Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Epiphany (21 January 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Epiphany (21 January 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Precentor reflects on Christ's first miracle, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and that we must remember, and show, "that the Christian faith is about love and joy".

In the Louvre Museum in Paris, vast crowds pack themselves into the room in which hangs Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic work, Mona Lisa or La Gioconde: that almost unassuming young woman who has captivated the world’s attention for centuries – not least because of that wry smile that emanates from her face. Why is she smiling and what does she know that we don’t?

Well, the answer lies – as you stand there staring at her – behind you. Because, while you are wasting your time staring at Mona Lisa, you miss the really great work of art in that room which hangs on the wall opposite: Paulo Veronese’s magnum opus – the Wedding at Cana – all 70 square metres of it. The largest most expansive painting in the Museum’s 35,000 works collection.

Veronese’s treatment of today’s gospel reading is exuberant and riotous, colourful and exotic, careless and immodest.

Just like today’s gospel reading, because today’s gospel reading is filled with joy. Indeed, like the wine, at the end of the gospel lesson, overflowing with joy. The story about the wedding at Cana of Galilee is one of the stories in which the true identity of Jesus is revealed to the world and which we think and pray about in this season of Epiphany.

We’ve already this month heard the story about the visit of the wise men to the Christ child in the stable in Bethlehem when God shows that his plans for the world extend beyond the Jewish fold; we’ve heard the story about the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan when the people hear the voice of God which reveals the identity of Jesus as the Son of God; and now we see Jesus’s divine power revealed in the turning of water into wine, the first miracle.

Each of these three wonders has a meaning in it, which is effectively what the word ‘miracle’ expresses – a wonder with a meaning in it.

And this story of the turning of water into wine – the third of the three Epiphany miracles – is crucial, it seems to me, to the Christian Church today if we are to get right that vital task which we all have, which is how to make the person and teaching of Christ attractive and persuasive to our friends and neighbours if we are going to encourage people not to give up on God – despite the fact that religion seems to be a very bad advertisement for God right now.

The problem, I suppose, may be that the story, in this instance, is somewhat implausible in the modern age of realism in which we live. But, as is so often the case with miracles, it’s important that we don’t get hung up on the ‘how’ of the miracle. Not the wonder but the meaning of the miracle is what matters to St John whose Gospel this story comes from.

Let’s look carefully at what is involved in this story. We’re told that there are six stone jars for purification, each holding about 20 or 30 gallons. Even if we go with the more conservative estimate of 20 gallons per jar, that’s 120 gallons and therefore over, wait for it, 700 bottles of wine.

The guests at the wedding have already drunk freely so this act of God is not about fulfilling a specific need. It could almost be described as reckless – an indiscriminate flinging about of largesse, of joy, of love. Suddenly, a place that already abounded in revelry and jollity is now overflowing with the love of God.

And there’s more to the significance of the story even than that. I don’t believe that it is mere chance that the vessels which provide the focus for this act of God are stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification.

How often did Jesus challenge the scribes and the Pharisees for their obsession with the laws of purity and for their disregard for divine love and human need?

There is almost a sense with this story that Jesus is seizing the symbols of the laws of purity and converting them – literally – into symbols of divine love: and all in the context of a boozy party!

And yet, today, the Church at large – and indeed right now the Anglican Church – is characterised as the guardian of the laws of purity, over issues like gender and sexuality: issues which most decent and loving people have moved on from a generation ago.

Can you imagine these people – the people whom we need to attract towards the persuasive personality of Christ – ever voluntarily associating the Church or the Christian faith with over 700 bottles of the finest wine? And yet that is what our gospel lesson this morning suggests.

Someone once said that, two thousand years ago, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana of Galilee but that the Church has spent the last two thousand years turning it back into water.

We need to convince people that we can turn the water back into wine. That the Christian faith is about love and joy – even reckless love and joy, indiscriminately flung about by the attractive and persuasive personality of Jesus Christ our Lord and our God.