16th January 2022
A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 16 January 2022. The Second Sunday of Epiphany
(Readings Isaiah 62: 1-5, John 2: 1–11)
How do you know if you are at a party? Surely one of the more unlikely topics to come up at Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s all a matter of signs and how you read them. Wine is one sign. Wine is not what philosophers call a ‘necessary condition’ for a party – one of the best wedding receptions I have ever been to featured not a drop of alcohol – but it is pretty much a sufficient condition: that is, if there are people and there is wine, then it’s probably a party that you are at.
Now it’s one thing to plan a dry party, like at the wedding I went to; it’s quite another if your party runs dry, which is the problem with the wedding in Cana of Galilee in John’s gospel.
In this moment of embarrassment are Jesus, his mother and the disciples. Isaiah compares God to a bridegroom, but here Jesus is just another guest. At first he appears to want to stay that way but, when the wine gives out, there is a brief exchange between mother and son. You may think the words don’t quite add up, but they don’t need to when two people are so close that each knows what the other means, by tone of voice or a raised eyebrow as much as by any words used. So, mother issues the instructions to the catering staff and the rest we know: vast quantities of wine appear, all of it gorgeous. And all of this, says John, is a sign, a sign of glory, and the abundant living that Jesus brings.
I preached on this story exactly one year ago. The signs of need and shortage were all around. There was an empty nave – the service was online only – while the south transept was all tables and cables and screens – we had just had our third day of mass vaccinations – and in the St Michael’s Chapel, fridges of vaccine sat alongside the blessed sacrament, reserved there to be taken to the sick; medication next to the medicine of immortality.
There were signs of abundance in those days too. Sunshine crashed through the windows, there were striking pieces of art from our 800th anniversary exhibition, and those having their post-jab rest were serenaded on our spankingly refurbed organ.
And here we are again. Another new year, more uncertainties, a fresh mixture of shortage and plenty. And for the church, some early signs of what life after – or with – Covid may look like, as patterns and habits have changed. As we hear again this strange, wondrous story of human shortage met by Jesus’ abundance, I ask myself, What are we for now?
The answer is, ‘What we have always been for,’ but let’s watch our tone of voice when we say that. If you are in a vast and beautiful building, now into its ninth century, with a wonderful choir that before long will be approaching its millennium, you could sound complacent. Can we say it not complacently but confidently? The essentials of Christian mission do not change, but the way we express them should, and must.
Last summer, we had a sermon series on the Five Marks of Mission, characteristics which can be found wherever healthy Christianity is lived: 1. proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, 2. nurturing new believers, 3. responding to need by loving service, 4. striving to make society more just, 5. caring for God’s creation.
It has been a privilege in the six-and-a-bit short and very happy years I have been here, to work with you on some of those. But it all depends on God. If God is not there, if we have no real sense of God, we become just another piece of heritage or culture, another community group, adding little to what others do well already.
And for many people God is not there; the signs just don’t seem to suggest it. We all know the confusing mix of gloom and glory that makes up our life. Some don’t think much more about it. Others do think a bit, and conclude that, since you and I are just specks of dust on the stardust that is planet earth, we can be no more than a local accident in a very big universe. Then there are others who get all that but remain – dissatisfied by the idea that that is all there is to it. And that is where we come in.
How do you know if you are at a party, rather than a work event? How do you know if you are in God’s world rather than a cosmic happenstance? It’s all a question of signs and how you read them. That is a question that drives John’s gospel. Each of the signs that Jesus does are misunderstood – or missed entirely, as here at the wedding: the guests enjoy the wine no doubt, they have the experience but miss the meaning; the catering manager takes a professional interest, knows it’s vintage stuff and that something remarkable has happened, but he doesn’t know what; only the servants know that.
So, to answer my own question, What are we for now? Those servants are a clue. We might see ourselves as servants at the world’s wedding. It’s a strange event, though, because many people don’t know that is the sort of thing they are at. The signs don’t seem to point that way, when the world often looks less like a wedding than a hospital or a refugee camp. That is why the other signs of Jesus’ glory in John’s gospel see him tackling sickness, and hunger, and death. But Cana is the first sign. Joy is where it begins.
Our task is to be servants of joy, agents of joy; and witnesses, to clarify, to help others read the signs, so that we can all have the experience but not miss the meaning. Like the servants in the story, we are privileged to see what is really going on. We are shown it here in what is a party, after all. We have music. We have no wine at present, but we know that it is not a necessary condition for a gathering of joy.
This is a service of signs, in which through sight, sound and action we are shown how one person’s death is transformed to be a means of new life and a source of hope. We see here how this world, for all its horrors, is a colossal act of love, and made for glory; and how we are called to be messengers of this good news.
So we must we relish all that brings genuine joy – Christians should be enemies of dullness – but our specific calling is to see the meaning, and name the One whose glory is proclaimed in all the world’s true joy, the God whose glory is a human being fully alive.