Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
January 20, 2013
Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11
Isaiah 62:1–5 • For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light, and her salvation blazes like a torch. Nations will see your righteousness, all kings your glory. You will be called by a new name, which the LORD’s own mouth will determine. You will be a splendid garland in the LORD’s hand, a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand. You will no longer be called Abandoned, and your land will no longer be called Deserted. Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married. Because the LORD delights in you, your land will be cared for once again. As a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you. With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride, so your God will rejoice because of you.
John 2:1–11 • On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They don’t have any wine.” Jesus replied, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” His mother told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby were six stone water jars used for the Jewish cleansing ritual, each able to hold about twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water,” and they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some from them and take it to the headwaiter,” and they did. The headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine. He didn’t know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. The headwaiter called the groom and said, “Everyone serves the good wine first. They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.” This was the first miraculous sign that Jesus did in Cana of Galilee. He revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.
There are a number of things that could be said about this story: about Jesus transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. About how the surprising thing is that the good wine is served last instead of first. About how this becomes the first of the “signs” he performs in John’s gospel. Or about the trust that Mary had in her son when she tells the stewards to do whatever Jesus tells them to do even before he has agreed to do anything.
We could talk about all those things. I know this because I have talked about all those things. If you’re really bored later, you can visit the sermon page of our website and find sermons on all of those things.
But I don’t want to talk about any of those things tonight. I just want to talk about wine.
Wine is at the heart of this story. This story takes place three days after Jesus has called a number of his disciples—Nathanael and Philip. And he and his disciples are at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. As the party goes on, it turns out that they are running out of water. Mary, his mother, turns to him and says, “Do something about this.” His response is interesting and deserving of a sermon of its own. He says, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” She simply turns to the stewards and says “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus tells them to fill the jars used for ceremonial washing with water. Lo and behold, when they open them, there is wine inside. And not just any wine: really good wine. So much so that people are astonished. People wonder: what kind of party is this? You’re supposed to serve the good stuff at the beginning and then bring out the bad stuff later when people can no longer tell the difference. Instead, they’ve saved the best wine for last. And the story concludes by telling us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus performs. The first of the signs that Jesus performs in him ministry.
In John’s gospel, Jesus performs no miracles; he performs several “signs” and this is the first of the signs that is performed.
And so it’s interesting that this sign should involve water into wine. What is it then about wine that is important enough to be the centerpiece of Jesus’ first sign? Wine is not as extraordinary as we might think. It was among the most common beverages in the ancient world, particularly in the Mediterranean where a semi-arid climate meant that olives, lemons, and grapes grew really well. It was a common staple of the mediterranean diet.
Wine is not meant to be anything spectacular; it simply is what happens when you store grape juice too long. They ancients discovered that if they kept the juice of grapes stored for a while and then tried an older bottle, it had something of a kick to it. They didn’t necessarily know that it was the fermentation of the sugars inside the grape juice, but they knew what happened to the juice if stored long enough. For all that, wine was an ordinary beverage, in some cases more frequently drunk (or more reliably safe) than water. Being alcoholic it could sterilize impurities that could be borne by water. Wine is something of an ordinary thing; the soda of the ancient world.
In fact, the only reason we are able to make a distinction between wine and grape juice is because a Methodist named Welch figured out a way to pasteurize grape juice to keep it from turning into wine. And after he did that, he made it available free of charge to any church that wanted it for communion. And thus an empire was born.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that wine should be at the heart of this story? Wine is at the heart of our liturgy, too. When we have communion as we do every Thursday night at the healing service and on the first Sunday of the month here, the liturgy speaks not at all of grape juice. It says, “Pour out your Spirit on this gift of bread and wine…” I sometimes feel bad about that. As if “wine” should be in quotation marks. Because wine and grape juice are not the same thing.
IV. A DANGEROUS BUSINESS
Frederick Buechner, a noted century of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, said:
Unfermented grape juice is a bland and pleasant drink, especially on a warm afternoon mixed half-and-half with ginger ale. It is a ghastly symbol of the life blood of Jesus Christ, especially when served in individual antiseptic, thimble-sized glasses.
Wine is booze, which means it is dangerous and drunk-making. It makes the timid brave and the reserved amorous. It loosens the tongue and breaks the ice, especially when served in a loving cup. It kills germs. As symbols go, it is a rather splendid one.
We sometimes mix-up the wine and the grape juice in our thinking. There are things that we think are safe but in reality are a little more… dangerous.
In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as the knights are on their quest at one point they are told they need to enter a cave. They are told by the Wizard Tim that the cave is guarded by a dangerous beast. And when they get to the cave, sitting in front of the cave is a tiny, white bunny rabbit. And the knights all scoff. One knight charges forward confidently saying, “One rabbit stew comin’ right up!” And the rabbit jumps up and bites his head right off. The rabbit proceeds to inflict all kinds of carnage on the knights until they shout “Run away! Run away!” in retreat. Whereupon they are scolded by the Wizard Tim: “I warned you, but did you listen to me? Oh, no, you knew, didn’t you? Oh, it’s just a harmless little bunny, isn’t it?”
There are things that appear to be safe that are really quite dangerous. Some things are more dangerous than they appear.
Christian faith is just such a thing. It appears to be that little white bunny rabbit, but in reality it can be a beast. It appears to be grape juice, but in reality it’s wine.
It’s unpredictable; it’s risk inducing.
See, Christian faith was given to black slaves in this country by their white slave masters. It was given to them because it was assumed that Christianity was the servant of good order. That Christianity made for responsible, respectful people who knew their place and who did their duty. Who would hear verses like “wives obey your husbands; children obey your parents; and slaves obey your masters” and that all the order of society would fall naturally into place with Christian faith. But see, that’s because the slave masters thought Christianity was grape juice. The slaves saw it as wine.
They read that same Bible, they read those same words. And they heard Moses saying to Pharaoh: “Let my people go!” They heard the story of Creation in which God created all the families of the earth as one. They heard the story of the Exodus; the prophets cry out for justice, the story of the Apocalypse when Christ would come and settle all scores, including liberating the oppressed from bondage and tyranny. They heard a Christianity that was intoxicating, risk making, and they committed their lives to that faith. The very faith that was supposed to make the slaves domesticated and docile became the strongest basis for the movement for their liberation and their freedom.
In that same tradition, Martin Luther King saw his faith as one that challenged him to challenge the status quo. Not to simply accept the world as the God ordained order, but to say that our faith does not let us become comfortable with the status quo. Our faith doesn’t look at the world as it is and say ‘this must be how God intended it.’ It challenges us with a vision of the Gospel to make the world into that which God intends. It challenges us. He devoted his life—indeed he gave his life—in taking those risks for the sake of the Gospel.
This weekend we observe a couple things in the life of our nation. We celebrate Dr. King’s legacy. And we go through some pomp and circumstance on the national stage as it relates to the Presidency. This is one of those times where we reflect that Christian faith has too often been used to shore up the status quo; to shore up the systems of the world. It was Duke University Professor of New Testament Luke Timothy Johnson who quipped, “There are a lot of people for whom the central message of Christianity is ‘Support your local sheriff’.” There are many people who understand Christian faith as being about good order and quiet, respectable living. This is about maintaining what we have and preserving what is.
But Christianity has never really been that. At least not the Christians who get noticed, anyway. Starting with the first one, or as Mark Twain said, the only one. Christianity has always about looking at things in a radical way. It’s not about drinking that same little cup of bland grape juice, but that dangerous and intoxicating wine.
There are reasons some denominations favor grape juice. The Methodists did it as a temperance thing: there were all kinds of problems and abuses of alcohol. Other denominations were on board with that same message at the time but continue today with grape juice so that those who suffer from alcohol addiction can continue to share in the sacrament. The Presbyterians are a denomination that affirms that reasoning.
But perhaps part of it is because it’s safe. There won’t be any drunken brawls during fellowship hour after having drunk too much grape juice. It’s a sweet little drink. It’s inoffensive. It’s safe.
But Jesus never played it safe.
In fact, after the wedding in Cana and spending a couple days in Capernaum, the very next thing Jesus does is go to Jerusalem for the Passover and cleanse the temple. Knocks over the tables. He drives out the moneychangers and the animals. He causes trouble. He creates a ruckus. He makes statements about destroying the temple and raising it again after three days. This is the next thing he does after turning water into wine.
That’s not safe. And given how at his trial the charge is made that he threatened the temple itself; this action would have dire consequences. Jesus gets himself into trouble. He sees his own calling not as a grape juice calling, but as a wine calling. What he does can hardly be called “safe”.
Christian faith is many things, but it is not safe. It does give us comfort in time of need. It helps us understand our place in the scheme of things. But ultimately it is not meant to be a refuge as much as it is a way station in the middle of a mission. We are not permitted to be satisfied with the way the world is; but to challenge it to reflect the way God intends the world to be. Through our actions, our words, our witness. And to do so requires engaging in some risky behaviors:
To turn injustice into justice. To turn oppression into freedom. To turn marginalization into inclusion. To turn causing death into promoting life. To turn hatred into compassion; fear into love. To turn water into wine.