Unable to be at his goddaughter’s wedding, a priest sent a message to be read out by the best man. He texted a simple Bible reference: 1 John 4.18 – a verse from the first letter of John which reads ‘There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear.’ The wedding ran its course, and at the usual point at the reception, the best man read out messages of goodwill. Seeing a biblical reference, he called for a Bible, and opened it. He was a bit hazy about the books of the Bible, so was relieved to find the heading ‘John’ and read to the assembled company from John’s Gospel, chapter 4: ‘A message from your godfather - Woman, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.’ What a difference a single number 1 can make!
Many of us will have our own anecdotes about weddings, and the embarrassments that sometimes occur. The wedding in today’s Gospel is no exception. The poor host! All the guests present, eating and drinking happily, and the unthinkable happens: no more wine. What were they to do? Well, we know the story: Jesus, egged on by his mother, turns water into wine, and saves the day. But is that really all that this passage is about? Is it about Jesus calling down some heavenly help to save his host’s embarrassment? Or is there—as with so much within the fourth Gospel—more to discover?
The season of Epiphany, in which we now find ourselves, is more than merely a bolt-on to the 12 days of Christmas. It’s also more than only a commemoration of the visit of the Wise Men. In the Eastern Church—and more recently, in the West—the tradition is to take the whole season of Epiphany as an opportunity to think about how God’s glory was seen in the birth and life of Jesus. This has tended to be focussed in three directions: the visit of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus (which we remembered two weeks ago) and the first of Jesus’ miracles recorded by John: the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana.
In the fourth gospel, the writer calls Jesus’ miracles ‘signs.’ A sign exists to point beyond itself to something else. The miracle stories in the Bible are pointers to the glory and power of God and, in John’s writing, their explicit purpose is to lead us to believe in God and in his Son Jesus – as we’re told the disciples did on this occasion [2.11]. The danger is that we can become so preoccupied with trying to decide whether or not these signs or miracles really happened (or how they might have happened) that we forget to ask what truth they might be trying to convey, and what they tell us about God.
St John’s gospel can be read on many levels. We can read it is a collection of stories – of encounters between Jesus and other people. Or we can delve beneath the surface and uncover some of the rich symbolism which is there if we care to look for it. The Christmas Gospel makes use of the symbols of light and darkness, for example and elsewhere we are introduced to the symbols of bread, the vine, water and so on.
The account of the wedding at Cana begins with the words ‘On the third day’ [2.1]. Simple enough, but actually quite meaningless in the immediate context of the Gospel. (The third day of what? The third day after what? We’re not told.) But what else happened ‘on the third day?’ None other than the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead. We need to remember that this Gospel was written after Jesus’ resurrection for a community working out what it meant to live in the light of that resurrection.
The miracle at the wedding at Cana is first and foremost about the new life that God offers in Christ, and the hope which that brings us. (Remember that this is the underlying manifesto of the whole of John’s Gospel.) It’s as if, in this first miracle, we are already being pointed beyond Jesus’ earthly ministry—from this first minor miracle—to the ultimate miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection. And beyond that further still, to the consequences of his Resurrection for us who, like the disciples [2.11], are led to believe in Jesus. ‘The third day’ has powerful resonances.
Now we might wonder why, if the writer of St John’s gospel is so concerned about idea and symbol, he wastes time on tiny details? We’re told that there were 6 stone water-jars standing there [2.6]. Not only that, but that they were jars used for the Jewish rites of purification. So what?
St John’s gospel has an uncanny preoccupation with numbers: with prime numbers especially, or more correctly, with numbers that are one below a prime number. The number 6, for instance—from today’s passage—is one such number, being one less than 7. And later in chapter 2, we see it again, where the Jews stress that it has taken then 46 years to build the temple [2.20]. 46 being one less than the prime number 47.
So what’s going on? Well, in each case, the number is connected in some way with the Jewish religious system Jesus has come to fulfil. And the inference seems to be that what is incomplete in the system of worship and sacrifice (one less than a prime number, 6 or 46) is completed in the person of Jesus.
Take the water jars. These were for purification rites. But in the new life which God is offering through Jesus, there is no need for ritual washing. The water jars might represent cleansing from sin but Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And the temple. Here is a sacrificial system of offerings to atone for sin and guilt, in which powerful symbols speak of a God who forgives. But in Jesus, that forgiveness is made concrete. He is himself the one who saves God’s people from their sins.
Numbers one below a prime number stand for incompleteness, and the truth that it is in Jesus that completeness is found and, by implication, without Jesus, we are less than the people God intends us to be: people of the resurrection, people of ‘the third day.’
And herein lies a challenge to us all: the challenge to ‘completeness’ or wholeness. It takes a lifetime for God to mould us into the people we were created to be, but we must not lose sight of the fact that to be Christian—to live as those who trust in Christ—is also to begin to know that wholeness here and now. A peace, a sense of purpose, and a confidence that, whatever life might throw at us, nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love.
So what of the quantity of wine? If each jar held between 20 and 30 gallons, and there were 6 of them, then that makes between 120 and 180 gallons, which is a lot of wine. Whether they drank it all, we don’t know; but it would have been a vast quantity, even for a feast lasting several days. So why so much? Why didn’t Jesus give them precisely what they needed?
If we frame this miracle as being about the promise of resurrection life, then the answer becomes clear. God isn’t in the business of giving us ‘just enough’. God is (as St Paul puts it) able to do ‘abundantly more than we can ask or conceive’ [Eph 3.20]. God’s concern is not that we should ‘get by’. God is a God of overflow whose purpose is, in Jesus’ words: ‘That we may have life: life in all its fullness’ [10.10]. Life, and not existence. Existence is time-bound; life is unlimited: beginning here and now and continuing beyond death into something far greater than we can imagine. Life is what God wills for creation, and we do well to ‘lay hold of the life which is life indeed’ if we are to be part of the overflow of God’s blessing.
Once again, the miracle presents a challenge. Are we living as Christians, or are we simply getting by? Elsewhere, St John writes about his desire to see people’s joy ‘made complete’ –. It’s all too easy to exist as a Christian: I can be perfectly sincere in my belief that I am a child of God, faithful in my worship of God and active as a servant of God – yet totally miss the point – that to be a Christian is to be a friend of God: an honoured guest at the feast, relishing the joy that God brings. Not a false joy which is dishonest about the pain of the world and human suffering, but a joy born of knowing that our lives are rooted in God.
And then there is the detail about the quality of the wine Jesus provided. The best was saved until last. This was unusual. As the steward of the feast pointed out, normally the best was served first, and then the cheaper stuff served afterwards, when people had drunk enough to be past caring about quality.
This points to the truth that what God provides for his people is the best. Jesus came that we might have life ‘to the full’. The quality of the wine again shows God to be committed to quality of life – it’s not that ‘the bare necessities of life will come to us’ but that the fullness of God’s blessing is there for those who live in Christ.
But there is another resonance too. We need to remember that a feast (and especially, a wedding feast) is a powerful Biblical image of the life of the world to come. The vision of ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb’ in the Book of Revelation [Rev 19.9] and the parable of the Great Feast in Luke’s Gospel [Lk 14.15-24] point beyond this world to the life which awaits us beyond the grave. The quality wine, provided by Jesus, and kept until last, is a symbol that the best is yet to be.
And here is a third challenge. What is our attitude to death? We can speak freely, it seems, in Western culture, about any subject under the sun, except death. We concoct euphemisms—'Fred has passed’—rather than speak positively about what, for the Christian, is only the end of part one, and the gateway to the best that is yet to be. The miracle is set ‘on the third day’, the day when Jesus rose – and because he rose, so shall we too. In a culture which refuses to look death in the face, we have something positive to say.
St John’s account of the wedding at Cana is packed with detail and with layer upon layer of meaning. But above all, the miracle is a sign, pointing away from itself to the God we know in Jesus Christ. And as with all the signs of the fourth gospel, they are there to reveal Jesus, ‘that we may believe that he is the Christ, the Son of God: and that through believing, we may have life in his name.’ [20.31]
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.