The super-abundance of God

This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The set texts were John 2: 1-11 (the wedding at Cana) and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (the gifts of the Spirit.)

wedding at cana 2The passage we have just heard read to us – the miracle at the wedding at Cana – immediately presents several challenges to the listener.

First, there is the challenge that it recounts a miracle: water being turned into wine. All of the four gospel writers who recorded their accounts of Jesus’ life – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – give us stories of miracles, which are rightly famous. Many are connected with healing, while others involve the natural world. And yet others, like the one we have just heard read, see physical objects changed or multiplied beyond all measure, such as the Feeding of the 5,000, with which this passage has many similarities.

All of these stories present great challenges for all Christians, because they contradict what we observe to be the normal rules of nature. Many witnessing Christians today, faithfully serving the Lord in their daily lives, would offer alternative explanations to many of Jesus’ miracles, while not denying that he was the Son of God. And we respect that right to interpret the scripture individually as the Holy Spirit guides.

This particular story – this particular miracle – also presents us with some specific challenges. Why does Mary involve Jesus in this domestic crisis? Why does he speak to his mother as he does? What does Jesus mean when he says his hour has not yet come? I am afraid that if we explored all those questions, our Sunday lunches would be quite ruined by the time we had finished!

The challenge we cannot ignore, though, is the outcome of this miracle. Nobody was ill, nobody was dying, nobody was really suffering. Yet Jesus, the Son of God, apparently used his divine authority to produce free alcohol for his friends and family. This strange miracle has challenged Christian theologians ever since and they have come up with a great variety of interpretations. Some have turned to the field of allegory, with, for example, the “water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6) somehow representing the Jewish law (Torah), which Jesus has come to replace. Others have focussed on the contemporary social world of the gospels, with Jesus stepping in to save the groom from potentially disastrous social embarrassment. None of these explanations are satisfactory, though, and they leave us with the same question: why did Jesus perform this miracle, and how are we meant to respond?

raising of lazarus - jesus as magician (sarcophagous, roman catacombs, 4th century)

4th Century depiction of Jesus as a sorcerer, raising Lazarus

Let us start with the word ‘miracle’ because John never uses that word in his stories of Jesus. He always uses the word ‘signs’. He wants to be absolutely clear that Jesus is not a magician (even though he was occasionally depicted as a sorcerer in ancient art – see left). The miracles were useful and brought many people to hear Jesus, but they were never an end in themselves. They were always for some greater purpose: a sign pointing to some greater and deeper truth.

Where then is this sign pointing? Well, I believe the key lies in some rather hard maths! The passage tells us that there six stone jars at the wedding and that each contained 20-30 gallons (John 2:6). If we say 25 gallons for argument’s sake that gives us a total of 150 gallons. There are about 4.5 litres in a gallon (4.546 to be exact), so that makes about 675 litres of wine (681.9, in fact). Given that the average bottle of wine contains just 0.75 litres of wine, we discover that Jesus incredibly produced the equivalent of about 900 bottles of top-quality wine!

Royal I E.IX, f.276Nowadays, we hear much about binge drinking but I think that even if we were having a very good night with our friends, we would struggle to tackle 900 bottles of wine at a single sitting! It was completely unnecessary and over-the-top, and out of all proportion to what the wedding guests needed. And for me, that is the message of this miracle. Just as we use bread and wine as symbols at holy communion, so the over-flowing vats of wine symbolise what Christ is going to do for his people in John’s gospel. Remember this is the first miracle John records; arguably, it is like those trailers which you get for the next series of your favourite programme or box set on TV, giving us a brief glimpse of what is to come. Here Jesus is telling his disciples, telling all those who will listen and telling us today, that he is going to give us so much that we will not know what to do with it.

This theme of the ‘super-abundance of God’, was a crucial part of Messianic expectation at the time of Jesus. So much of the messianic material we find in the gospels takes place at weddings, like the parable of the bridesmaids with their lamps (Matt. 25:1-13), and they speak of the idea that God will return to his creation, like a pure and spotless bridegroom, ushering in the new age. A Jewish messianic text roughly contemporary with the gospel of John makes this clear. It has Baruch, the companion of Jeremiah, giving a prophecy that says:

the earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a vat of wine. (2 Baruch 29:5)

img_3517It is important to note that the wine produced at the wedding was not just any old wine, it was the best wine. The old wine could not satisfy; only the Messiah, the chosen one of God, could provide what his people truly needed. Crucially, though, he will not just provide them with what they need – the bare minimum, a simple ration. God will provide it in super-abundance: more than we could possibly need.

We see this theme of super-abundance in Paul’s letter as well, when he is writing to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit. There he speaks about gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, tongues, healings, miracles, wisdom, etc. We find these gifts repeatedly referred to in the book of Acts and in the epistles; the Holy Spirit fills people’s lives and overfills them! We can see even see that today in the lives of ordinary Christians, if we look hard enough

This message of the super-abundance is, I believe, a vital one for us all today. Too often, we act as though God’s love and gifts are doled out and strictly limited – if someone else has something from God, then it means less for me. We see that attitude in the church of ancient Corinth and sadly in many of our churches today. This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity calls us all to recognise that God’s Spirit spreads its gifts and graces far and wide, and if another tradition or church has been blessed then that does not mean less blessing for us. It means God’s grace overfills his Church, like the wine vats at Cana. As we shall in a moment, in the hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy:

But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.

We see something very similar in our attitudes towards the world’s resources, with a desire to control and possess more and more. We must challenge the false gospel that says that we must cling ever more tightly to what we have, lest someone else takes our little lot away: life is a ‘zero-sum’ game, and the only way others can improve their lives is by ours getting worse. The miracle at Cana speaks clearly of the super-abundant generosity of God, who has given us an entire universe as a gift, and everything we need to flourish and prosper as humans.

The over-flowing wine at Cana reminds us all that the love of God knows no bounds. The grace of God is not limited. The desire of God to reach out and be in a relationship with his creation cannot be restrained. These things will not run out, like the old wine at the wedding; if someone else gets a bit of God’s love, then it emphatically does not mean less for you or me. There is so much love, so much grace flowing from the throne of our Creator that, just like the guests at Cana, we will not know what to do with it all. It is a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is really like: a radical alternative to the world we know, which too often seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing. And we are witnesses to that Kingdom: we need to be the examples of God’s boundless generosity, and not fear that the jars will go dry. Let us put our faith not in the miserly half measures of this world, but the super-abundance of God and the limitless love he showed us all in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

wedding at cana (lavenham)

An unequal covenant

Happy new year! This is the sermon I preached at BarnesPutney and Roehampton Methodist Churches, as we marked the start of the year with our Covenant Services. The texts for all three services were: Genesis 17:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.

union-handshake-art-bf475c83f072bd2aIntroduction

For many years, Methodists have begun the year in a very distinctive way with the Covenant Service. It draws on the important concept of covenant that can found throughout the Bible, celebrating God’s gracious offer to Israel that, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”. This offer was then extended beyond Israel to all women and men in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God.

This idea of Covenant was basic to John Wesley‘s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as,

my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death

1246px-John_Wesley_preaching_outside_a_church._Engraving._Wellcome_V0006868Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.

Over a number of years Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He first created a distinctive form of service in 1755, drawing on Puritan examples. It emphasised both the individual and corporate nature of the covenant, and the earnest response required of all those who participated. From its earliest days, it was celebrated alongside Holy Communion.

Sermon

Thank_you_001Christmas is now long gone but we are still in the season of Epiphany, when we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ child, and the gifts they brought. Sadly, we are unlikely to be the recipients of any gifts so late after the festive season. If we are lucky, though, we may be recipients of a thank you note for the presents we have given, especially to children. I have already received a number from my godchildren, and their conscientious parents.

Speaking personally, I always found writing thank you notes the very worst part of Christmas! My mother was very strict with my sisters and I, and insisted that letters had to be written promptly, offering fulsome gratitude for any gifts received. She was right, of course, but I used to dread the hours sitting at the dining table desperately trying to think of things to say to an elderly great aunt! As my mother would observe, though: “If you don’t want to write the thank you letter, then you’ll have to send the present back.”. In many ways, the gift and the letters illustrate a sort of covenantal relationship. The gift requires a response on the part of the recipient. If we are honest, many of us will make judgements about the quality or absence of letters when we send a gift, and they may determine how we act in the future. No thank you letter this January, no Christmas present next year!

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079Within our scriptures, we can see something similar in the understanding of covenant. One of the challenges in studying and understanding Biblical covenants, ranging from the time of Noah to that of Paul, is that the concept develops over time. There is always a moral component to them, making an appeal to values like integrity and loyalty. Especially in the Old Testament, though, they are undeniably influenced by models of treaties and the legal language of charters from contemporary cultures. In these, a powerful king or overlord commits himself to meet certain obligations, in return for the continued loyalty and service of a lesser ruler or people. They are often couched in high-flown, diplomatic language but the basic relationship is a contractual one, imposed by a stronger power on a lesser one. This understanding, for better or worse, perhaps inevitably affected how the Israelites viewed their relationship with their almighty God: they must meet follow the laws given by God, if they are to retain their cherished status as the ‘chosen people’.

Despite what we know about the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, it is still tempting to think of covenant in those terms – like the unwritten covenants of presents and thank you letters, a relationship of obligation that places commitments on both sides. On the one hand, we can feel that we are under an obligation to be worthy of this covenant with God. To fulfil our side of the bargain, we must be perfect people, never falling by the wayside, and thereby ‘earning’ our place in heaven. It is not, in fact, unlike that other great January tradition – the new year’s resolution, whereby we vow never to slip up even for a day on our promised ‘new start’. Such thinking has led numerous great Christians in history astray, Augustine, Luther, Wesley to name but three. All of whom tried to ‘earn’ their salvation by fulfilling their side of the covenantal ‘bargain’ to the letter.

On the other hand, there can be a temptation to place the obligations on God. In a few moments I will invite you to read again those beautiful expressions in the Covenant Service so loved by Methodists: “put me to what you will”, “put me to suffering”, etc. But is there an un-stated sub-text? “And in return, Lord, you will grant me my prayers, not actually ask that much of me, and give me eternal bliss after a long and happy life…” One of the most frightening features of 20th / 21st Century Christianity has the been the rise of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. Wikipedia provides a good, simple definition of its teachings:

a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.

This theology ignores large parts of the Bible, which teach something directly contrary, not least the book of Job. Such teaching almost seems to assume that we could take God to an ombudsman or regulator if he failed to keep his side of the supposed contract!

CovenantInterestingly, even in the Old Testament we find writers who are unhappy with this legalistic understanding of the term covenant, like the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and, as we heard, Jeremiah. As we heard, he famously spoke of a covenant that would be written on people’s hearts, not scrolls of paper or tablets of stone (Jer. 31: 33). That understanding of covenant is the one of which Jesus speaks: an organic covenant, we might say. For the new covenant that Christ ushered in was not an agreement carved in tablets of stone but a living, breathing covenant; a thing of the spirit, daily renewed and incapable of being pinned down by scribes and lawyers – then or now. At the heart of this new covenant was not a new set of rules and obligations, but a gift. And that, for me, is what lies at the heart of our covenant service – the response to a precious and costly gift, lovingly given.

The introduction to the Covenant Service in our worship book states that the service should be followed by a celebration of Holy Communion, and we shall do precisely that shortly. it is perhaps this latter part of the service that helps us understand the former, and illustrates what I am trying to say. For this is an unequal covenant, where one partner has given so much more than the other. As it states elsewhere in the Worship Book, in the service for baptism:

for you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered death on the Cross;
for you he triumphed over death,
rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you,
before you could know anything of it.

In renewing our covenant promises today – or indeed making them for the first time – we are not signing up to a credit agreement or writing a thank you note, in the hope of gaining a better present next year. We cannot take God to court for failing to provide what we expect, nor can the gift we have been given be taken away from us, because we did not pen a good enough letter. Nor are we engaging in a ‘box-ticking exercise’ – telling God what we have done and reminding him to keep his side of the bargain. We are making an inadequate response to the greatest gift anyone can ever receive: the gift of God himself in Jesus Christ. Our Covenant is but a fumbling and wholly inadequate response to that gift. It is an aspiration to be worthy of Christ’s great sacrifice. It is a reminder of our high calling as Christians to be like Christ to all whom we meet. It is a token of our earnest effort to be the person that God truly wants each one of us to be.

I have no doubt that each of us shall fail to live up to that aspiration – I shall probably lead the way. I have no doubt that our response will often resemble my grudging, ill-written, childish thank you letters. But I also have no doubt that God shall keep his side of the bargain regardless. And that, brothers and sisters, is good news indeed. Amen.

wesley-covenant-prayer