not yet come’?  To what ‘hour’ was he alluding?  Many who have studied this passage have seen a deep connection with the ‘hour’ of his crucifixion.  ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ (John 12:23)

Jesus spoke those words six days before his crucifixion when the disciples, Andrew and Philip, brought some Greeks to talk with Jesus.  He went on to say:  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  So at this hour of celebration with those attending the wedding banquet, Jesus is aware that abundant life comes at a price. 

In placing this sign in the context of a wedding, John identifies it with the promise of new life symbolised through a wedding.   Just as two people are united in marriage, so you and I are invited to be united with Jesus and enter into a new life in him.

For centuries that has been the desire and that has been the prayer of Christians – to be at one with Christ in a life like his.  There is a beautiful prayer, originating from the Church of South India, which expresses this desire:
Merciful God,
in Christ you make all things new.
Transform the poverty of our nature
            by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory.

Weddings are all about union and change.  About two becoming one and about revealing glory in their lives as that process takes place.  And for John the glory of God would finally be seen in the crucifixion of Jesus: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”

For John the crucifixion of Christ is the moment of complete abandonment which unites the Son with the Father and heaven with earth.  And, in that union, lies the glory of God: “Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

In and through Christ God makes all things new.  There is the promise of new life for me and for you.  What matters is our desire for union with him.  The ‘sign’ whereby Jesus turns water into wine can be seen as merely a remarkable event.  Just like the re-election of a black president.  Or it can be understood as the sign of a fundamental change and the promise of future glory. 

Often I meet with people who face a crisis in their lives and struggle with the consequences.  For many, this moment of crisis leads them to see that they need to address their relationship with God – to delve beneath the surface turmoil and seek a way of relating with God that touches their real need.  To be at one with themselves and with Him who holds out the promise of wholeness – of glory.  And it all depends on how we face such moments of crisis, either seeing them as opportunities for something new to emerge, or to react against them.  This first ‘sign’ that Jesus performs at Cana caused His Mother to reflect and led the disciples into a new relationship with Him.  What do you see in this sign?  How does it affect you?  Can the ‘water’ of your life be transformed into the ‘wine’ of new life?

Merciful God, in Christ you make all things new.
Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory. Amen.

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