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Sunday 20 January 2019

Backstairs to glory

Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2.1-11

By Roger Spiller

Chair of Trustees and Tutor of the College of Preachers


Context: A predominantly older, churchgoing congregation at a Sunday Eucharist in a small village church

Aim: To suggest the strangeness of this event and the way it serves to challenge the practices that restrict the generous, inclusive, celebratory heart of the gospel


If you’d been fortunate enough to receive an invitation to the most talked about wedding in human history, in a provincial town in Cana, you’d have had a good day but been unaware of the stupendous event that had taken place. Sometimes it’s good that you don’t know what’s going on. One host told of the time when the food mixer went on over-drive spraying the delicately creamed mashed potato over the walls and ceiling just as distinguished guests were arriving. There was no option but to retrieve the potato from the walls. The guests were none the wiser and no one sued for food poisoning.

A couple are married and the reception is carefully choreographed. ‘And when the wine gave out’, well, of course it’s always a possibility if you spread out these near eastern ceremonies for as many days as it takes for the guests to become legless. It wasn’t simply ‘We’ve run out of wine, so let’s switch to Scotch’. If wine runs out it’s treated as an anti-social gesture, bringing disgrace on a young couple just as they begin a new life together in the community.

Mothers seem born with fully developed antennae that smell out a crisis faster than a bat can detect its prey. This unnamed woman, identified only as the mother of Jesus, discretely whispers a warning to Jesus: ‘They have no wine’, with the clear implication: ‘Do something’. You can sense Jesus’ frustration. ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?’ he says. Can’t we just be guests for once? Why poke your nose into things that don’t concern you? Why take responsibility for someone else’s predicament? But more is at stake for Jesus than the interruption of his social life. The ‘hour’ for Jesus to reveal his glory puts him on a path that leads inexorably to suffering and to death. Is his mother unwittingly reminding Jesus of that ‘hour”? The prospects are too terrifying for Jesus to embark upon that path a moment sooner than he must.

We know the ending. The bride and groom are left to think that the ceremony has gone off as planned, without a hitch. The groom is bemused to be thanked for saving the best wine until last. And the steward knows nothing of the wine running out nor of the stupendous way a new supply was procured. He’s just content to accept the credit for reversing tradition and introducing the best vintage wine when the guests were expecting stomach-turning ‘plonk’. The only people to know are the backstage, out of sight servants and the disciples.

It’s a waste of a great story that was hidden from the guests and important people. A waste of a miracle just to spare a bride from blushes at a little village wedding. A waste of such a mighty display of power before a few inconsequential servants. A waste of fine wine on undiscerning palates in a quantity so vast as to risk inebriating all the guests and bringing village life to a standstill.

The wedding is in Cana, and the only other thing we know about Cana is that it’s the home of one Nathaniel, to whom Jesus said he would see greater things than he’d seen already. And now ‘On the third day’ after Nathaniel’s call, and anticipating the ‘third day’ of the resurrection, he has sight and taste not merely of vast quantities of fine wine but of the wine-giver himself. Jesus does not merely rescue an awkward situation but he transfigures it. Without the water there would be no wine, without empty vessels, there would be no filling, without the intervention of Mary there would be no celebration, without the trust of servants there would be no miracle.

The great 19th century theologian, Soren Kierkegaard commented: ‘Christ turned water into wine but the Church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has been turning wine into water!’ Where in our churches is this lavish, reckless superfluity of grace to be encountered? Where is the generous self-giving that is the prerequisite for being ‘filled up to the brim’? Where is the baptismal water that is often measured out in spoonfuls, or the wine of communion that is hedged around by restrictions that divide and scandalise? Where is the intoxicating liberation that is meant to have replaced the sin-obsessed rites and rules of purification? Where is the space to celebrate the hidden stories of transformation without them being plundered to feed our publicity-seeking, self-justifying, image-conscious church? Where is the light and glory breaking through for those backstage, out of sight in our divided communities? Our lives, our homes our churches will be as bland as a wedding without wine, a pub without beer, until we not only share the wine of the gospel, but surrender to the wine giver, who is both guest and servant.

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