Sunday, January 17, 2016

Quantity and Quality

Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)
Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11
Sunday, January 17, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Benjamin Franklin’s 1779 letter to André Morellet, a French economist and cleric, contained a brief commentary on today’s Gospel reading. He concluded this commentary by stating, wine “is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy” (source).

What Franklin calls “proof,” John in his Gospel, calls a “sign.” We are told, at the end of today’s reading, that this changing of water into wine was the first of Jesus’ signs. John records a total of seven signs performed by Jesus. Each of these signs are meant to convey something significant about who Jesus is. In John’s Gospel, such signs are revelations of God’s glory. More specifically, to reveal God’s visible manifestation to humans in the form of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

While all the other Gospels talk about the various miracles that Jesus performs, John chooses to use the term “signs.” And while each of these signs was indeed a miracle, John’s term indicates that these miracles are something more. A sign points to something, provides information about something more than the sign itself. To a deeper reality already being made manifest in the symbol itself. To a deeper quality of Jesus as Son of God, of God, and of God’s kingdom – all of which are being reflected in the signs. For John, each of these actions convey an epiphany of Jesus’ glory to those present.

The changing of water into wine at the wedding in Cana was the first, and actually the most limited and private of the signs Jesus performed. Just four days before his attendance at the wedding in Cana, Jesus was baptized, marking the beginning of his public ministry. And then during the previous two days, he called his disciples to join him in ministry. And here at Cana, we have the first official act of Jesus’ public ministry. While this is a pretty big “sign” that all in attendance benefit from, there are only a few people who really know what happens – Mary, the disciples, and the servants. There are only a handful of people that really witness the sign. As John tells us, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn 2.11). Therefore, this is really meant as a private sign for the disciples, who are on their first outing together after being called to follow Jesus.

Nonetheless, this sign, while originally a relatively private one, speaks volumes as to who Jesus is, and what his ministry is all about.

First off is the fact that this sign takes place at a wedding. Throughout the Old Testament, marriage is often used as an image of the relationship between God and his people. In this image, God is likened to the bridegroom. Israel is likened to the bride. God loves and cherishes his people the way a husband loves and cherishes his wife. Our reading from Isaiah specifically uses this image. “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is 62.5). This tells us that the relationship between God and his people is more than one of acquaintance or even friendship. This relationship is far deeper and more intimate. This relationship is the most intimate and sacred of relationships – that of spouses. In John’s Gospel, this imagery specifically reflects the joy of those who are in relationship with, who live in, Christ.

Another important aspect of the imagery in John extends beyond the bridal party to all the guests. In ancient Palestine, weddings were not just a ceremony followed by a reception, over and done in a few hours. The wedding was a huge event, with the festivities generally lasting a week. So the fact that they ran out of wine on the first day is telling. Because of the magnitude of the event, the bridal party nor the families of the couple, were solely responsible for providing the necessary food and drink. All those attending would have been responsible for providing food and wine for the party. The fact that they ran out of wine is an indictment against the guests, that they had not adequately done their part. Jesus not only saves the day, but in effect is granting all present forgiveness for their shortcomings. Even when those who participate in the joyous event fall short of their obligations, there is forgiveness. Even though they don’t realize. Even when we who are in relationship with God through Christ fall short of our responsibilities in that relationship, there is still forgiveness.

As to the specific act in which Jesus changes water into wine – this reveals a great deal about who Jesus is and how he operates. Specifically, this sign deals with the themes of quantity and quality.

First is quantity – the abundance of what Jesus has to offer us. This is represented by the fact that when the wine runs out at the party, and more is needed, he doesn’t provide just a few bottles to keep the party going. We are told that there were six stone jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water. And that they were filled to the brim. Doing the math, that would mean 180 gallons of water. So in this sign, he changes 180 gallons of water into wine. That’s the equivalent of 900 bottles! 75 cases of wine! We don’t know how many guests were there, but that much wine would surely have been way more than would be needed.

When Jesus gives, he does not do so in a small way. When he gives, he gives extravagantly. This sign demonstrates that Jesus loves us so much that what he gives, he gives in great abundance. And as we continue to watch his life unfold, we find that he not only gives in abundance, but he gives all he has. Even giving his life for our sake. You can’t get much more abundant than that!

And then there is the quality of what Jesus has to offer us. This is represented by the quality of the wine that Jesus produces from water. It was customary at weddings and other grand events for the host to serve the best wine first. Then, as the guests started to become intoxicated, the host would switch to the cheaper stuff. By then, the guests would not know the difference, but would continue to enjoy themselves, and the booze, nonetheless. But the wine Jesus produces is top quality. It is even better than the good stuff that was first served at the wedding reception. What Jesus offers us is not just of ordinary quality, but is the very best. Again, looking at his life, we see that Jesus always gives the best. He gives of himself. At the end of his life, we see that Jesus offers himself for our sake. He willingly goes to the cross, offering his own life, so that our sins will be forgiven, that we will have eternal life, and that we will ultimately be reconciled with God. Here again, what we gain from Jesus’ actions, aside from being the offering of the best of himself, is that we receive the best possible gifts in the process. A new life. A life cleansed and forgiven. Eternal life in the presence of the God who loves us beyond words. After all, only the best, only eternal life, would be good enough for God’s beloved children.

So Jesus is all about quantity and quality. Abundance and excellence. He is all about giving us the best, and giving us lots of it. That is what he desires for us. And what he has promised us. And that is what he ultimately delivers.

Our life of faith is about our response to what Jesus delivers. Our faith journey is about walking the way Jesus did, attempting to follow his example. As much as I would love to be able to turn water into wine, that is not likely to happen. But I can strive to give of myself as he did. To give the best I have to offer as abundantly as I possibly can. That is what it means to be a follower of Christ. After all, if God, through Christ, gives us his best, shouldn’t we strive to give our best in return?

Admittedly, that is a tall order for us weak and fallible human beings. We cannot do this alone. In fact, Scripture assures us that we do not have to do this alone. That God gives us help. One of the ways that God seeks to help us help ourselves, and to help him the in the pursuit of building the Kingdom of God, is discussed in our Epistle reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In the passage we heard today, Paul talks about spiritual gifts. These are graces bestowed by the Holy Spirit to individuals to fulfill the mission of the church. He outlines a number of these gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues. I am sure there are others, differing varieties, as Paul says.

Last week we celebrated and performed a baptism. And we renewed our own baptismal vows. A key part of baptism is the receiving of the Holy Spirit, which inspires, enlivens and energizes us as the people of God, to be who God has created us and calls us to be. As Paul tells us, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12.7). In other words, these gifts are given to each of us and are meant for the building up the body of Christ, the Church. To strengthen it, to help it flourish. They are the tools that we need to fulfill God’s desires for the world and for the bringing in of his Kingdom. These spiritual gifts are the unique ways that are given to each of us to manifest the work and promptings of the Holy Spirit, of God operating in our lives, in our lives and vocations as God’s beloved children.

The gifts we receive are not about us. They are signs pointing to God’s glory, to Christ. They are signs in two ways. First, they are God’s sign to us, pointing to his love for us. Showing us that he is giving us what we need to fully live into that love and into who he has made us to be. And second, how we use those gifts are our sign to God of our love and devotion to him – demonstrated through how we choose to use those gifts. You might say that we ourselves are signs, pointing to God’s glory, through our use of the gifts that God has entrusted to us. And just as God shows the quality and quantity of his love, the abundance and the excellence of his love by coming to us in the flesh in the form of Jesus, by giving us the Holy Spirit to energize us, by giving us unique gifts to help us in our own ministries, so too do we show the quality and quantity of our love by how we respond to what God has so graciously given us.

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