|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
January 20, 2019
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Multiplying Our Joy
If it seems like more than a coincidence that our gospel this weekend featured Jesus at a wedding party, you’re right – but not for the reason you might think. We didn’t pick this story to fit the celebration we had here last night, but the other way around. We threw our marriage celebration on the weekend when the Church remembers the greatest wedding reception in history. And while we didn’t need any extra wine last night, I am absolutely certain that the Spirit of Jesus was blowing through Roper Hall and blessing every last one of us.
As much as I love this story, and as perfect as it has been for us to hear this weekend, it’s a funny sort of miracle, isn’t it? One would think Jesus might choose to make his big “Son of God” reveal in a slightly, well, more “Jesus-y” way – healing diseases, or feeding the hungry, or raising the dead. By comparison, turning water into wine seems a bit, well, trivial. I mean, would it have been such a big deal if Jesus hadn’t turned that water into wine? Sure, there may have been some disappointed guests, but no one would have died, no one would have remained lame or blind or diseased for the rest of her life.
Actually, you might be surprised to learn about two very different groups of people who both agree that there’s actually no miracle to this miracle, at all. This is, perhaps, the only time in history when Unitarian Universalists and conservative Evangelicals agree on a Biblical interpretation. Both groups believe that everyone just “thought” they were tasting wine, but weren’t actually – the Unitarians, because they’re not big on miracles, and the conservative Evangelicals, because obviously Jesus would never make wine in the first place!
I think they may both be missing the point, which is not actually about the act of water becoming wine. It’s what it event points to that matters. That’s why John doesn’t use the word “miracle” to describe Jesus’ incredible displays of power; John calls them “signs.” The point is not the water turning into wine, but it is a “sign” of who Jesus is and what he’s up to in the world.
Now, I could share with you a whole bunch of exhaustive Biblical exegesis that goes into all the layers of this sign, because there’s a lot going on here. And it being Jesus’ first miracle and all, Christians have spent quite a lot of time thinking about it over the centuries. But this weekend, of all weekends, I’m focused on just one: joy. This is a sign that the mission of Jesus is not only about healing and forgiveness and reconciliation; it is also about joy. It’s about giving us a sense, a hint, a taste, if you will, of what the joyful life in the Kingdom of God is really like.
Now, that Kingdom-sized joy obviously begins with the couple, who go sadly unnamed in the story. When Jesus transforms the water into wine, he not only spares them an embarrassing scandal, one that would almost certainly have been the subject of cruel gossip in Cana for years, but he also heightens their joy. Jesus helps them launch into life together with the most famous wedding reception in history. He is concerned, it would seem, not only with the couple fulfilling their vows, but also with the quality of their life together.
When the Episcopal marriage service was revised for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the opening of the rite was changed to include a description of the purposes of marriage. Not so long ago, this list would have begun with the procreation of children, or even the help given one another in prosperity and adversity. And we also know that for much of history the purpose was primarily the joining of two families for social, political, or financial advantage. But now, before anything else is named, our Episcopal marriage liturgy proclaims that the “union of two people in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy.” Joy is a purpose of marriage. The couple that day in Cana knew joy, I guarantee, and those of us who are blessed to be married need to remember to ask God to give us more than peace or prosperity or even progeny, but joy.
The joy at the wedding feast was not limited to the couple, however. There were many guests from all over, and Jesus was interested in their joy, too. If not, he could have transformed just the water in the cups of the bride and groom. But Jesus wanted everyone there that day to taste something of the goodness of life, to delight in something indescribable and lovely, and to feel their souls elevated beyond their circumstances. Those of us who were here last night understand this well, because we who were witnesses to the ones renewing their vows were blessed with an almost indescribable joy. It filled our own proverbial wedding tent and touched every last one of us.
But we should also think of the guests in the story of the wedding at Cana as symbols and signs of the Church, too. As Christians, we’re all inside the wedding tent, gathered at the party, and Jesus longs for us to know and taste joy. Now, by the appearances of too many churchgoers out there, one could easily come to the conclusion that joy has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian life. There’s so much seriousness and solemnity in our religion, not to mention all the anxiety too many Christians feel about who’s in and who’s out. But when he kicked off his preaching and teaching ministry, Jesus did it at a party where he gladdened the hearts of everyone present, and he’s been trying to gladden all our hearts ever since. After all, he says he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
My hope is that you feel like your participation in our community is a source of joy, because that would mean you’re really experiencing the presence of the Giver of Joy in our midst. Joy should be a hallmark for our identity, something we talk about when people ask us why we’re Christian or why we are part of Transfiguration. Being together, being here, should feel something like what it felt like that day in Cana, gathered inside the tent and having a cup of joy set before us.
But it goes beyond the ones in the tent. Because Jesus didn’t make just enough wine for the people who were there. Jesus doesn’t know the words “just enough.” The story says he transformed six jars of water, each containing about 20 or 30 gallons, which means that the party suddenly had somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. To put that into perspective, that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-700 bottles of wine. That’s a lot of wine for a wedding party in a town so small it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the entire Bible. And remember, this isn’t just any old wine. It was so good it startled the steward.
So Jesus had in mind more than just the people who happened to be at the party already; he had in mind all sorts of people who didn’t yet even know there was a party! Just a few months later he would tell in a parable, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son… [and the king said] to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests (Matt 22:1-10).”
In The Brothers Karamazov, a saintly old priest named Father Zossima dies and a young man named Alyosha goes to pray at his coffin. After a time, Aloysha falls asleep, and he has a vision of the wedding at Cana, and Father Zossima is there at the party. Father Zossima calls out to Alyosha, “Why have you hidden yourself here, out of sight? You come and join us too…we are making merry,” he says, “we are drinking the new wine, the wine of [a] new and great joy.” Then he calls Alyosha to look at Jesus. “He is changing the water into wine…He is expecting new guests, he is calling new ones unceasingly for ever and ever.”
My friends, the joy of Cana’s wedding feast has spread and grown and multiplied, from the moment Jesus first transformed those six jars of ordinary water into 180 gallons of the choicest wine. The one who gave that sign is inviting everyone to the banquet, because he wants all of us to taste in the extravagant joy of the Kingdom. And he doesn’t make “just enough” for some; he creates so much that there is plenty for everyone to have a taste. His table is always getting longer, and he is ready to set a glass of his own life in front of everyone. That’s just who he is and what he’s always up to. Which means it’s up to us to share in his joy and echo his invitation, so that this whole wide world would come to realize that we’re all actually inside that wedding tent.
 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans C. Garnett (New York: Heritage, 1949)p 278-9. I am indebted to H. Stephen Shoemaker’s Godstories: New Narratives from Sacred Texts (Judson Press: Valley Forge, 1998), p 213, for the connection to this gospel story.