Cana: Three Funerals at a Wedding?

A sermon on the Wedding at Cana

Text: John 2:1-11

In St John’s Anglican Church Cooks Hill, there is a stained glass window. It depicts the story from today’s Gospel reading – the wedding at Cana. It was donated by the families of a couple who got married at St John’s in 1994. The day after the wedding, they were flying from Newcastle airport to Lord Howe Island, when their light plane crashed and they and everyone on board were killed in what’s become known as the Seaview air disaster.

St-Johns-Cooks-Hill-window-Wedding-at-Cana

Detail of the memorial window

In the midst of life, and love, and joy – even at a wedding – we are in death.

Now, many of you will have seen the movie Four Weddings and Funeral. Personally, I can’t stand it, but it does get something right. In the midst of life, and love, and joy – even at a wedding – we are in death.

That’s why, if I were giving today’s sermon a title, it would be something like: Three Funerals at a Wedding. In telling us this story of Jesus at a wedding, John is foreshadowing three different deaths. Depressing? No. Challenging – yes!

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The first death John wants us to think about is the death of the old ways of trying to please God. We could call it the death of empty religion.

As John tell us, the huge jars which Jesus fills with wine were not designed for drinking water. They were “for the Jewish rites of purification” (verse 6) in which people washed themselves according to religious rules. The role of the jars in the story is to symbolise religion. Did you notice that they’re empty? They don’t have water in them; they need to be filled (verse 7). John is telling us something about the religion of Jesus’ day – and possibly our day, too. It was empty: it was dry, it no longer satisfied the thirsty, it was all container and no content, all outward and no inward.

So Jesus comes along and fills up the jars and makes religion right again! Or does he? To truly understand what Jesus is doing is to recognise it as a highly disruptive act. In fact, he couldn’t have done anything more shocking if he had smashed the water jars instead of filling them. The meaning of Jesus’ action is very similar to that of the very next episode of John’s story. Jesus marches into the Jerusalem Temple and turns it inside out, as if to say: this is what God thinks of your religion!

Now, in critiquing religion, Jesus isn’t doing anything brand new. Many times in the Old Testament, the prophets tell the people that their religion isn’t making God happy. Take just one example from Amos. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals,” says God. “And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs…” Instead: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (see Amos 5:21-24).

We need to take this statement very seriously. It’s not just referring to ancient Israel, or religion before Jesus came along. God isn’t impressed by the number of bums on seats we can round up. God isn’t fussed about the style of our church services. God doesn’t particularly care what kind of songs we sing. God cares about justice and righteousness. Church services are important – but only if they help us live lives that work to create a society of justice and righteousness. Otherwise it’s just empty religion. And empty religion is dead.

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Now, as well as the death of empty religion, the second death John wants us to think about in the story of the wedding at Cana is the death of Jesus. And the two deaths are connected.

John gives us some big hints in this direction. He starts off with the words: “on the third day” (verse 1). To anyone familiar with Jesus’ story, this phrase brings to mind something else that happens on a “third day”: Jesus’ resurrection.

Next, John tells us that Jesus initially refuses his mother’s request to do something about the wine. His reason: “my hour has not yet come” (verse 4). Jesus talks about “his hour” a number of times in John. Twice, for example, religious people try to arrest him but they fail because, John tell us, “his hour had not yet come” (chapters 7 and 8).

It’s not until the night of Jesus’ arrest that we find out what this “hour” refers to. John tells us: ‘Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you”’ (17:1). Jesus’ hour means two things: the time when Jesus will most fully glorify God, which is also the time that he will die. So by referring to “his hour” in this story, John wants us to think about Jesus’ death.

One final clue: the wine itself. As you might remember, John’s Gospel does not include a description of the last supper, when Jesus, on the night before his death, breaks bread and pours out wine and shares them with his followers. Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus feeds 5000 people and talks about what it means for his body to be broken for us, like bread (chapter 6). And here, at the beginning of his Gospel, John tells us what it means for Jesus’ blood to be poured out, for us, like wine.

So what does it mean? Well, Jesus dies because he proclaims the death of empty religion and replaces it with the religion of love. Not a fluffy, emotional “love”. But love of the self-giving, lay-down-you- life kind that seeks a society of justice and righteousness. But religious people don’t like that. Jesus is no threat to the Romans: he’s a threat to religious people because he points out their hypocrisy, their power-games, their lack of compassion and their self-righteousness. And so he dies.

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Finally, as well as the death of empty religion and Jesus’ own death, John wants us to think about a third death in the story of the wedding at Cana – our own. Or rather, the death of our old ways of being. Again, this death is connected to the other two.

John makes this link this through the symbol of the wedding itself. In the Bible, the image of the wedding is an eschatological one: that means it looks forward to the future, to the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. Jesus uses the symbol of a wedding in a number of stories in the Synoptic Gospels to talk about his coming Kingdom. And at the end of the New Testament, in Revelation, we have the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-10). That’s when the church – that’s us – is pictured as the Bride of Christ, his partner in love and joy.

What does it take to be a guest at Jesus’ wedding feast? Jesus gives us a clue in the parable of the wedding banquet, in Luke (chapter 14) and Matthew (chapter 22). In this story, a man puts on a wonderful banquet, but the guests refuse the invitation because they put their families or their work before God. They don’t understand that following Jesus takes priority over every other loyalty. So they miss out.

Why don’t they recognise the importance and the urgency of God’s invitation? Because – figuratively speaking – they haven’t been to their own funeral. They haven’t understood what Jesus meant when he said things like: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).Or what St Paul meant when he said: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20).

The death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. All ways of pleasing God have been shown to be dead, except following Jesus. In fact, all other ways of living have been shown up as dry and empty, except following Jesus. So why do we cling to them? In the story of the wedding at Cana, John is reminding us that we must die to our old selves in order to take our place at the wedding banquet of Jesus’ Kingdom. Or we’ll miss out.

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Now, I have a friend who went to Italy. He came back ecstatic. “Italy,” he said. “Showed me what bread is supposed to taste like. What cheese is supposed to taste like. What wine is supposed to taste like.”

That’s what Jesus was doing at the wedding at Cana. As the steward in the story says: he’d kept the best wine until last (verse 10). Jesus showed the guests what wine is supposed to taste like.

And that’s what Jesus can do for us. Following Jesus is about a fuller, richer experience of life. Life with Jesus is the way life is supposed to be lived – just like his wine is the way wine is supposed to taste. Now some people have the idea that following Jesus means a watered-down kind of life, a safe, narrow, legalistic option with no room for challenge or adventure. Or a sour, vinegary kind of life. Where everyone goes around with their lips pursed in disapproval. Gossiping, criticising and causing division.

Did they get those idea from Jesus – or did they get them from watching us?

Are we holding on to empty religion? Or are we seeking a society of justice and righteousness? Are we clinging to old loyalties and dead selves? Or are we celebrating at Jesus banquet? And – just as importantly – are we inviting others to join us? Are we inviting our friends, family, neighbours, workmates, Facebook friends, school mates…

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The window at St John’s Cooks Hill that depicts the wedding at Cana is certainly lovely. But it’s much more meaningful when we know the story behind it. The story of Jesus’ turning water into wine is nice, but when we see what John meant us to see, the meaning is richer and more powerful. Just like wine compared to water. Just like life in Jesus compared to everything else.

In a few minutes we’ll be drinking wine as part of Holy Communion. As we do, let’s remember what we are really celebrating: not just the death of Jesus, but death of empty religion and the death of our old ways of living. Then let’s go and invite others to God’s wedding banquet.

 

Christmas: from burden to blessing

I got this published on ABC Religion & Ethics Online. It’s about Christmas and the Sabbath and how things that were designed to be blessings for humanity can easily turn into burdens. Please read and comment!