Sermon for Third Sunday of Epiphany Sunday 20 January 2013
Epiphany 3. Sermon preached at High Mass
What is a happy life? Happiness comes upon us when God calls us, or, as we might say, gives us our vocation, shows us our destiny, offers to redeem us, change us. Christ will change us, and this miracle of water into wine is about how we can be changed, our lives beautified by the presence of God. In Epiphany time, which we are now in, there are three key readings, which are all about epiphany, which means manifestation, the appearance of Jesus as he really is, as divine. The first is the story of the three wise men guided by the star to present their gifts. That’s the manifestation of Jesus as divine to the Gentiles. The second is the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. That’s the manifestation of Jesus as divine to the Jews. The third story is the Marriage at Cana in Galilee. That’s the manifestation of Jesus as divine to his disciples, to you and me. God invites his disciples, those who want to learn about him, to a wedding feast, to a new way of life, maybe in your case a new phase of your life, in which we make a commitment to life in the Spirit, a new world in which much remains mysterious, as in this strange story of water being turned into wine at a wedding. Do you remember the old words from the Prayer Book marriage service: “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee”. Adorned and beautified, I like that bit. The business about the mystical union betwixt Christ and his Church always seemed a bit High Church to me, yet more dry theology clogging up the works. But all it is is a description of this new way of life, to which we are committed as in a marriage, and to which Christ is also committed. It’s not just about us; the whole human family is taken up into this new life. In the story there is enough for everyone. The story of the miracle of Cana was told by those who first understood that the Word of Life had become flesh; as it says in the first letter of John: “We are witnesses and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” What is tradition, but the experience of others passed on to us, which then becomes our experience, which we are called to pass on?
It was the first miracle Jesus did, and it will be the first miracle in our lives, where we start again, as we all have to do, day after day. Our starting point is defined by Isaiah: We are not forsaken , not abandoned. God rejoices over us as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, with singleminded attention and love. Dare we accept the invitation to this wedding, and trust that it will be all right, that we can experience that wholeness for which we long, when we transcend ourselves, in joy, as at a wedding, where the attention is off ourselves, the guests, and on something greater than ourselves, somewhere beyond ourselves, the celebration of God’s love? It’s only necessary to begin, that’s all. It’s time to stop being on the sidelines, weighing up our chances of success. Everyone can begin again, even still waters can run deep, we can explore our faith with a new intensity, total immersion in the Spirit of God, loving with his love, never settling for less than the best wine, the new wine in the kingdom of God. Why do we settle for so much dull religion, the worst wine? Maybe because dull religion, and we’ve all had our fill of it down the years, is a cultural activity which always stops just short of my life, thank goodness, leaving my ego untouched, so my heart never burns within me. So then we never guess that the story of the Wedding at Cana of Galilee is our invitation into a life-changing mystery. We just never receive the invitation. St John of the Cross, a different St John, says that the soul is like an unopened parcel. We can get through life leaving it unopened. But unwrapping the parcel, opening the soul, is the way we glorify God, because we then open ourselves to experiencing God’s work and his joy. We go to the wedding at Cana of Galilee.
Do you know what went wrong before? I think that all these years we have been asking ourselves the wrong questions. The questions we have in our minds are these: did he really change water into wine? What happened? Was it really a miracle? These questions distance us from the story. Such questions didn’t interest St John. He does not describe the act of miracle, water being changed into wine. Jesus just tells the servant to draw the water. The water is from jars of special water for the rites of purification. So water used for the application of the rules of Judaism becomes wine of intoxicating vitality. Moralism gives way to joy. Jesus’s word makes this happen, his word gives us the life of God, his word changes us from water into wine. The wine is not a replacement from nowhere, it is the water which is changed. As we sing in the evening Office Hymn: the water reddens into wine. The Law is not replaced, it is changed, renewed. So we are changed, renewed, explained, the truth about ourselves is demonstrated to us. So a better question is this: are we ever going to attend this wedding, and taste the wine which Jesus offers us? For in the Gospel we are the guests at the wedding, we are the servants who do as he says and draw the water, and we are the wine of the new kingdom. We are the disciples to whom Jesus has manifested his divinity.
We have heard the story. We’re lucky. The coming generation, dazzled by the state operated marriages now held in grand hotel wedding venues every day all over the land, will never hear of “the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church” and the miracle at Cana of Galilee”. This in no way makes us superior to those who haven’t heard the story, but we are given a clue about a happy life. For this is the story of our destiny. We are created for communion with God. The Gospel is our open invitation into the mystery of God’s life, the divine and the human joined together for ever as in matrimony, and here, as we listed to that story, is our first experience of a miracle in our lives, when the water is changed into wine, when we are changed from the persons we think we are into the much cherished children of God that God has created us to be.
Fr. Julian Browning
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning