One of the stops we made early on in our pilgrimage was in the village of Cana, at the church built on top of the church built on top of the church built on top of the site where it is thought that this wedding, and Jesus’ first miracle, took place. (The Holy Land is like that—churches all the way down.) The narrow streets leading up to the church are lined with shops and vendors selling what they call “First Miracle Gifts” and “Miracle Wine.”
Today’s gospel is most commonly referred to as “Jesus’ First Miracle,” but more significantly it is his first public act in the Gospel of John. It is his coming out party. (First Miracle rolls off the tongue a little more smoothly than “first public act of ministry” and certainly sounds better than “first sign,” although “sign” is the term John uses.) Consider the first public acts of ministry of the other evangelists. Taken together, they help us understand more fully what God is up to in sending his Son to redeem the world.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ first act in his public ministry is the Sermon on the Mount. For Mark, it is an exorcism of an unclean spirit in the synagogue. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ first public act of ministry is going into the synagogue, reading from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor, and announcing that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is one of my favorite passages from the Gospels and we hardly ever hear it on a Sunday because it always coincides with our celebration of St. Paul. (Next week maybe I’ll preach on Paul and this passage from Luke.)
What does this first act of ministry in John’s gospel reveal to us about the Word made flesh?
* This story follows John’s prologue, and is an illustration of the “grace upon grace” that is God’s love revealed in the Word made flesh.
* Jesus performs this sign at the wedding where he is only a guest, not the host, and yet he functions as host, not just to the wedding guests, but to all.
* Jesus performs this sign at a wedding, not a religious service or some nondescript banquet, but a wedding—a normal event in the lives of normal humans that is a celebration of relationship and a promise of new life. This is the promise that the water jars, turned into wine, hold for all people. Grace upon grace.
* Jesus’ turning water into wine—not just any wine but the best wine—is a sign of extravagant generosity in response to emptiness and need.
When you run out of things, you get desperate. Desperation is relative, of course, but like so many desperate situations, running out of wine creates an opportunity for grace upon grace. When we run out of anything—whether it’s wine, water, housing, heat, food, hope, companionship, a sense of direction, what have you—when we run out of something we count on, there is a space for God to enter. And God often enters in disruptive ways we don’t expect.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the world honors this week, was a disruptive force. In an era empty of dignity and hope for people of color, Dr. King disrupted norms and expectations, calling for justice and resistance. “There comes a time,” he wrote, “when the cup of endurance runs over, and people are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”1
The collect we pray in honor of Dr. King includes this prayer:
Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet…, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This Gospel of Jesus Christ that King knew is a gospel of grace upon grace, of God’s intervention in moments of emptiness and dryness. In this gospel, justice does not keep silent, and hope will not remain empty.
Sometimes, certainly in times like ours, it is hard to see God’s grace, hard to discern God’s intervention. We pilgrims had a lot of conversations in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem about how to find hope. Wherever we are, we can find hope and bear hope in small actions and big questions, in conversations with people suffering under the yoke of injustice, and in finding our own voices to speak up and say: They have no wine.
* * *
In any tour of the Holy Land, there is a lot of talk about whether something actually happened in the spot where a particular shrine was built, or whether it happened at all. What many of us learned is that God’s grace upon grace is no more present in a particular spot or a particular stone water jar, than it is in the journey, in encounter with the other, in the emptiness and longing that each one of us brings to holy places and holy interactions. It is these interactions that can happen for each of us, wherever we are—that promise God’s intervening grace upon grace.
I’m going to close with a poem from Mary Oliver, whose death we grieve this week. (We’ll have a copy for you on the way out if you want it.) It’s called Logos.
Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands.
If you say them with love
and the felt ferocity of that love
and the felt necessity of that love,
the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speaking,
and don’t worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy.
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word
spoken with love.
1 Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963