Sunday, January 20, 2013

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 2
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

It seems some of you are retiring, and you need my help.

Every few months I get the same phone call, from someone married at Central, who has it in their mind to retire. Apparently you need some kind of proof that you are married, and apparently some have failed to keep track of whatever certificate ministers handed out back in the day.

Of course, most of the callers were married in the early seventies, and the call initiates a multi-step process that begins with a trip to the vault. Yes, we have a vault, but before you start thinking Ocean’s Eleven, I must warn you that it only contains old documents. So unless you are a frustrated genealogist, there is little point getting a team together to rob the vault.

Where was I? Yes, off to the vault I go, and begin the search for the appropriate marriage book. Each page of each book records a wedding, and the book in question is somewhere in the middle of the pile, in the heady days when you could fill a marriage register in two or three years. Now, just to put this in context, the current marriage register that we use has been going since 1996, and we’ve only filled half the book.

In other words, while I have done less weddings than you can count on one hand in my time here, my colleagues, like the late Paul Field, were doing more weddings in a month than I have done in nearly five years. And it’s not from a lack of trying. Our prices are competitive, staff are friendly, we have a centre aisle, and sometimes there is parking in the neighbourhood.

Sadly, none of this helps. The world has changed, and those who decide to tie the knot are more likely to go to the Old Mill or the Golf and Country Club where one-stop-shopping is the rule. So we wait patiently here, with a book that will be filled some time in the next century, and a long centre aisle.

Now, if you happen to meet someone from the about-to-retire-and-where-did-I-put-that-wedding-thingy group, they will wax nostalgic about coming to Central, week after week, to attend their friend’s weddings, doing whatever people did at weddings back then, including—no doubt—meeting someone to facilitate another wedding.

And so, for them, I give you an updated Wedding at Cana:

It was a Saturday, back in the summer of ’73, that the third wedding of the day took place at Central in Galilee. Mary, the mother of Jesus, who I think was living on Rosemount at the time, was there, along with Jesus and his disciples. They all had long hair, by-the-way, and looked pretty much how they looked in that musical set in Israel that came out the same year.

“There is no wine in this church,” Mary said, not really knowing the local crowd, and her son replied, “what business of that of mine, my time has not come,” and “are you sure? I saw some paper bags being carried rather carefully.” Mary gave him a look somewhere between affection and scorn, then said to the others “do whatever he tells you to do.”

Near the back of the stage, where CKSR now stands, there were several washtubs filled with ice and water, and whatever else was in them was now gone. Jesus said, “Draw some ice water out of the tubs, and take it to Lang or Bob or whoever is chaperone for the evening.”

The chaperone was shocked. “Usually it’s Champagne first, then Baby Duck, but you have waited to serve the good wine until now.” This was Jesus first sign, at Central in Galilee, and it revealed his glory, and his happy disciples believed in him.

It’s a challenging story to preach, I must say, and it was even more challenging in the days when ministers and church members were expected to cherish the virtues of temperance and sobriety. What do you do with this partying Saviour, often accused of being a glutton and a drunkard? Clearly you try to spiritualize the whole thing, and declare each element symbolic.

And that might be fair, not in the sense that it denies Jesus essentially social nature, but in the sense that anytime we encounter an extended story in scripture it usually has a deeper meaning. And as interesting as this look at first-century wedding customs in the Second Temple period is, John had something else in mind when he related this story of Cana in Galilee.

So, to begin to construct some background that might reveal the deeper meaning of this story, a quote from Pliny the Elder. Pliny was nearly a contemporary of Jesus, and sadly died when Mt. Vesuvius had other plans for Pompeii. Anyway, Pliny said “In wine, there is truth,” meaning that by the time you get to the Baby Duck in the story, people are generally more candid. This isn’t always a good thing, but may have some bearing on the Wedding at Cana.

The other bit of background is a delightful quote for Plato, giving you a window on the world of Greek philosophy, and the way these timeless ideas developed:

Socrates took his seat...and had his meal. When dinner was over, they poured a libation to the god, sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual. Then they turned their attention to drinking. At that point, Pausanias addressed the group:

“Well gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break. I dare say most of you could, too, since you were also part of the celebration. So let’s try not to overdo it.” [Plato (427–347 BCE), Symposium]

This wasn’t covered when we looked at Greek thought in grade nine, at least not in Newmarket anyway. It shows us, however, that whenever you tackle the fundamental problems of reality and existence, wine was considered a aid, something that might facilitate the apprehension of truth. Remember Pliny the Elder, “In wine, there is truth.”

Back to John, the link between wine and truth would have present in the construction of the story, with the added element of a parable that Jesus enjoyed telling, and also seems to have some bearing on Cana:

“No one,” Jesus said, “pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.”

The good wine is served first, then the inferior, and you never put new wine in old wineskins. The good wine from John was the new wine, because it was stronger, and had the desired effect of making the guests oblivious of the quality of what followed, presumably the old wine.

I should say, that the tradition interpretation of both the “good wine” of Cana and the “new wine” of the parable is that Christianity has superseded Judaism, an idea that we now reject. And in rejecting the idea, we are then free to see that perhaps good wine and new wine mean far more than two competing religions, and may cast light on Jesus himself.

In this approach, Jesus is the good wine, not the religion he has come to represent. And he is the new wine that is new to every generation. The good wine is the best source of truth, the new wine that will allow us to overcome the old ways of being, the ways of sin and sorrow. God has waited to serve the good wine until now, because now is the moment that reconciliation with God is possible.

If Jesus is the new wine, then it remains a story about a relationship, between you and me and Jesus, where we can see God in a new way, and become guests at this great wedding called new life. No longer shall we fear God, or live with the inferior wine of being distant from God, because God is as close as the bread and wine that we break and drink each time Jesus draws near. May it always be so. Amen.


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