Eucharist Sermon - 24 January 2021

The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Revelation 19:6–10; John 2:1–11

The Revd Canon Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity
The Work of Faith

God is at work. That is the basis for Christian faith. It is not any simple belief that God exists. The existence of some remote super being would help no one to act in this world with religious conviction and courage. And we are going to need a great deal of conviction and courage as we emerge from the tunnel of this pandemic into whatever we have to face as a human race. Faith moves out from an acceptance that the God we worship created everything and has not abandoned that creation to its own devices, but is involved intimately with every aspect of it. God is at work, not just as Creator but Redeemer, and our faith works with that work. We are part of that ongoing work. If, in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have an account of God who plants, tends, cultivates and shepherds, then we who are made in the image and likeness of God are called to plant, tend, cultivate and shepherd. This is part of a prayer by the 4th century poet and theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus:

All the expectation and pain of the world coalesces in You [Lord].
All things utter a prayer to You,
a silent hymn composed by You.
You sustain everything that exists,
and all things move together to Your orders.

Part of what Gregory is pointing to here is that the work of God in creation and redemption, and our work of faith with that working, is knit together through endless and ongoing intercession: the intercession of all things for each other in “a silent hymn” that both ascends to God in worship and descends from God in a grace that “sustain[s] everything.”

It is a wonderful vision of divine goodness given, returned and received anew throughout the created orders. God, as I said is at work, and Christian faith is founded upon this. It is exactly at this point, though, that faith hits what marathon runners call the Wall. The Wall comes maybe 18 miles into the marathon. It’s where pain and exhaustion are most acute and self-confidence in completing just ebbs away. It’s a version of the Wall that we are all facing when we sit before the news. There’s just no getting round nearly 100,000 dead. There’s no getting round distressing details of the trauma of what is going on in hospitals up and down the country, the immense fears of those who are sick, of those in enforced comas, of those who are helplessly looking on (often from a distance) as someone who is loved and part of the social fabric of life struggles to survive. There is no getting round the Wall. We are living in the face of it. We are having to absorb its horror and somehow find the strength to continue, in isolation, battling our own emotional exhaustion, lack of concentration, lack of motivation, and the irritability with ourselves that makes us short-tempered. We are all gasping to be free, to be on the other side of all this.

When we listen to our Gospel reading this morning of a wedding in Cana and Christ turning the water into wine; when we hear about the first ‘sign’ that Jesus Christ as God is working with us to redeem all things creation - this is difficult. Because, despite the roll out of the vaccination the death toll and devastation we face, nationally and globally, is ferocious. This looks nothing like healing. This looks nothing like the good news Jesus Christ is supposed both to bring and perform. Where we are is no wedding. For many it seems like an endless funeral with continual grave-digging, cremations, and bereavement. The tears well-up; the pain is real. Unless we bury our heads and live our piety is some flamingo, fluffy clouds, we have to taste the ashes here, accompany those who cry, testify before God the appalling things we are being forced to  witness, if we are fortunate, or experience, if we are not so fortunate.

But I want to point to two significant gaps in the account of that wedding at Cana that do not resolve anything in our struggle, but may help us to read the passage differently. And in reading it differently, we may glimpse something of what we are called to do as we encounter the Wall. This first gap is between Jesus and his mother. The wine has run out. She comes to him and is, basically, rebuffed: “Woman, what concern is that to you or me. My time has not yet come.” And yet, despite this fairly astonishing reply, Mary turns to the servants and says “Do whatever he tells you.” The story breaks down here. It’s as though something happened off stage, behind the scenes, and we are given no clue whatsoever as to what went on. Did Christ change his mind? Was this a test of Mary’s faith? We don’t know. We only know the results: presto – water is turned into wine. The second gap is equally surprising and equally inexplicable. If this is Christ’s first major statement of who he is and what his redemptive work is all about, then not only does it take place in a tiny village in the Judean uplands, but none of the main players at the wedding feast know anything about it. The steward, the bride, the bridegroom, the wedding guests all remain ignorant of the sign. Only the servants know what has happened, and Mary. As a PR exercise, it’s hard to understand who are the target audience here. Again, something is taking place that we have no access to as readers and there’s no explanation from the narrator about exactly what this is.

As I said, my pointing to these two gaps in the story doesn’t resolve anything. It certainly doesn’t inject good news (in any way we might understand good news) into our own situation with the pandemic. And yet these inexplicable gaps both concern the redemptive work of God in creation. If they point up our ignorance about how salvation operates in the world, then our ignorance is not the final word. The final word returns us to Gregory of Nazianzus. Our ignorance, in faith, demands prayer: prayer that we might see, prayer that we might understand, prayer that grace be given and received. If nothing else (and what can we actually do in this pandemic beyond staying at home and mentally somersaulting within ourselves?) prayer is demanded of us, continually. Intercession is demanded of us, continually. Our Christian faith is based on God at work among us. Our final appeal is to the grace of God that we might understand: that we might be given the strength to seek understanding as we go through the Wall; that the church might be Christ in this world ravaged by the pandemic. Before God, who continues to work and “sustain everything that exists”, we are that poor father in Mark’s Gospel, desperate for Jesus to help his son: “Lord, help thou my unbelief.” Then the son was healed. We need to call down grace. There’s no other way of coping with this.