Posted by on January 29, 2018

Revd John Hayton

Epiphany 4 Yr B. 28th January 2018. [Gn14: 17-20].  Rev 19: 6-10. Jn 2: 1-11

The wedding at Cana, understandably, takes pride of place in Anglican and I guess other Christian wedding liturgies.  But to see it only in that light it to see it far too narrowly.  It isn’t just those who are or have been married to whom this story is addressed.  It’s everyone.

There are lots of references to wedding feasts in the gospels: The story of wise and foolish virgins; the story of the king who gave a wedding feast and no one came; the story of the guest who turns up but is thrown out for not wearing the proper clothes  the story of the master who turns up to find his servants ready, or not; the story of the guests who choose the highest or the lowest place to sit at the wedding feast. Elsewhere, outside the gospels, we have the climax of Revelation as we heard in the New Testament reading where heaven itself is described as a wedding feast of the Lamb and the ultimate union of Christ and his Church.

And in ALL these cases the wedding is a symbol for the kingdom of God.  And the wedding at Cana has to be understood in this same symbolic way.  As St John says this miracle was the first of what John calls Jesus’ signs.   And the chief focus of this “sign” as in all John’s miracle stories is the disclosure of Jesus himself as Messiah.  But this story is packed with lots of other subsidiary signs and allusions.

The beginning phrase: on the third day, may be a clue in itself that this story has a deeper meaning than just a literary one.  The new covenant, the new union between God and his people was to be inaugurated by the resurrection on the third day.  The main symbolic action of the story is the changing of water not just into wine but into much better wine than anyone was expecting. In the other gospels new wine stands for the new life of the kingdom.   When the Pharisees were getting at Jesus for not fasting, in St Mark [2:19-22] Jesus replied: Can the wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is still with them?  And then he went on to say: no one puts new wine into old skins or the wine will burst the skins and the new wine is lost. New skins for new wine! 

What he meant was that the old way of the Pharisees would no longer do as it could not contain the teaching that Jesus brought / namely the Good News of the Kingdom.  Note also that we are carefully told that the stone jars were used for Jewish purification rites.  THAT is significant.  It may even be significant that there were 6 of them: One less than the perfect number 7.

Six symbolised deficiency, falling short. The wine when it came was about 120 gallons-worth.  It illustrated the super-abundance of the Spirit on the last day when joy will be unconfined.  The Holy Spirit will not be given by measure – will not be carefully doled out.  And the new cannot be compared to the past as the steward says when he says: But you have kept the good wine until now. 

Lets move on to another aspect of the story that puzzles people.  It’s the way Jesus addresses his poor old Mum.  There she is, worrying about the lack of wine, and she receives from Jesus what appears to be a verbal slap: Woman / what concern is that to you and me?   And it looks all the more stark when it is followed by Mary’s reply to the servants: Do whatever he tells you.   Well; “Woman” as a mode of address isn’t as rude in Greek as it sounds in English.  But you can’t say the same about the rest of the sentence.  Much ink has been spilt in trying to excuse this one might say unchristian language from someone who said elsewhere / honour thy father and mother. [Lk 18:20].

It seems that there was a gulf between Jesus and Mary. At best divergence. At worst hostility.

There are several other places in the gospels where there is either lack of understanding or even hostility between Jesus and his family.  In Mark’s gospel we are told that the family wanted to take him home because they thought he was mad. [Mk 3:21].  In Luke when someone declares: blessed is the womb that bore you Jesus snaps back: blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it. [Lk 11:27].   Jesus often makes the point that what matters is not family ties of themselves but the restoration of our relationship with God.  I think there is a parallel to Jesus’ words to Mary in the way he rebukes Peter at Caesarea Philippi: Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.  [Mk 8:33].

The point is that until Jesus completed his work – and that meant the cross – then all humanity including his mum and his best friend were on the “wrong side.”   That is why when speaking to Mary Jesus says: My hour has not yet come. [Jn 2: 4]   For St John the “hour” of Jesus is the hour of the cross when reconciliation between God and man is accomplished and when human relationships are restored and reordered in the light of the new dispensation.

St John shows us this happening at the end of his gospel.  Chapter 19 vv 25–27 balance this Cana episode. Mary re-appears with the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross.  Once again Jesus refers to her as “woman.” Referring to John he says:  Woman, here is your son.  And to the disciple he says: Here is your mother.  Like all the words from the cross they are loaded with symbolic meaning for the Church.  Just as Peter was established as “the Rock” of the Church here Mary was established as “mother” not only of the physical body of Jesus but as mother of the “beloved disciple” and by extension mother of all Jesus’ “beloved disciples” mother of his risen body – the Church.

What about Jesus’ words to his mother at Cana?  I think we can draw comfort from the attitude of Christ in the gospels to his family and not least in this sharp encounter.  Many, too many Christians, take an uncritical almost an idolatrous view of the family.  From personal experience and in my line of business I have come to view the phrase “happy families” almost as an oxymoron.  So it is good to be reminded that Jesus’ view of family was to say the least ambiguous.  Jesus himself clearly had problems or at least  “issues” with his own earthly family.  It is important to keep in mind his teaching that all human relationships, all human institutions need redeeming including motherhood and apple pie.  It is especially important to keep it in mind when we ourselves are experiencing difficulty.  The message is that God comes first and everything else needs reordering in the light of our relationship with him.  This means that whatever goes wrong even the worst things in our human relationships can still be healed and put right.  As Christians we have been born again as God’s children.  Having been born again we grow up again however old we are and we try to become the people God wants us to be.   Part of that growth involves the healing of wounds that have been inflicted by broken relationships or the failure of human love.  Those wounds aren’t cancelled but they can be transfigured as God’s great love for us shapes us into the people he wants us to be in all eternity. And that is a wonderful gift. The gift of hope.  AMEN.

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons