Sermon preached at 11:30 Eucharist on Second Sunday after Epiphany (17 January 2016) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean
The Dean looks at how the generous love of Jesus impacts lives
Angie was a prostitute with a large personality and a generous heart, who also struggled with depression and self-esteem. She was living in Deptford 35 years ago, the place in South East London where I had my first job as an assistant priest. As a joke when I was a shy young curate she tried touching me up in the vicar’s kitchen once.
But she used to come to church sometimes, and she had a bible and a candlestick on the storage heater in her council flat to remind her of the God she struggled to believe in. Like a lot of people, she knew there was more to life than this, but she wondered, given who she was, whether God could really believe in her.
There was a wedding at the village of Cana, St John tells us at almost the beginning of the second chapter of his Gospel just read to us, on page 9 of your service books. I’ve always loved this story.
What a glorious way into a gospel account of Jesus being revealed as God’s Son, by starting with a generous and celebratory miracle. It doesn’t help the poor, it’s unnecessary, it undermines the local wine-producing economy – but, boy, does God know how to throw a party! Over 1000 bottles of wine from nowhere, and really good stuff too.
The wartime archbishop William Temple in his Readings in John’s Gospel suggested that the reason why the wine at Cana ran out was that Jesus and his disciples were unexpected guests, and it was their fault that the wine ran out early. That doesn’t fit though with the lavish scale of most eastern hospitality, where you'd expect half the village to turn up anyway.
I prefer to think that Jesus and his friends, who after all soon got a reputation for being gluttons and drunkards, were calling for their fourth or fifth bowl of wine, and Mary came tut-tutting out of the kitchen to silence them by telling them there was no wine, and since they’d drunk a lot of it, what were they going to do about it?
It’s a story full of little details with the touch of authenticity – the size of the jars, the harsh rebuke of Jesus to his mother, the humour of the steward’s comment, and the joke shared by Jesus and the servants.
Not only that – but it’s magic! It answers the longing all of us have to see the supernatural, to make the special happen, to have power to do the impossible. God, wine, power, happiness – what more can you wish for? What a story!
But right at beginning of that story comes a little phrase which signals the importance of the story, but which has been left out of today’s service sheet because on its own it seems to make no sense.
‘On the third day’, says John, there was a wedding at Cana. ‘On the third day’ – a thrilling and disturbing phrase for Christian hearers of this gospel, because it speaks of resurrection, the power of God’s life over death, of Jesus the risen Lord. And then at the end of the story comes the punchline, the little verse which changes your whole take on the story: ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, and revealed his glory - and his disciples believed in him.’
This isn’t just a story. It’s a sign. It shows Jesus as what he truly is. Have you ever wondered why this story is at the beginning of John’s gospel, but in none of the other gospels? It seems so trivial compared to healing lepers, curing the demon-possessed, or raising the dead. But there’s amazing truth in this story for those who have eyes to see, says John. What is that truth?
‘Standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification’, says John. Jesus takes water meant to make people holy, and turns it into wine. Jesus transforms religion into life, life which comes from Jesus, who John refers to later as the water gushing up within us to eternal life, the true vine.
This is a sign as well as a story. It’s not about a wonder-worker who makes credulous converts, or does a trick as a favour for his mother. This Jesus is God’s life for us, the Jesus whose hour to be revealed openly has come on the third day. It’s not just a story. It’s not just a party - not even just a miracle. It reveals to us the nature of God, the God for whom generosity overtakes holiness, the Son of God whose glory is revealed in ordinary things.
Don’t expect to find Jesus just in religious and miraculous experiences – Cana is about wine at a party, after all. There are signs of God and God’s glory around us, if we have eyes to see. Like John, we can find signs of God in unexpected places, as we pray over what we see and who we encounter.
When Angie the prostitute died in Deptford over 30 years ago of an overdose, her friends and clients collected money and gave it to the church to make something in memory of her. So we made a candle stand, a really big one, six feet high with a silver bowl, to shine as a light for the world. I saw it still in the church when I went back to preach a few months ago. A big candlestick, there as a sign of God’s love for a struggling person with a big heart; a sign of God’s love for Angie, and for you, and for me.
And yes, last week was when the leaders of the Anglican church around the world met to see how generous their love can be for those they disagree with about sex and holiness. Whatever you think or feel about the outcome, today’s invitation to each of us is to join with Jesus at Cana, and go beyond what those archbishops have said and done, and to pray this week that we and all those who we meet, with all our differences, will be changed by the generous love of Jesus Christ in our own lives.
Near the beginning of the Eucharist service we have a prayer each week called the Collect, which collects our prayers together before God. And I’d like us to pray it now – please join together with me if you can.
It’s a prayer which has always meant a lot to me ever since those days in Deptford. Because this is a prayer that, like those jars of water and those disciples, Jesus may transform us to be signs of the generous love of God in a struggling world…
Almighty 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, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.