In Sunday’s gospel – in either the Prayer Book or Common Worship lectionaries – we hear the third of the ‘epiphanies’ or manifestations of our Lord: the first of the ‘signs’ in John in which Jesus “revealed his glory”: the changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana.
It is an intriguing story, in which it is the mother of Jesus who notices that the catering arrangements have gone embarrassingly wrong. When she reports this to Jesus, clearly expecting him to do something about it, he responds by saying that his “hour,” which in John means his passion, has “not yet come.” In the gospel, and in our relationship with him, Jesus does not always conform to our timetables! His mother, apparently undeterred, tells the servants to “Do whatever he tells you.” An instruction which even Christians with no tradition of Marian devotion should be able to take seriously.
The result is the transformation of vast quantities of water into wine, so the party can go on. Nor is this fresh supply £5 supermarket plonk. The worldly-wise and surprised steward says to the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This sign points us to the extraordinary generosity of God.
The choice of a passage from Isaiah (62.1-5) reminds us of the use of marital imagery in the scriptures to represent the joy God has prepared for his people.
The language of the wedding feast – the marriage supper of the Lamb – also speaks of its anticipation in our celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus will later produce an overabundant provision of bread to remedy another lack.
Wine has a double significance:
of the joy of union and communion
of the blood of sacrifice, Christ’s offering of himself: “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”; and our sharing in that self-giving love. The two are intimately connected; one grows from the other. If this becomes the pattern of our lives, then, looking back, we find that the best wine has been kept until now. This is not a counsel to seek out suffering or put up with it for its own sake, but a recognition of the cost of caring.
On Sunday, too, we begin a series of readings from the later chapters of 1 Corinthians. When the Church is beset by problems and the wine of joy seems to have run out, it is helpful to remind ourselves that life in the earliest Christian communities was not one of unalloyed joy. Nor did their problems all stem from external hostility. Some were generated internally. This was certainly the case in Corinth. In Sunday’s passage Paul sets out to discuss “spiritual gifts” or “spiritual matters” or “persons;” of which the Corinthians do not seem to have been short, but which were the source of division not unity.
But before he does that he speaks of how the Spirit gives believers a voice to confess that “Jesus is Lord.” The first action of the Spirit is not to produce gifts of preaching or teaching or speaking in tongues, but to evoke the basic commitment to Jesus’ lordship which undergirds the Christian life.
Paul then makes clear that the diversity of gifts in the Church come from the same source. This diversity is rooted in the character of God. Diversity is not an unfortunate accident or a cultural phenomenon that needs to be eliminated by an imposed uniformity.
But, this variety of gifts is “for the common good.” The Greek term suggests usefulness or profitability for others. The gifts given to individual believers are not for their private benefit, or even for a circle of those like them. Paul’s strictures on the factions in Corinth warn against a diversity within the Church in which various groups keep to themselves and nurture their own growth apart from the gifts others might bring and the contributions they might offer to others. He envisages a single community in which the gifts of God are used for the service of all.
I have spent two and a half days of this week with the Time To Change Together Implementation Group, for which I act as spiritual adviser. Our time together included a visit from the Archbishop of Canterbury by Zoom to commission Bishop Stephen as our acting Diocesan Bishop.
Part of the TTCT process asks parishes to consider, not just what they need from the wider church, but what gifts they can offer to others. We are being asked not only to give to others but to receive from them. The latter is sometimes harder than the former. It involves admitting our dependence n others. These are questions not just for parishes but for us all as disciples.
Yours in Christ,