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)

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