“Faith seeking understanding.”[i] A sermon for Epiphany 3 on John 2.5. January 22, 2012. Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Berke. All rights reserved.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs,…and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”[ii] May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Often what people remember most about weddings is what went wrong. People may not remember exactly what the bride wore, but if there’s a mishap they will talk about for years. Once I was at a wedding where the bride and groom left in a horse-drawn carriage. Very romantic. Except, that the driver was drunk, the horse bolted, and the carriage overturned. The newly weds were unhurt, but their disaster has become a legend among their family and friends. Imagine another wedding disaster: you lift your glass for a toast but there’s no wine to fill it. That’s what happened at the wedding at Cana described in today’s gospel. In first-century Palestine, it was usual for the groom to provide the wine for the wedding banquet. How embarrassed this groom and his family must have felt, when their guests had no wine. The villagers would have joked about it for years: “Going to his house for dinner? You’d better bring your own wine!”
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was probably invited to this wedding because she was related either to the bride or to the groom. She would have shared in her family’s embarrassment. Mary pointed out this problem to Jesus, “They have no wine.”[iii] Note that Mary didn’t say, “You provide the guests with wine.” Jesus replied, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”[iv] Jesus’ words sound at best, abrupt, and at worst, rude. Commentators have devised some ingenious excuses for the apparent rudeness of Jesus’ reply. We have no way of knowing his tone of voice or his intention. Whatever Mary’s feelings may have been, her response was action. She said to the servants, “do whatever he tells you.”[v] She didn’t say, “fill the jars with water.” She didn’t know how Jesus would help. But she believed that Jesus could help. Mary believed in Jesus’ power without knowing how he would use it. Mary had “faith seeking understanding”.[vi] “Faith seeking understanding”.[vii] That’s how Anselm of Canterbury described a Christian’s searching faith.
If you run out of wine at a party, the obvious solution is to send out for more. But Jesus seldom did the obvious thing. Instead of sending out to the wine shop for more wine, he told the servants to fill the water jars to the top. Jesus used what was already there. This is similar to the way Jesus fed the 5,000. He didn’t send the people away to buy more food, as the disciples suggested. Jesus used what was already there: five loaves of bread and two fishes. If we ask for God’s help, we may imagine that God might work in some extraordinary, spectacular way. But often God simply uses something ordinary which is already there. In the same way, God uses what is already there in ordinary people. At the wedding feast at Cana, the water jars were already there, simply waiting to be filled up to the brim. When the steward tasted the wine, he exclaimed, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”[viii] The steward’s practical observation describes what we still do today. But keeping the best wine until last is a reversal of our usual way of doing things. Jesus often turned usual customs upside down. The best wine appearing last is also symbolic, as St. John shows that the new wine of the Gospel is better than any previous revelations of God’s glory. The steward did not know where the good wine had come from. Yet the servants who had followed Jesus’ command did know the source of the good wine. These humble servants knew more than their superior, the steward.
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs…and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”[ix] The disciples believed in him because Jesus “revealed his glory”. They did not believe in him because of the physical miracle of turning water into wine. We tend to view this story from a 21st century scientific perspective. In scientific terms, an experiment reveals a truth if it can be replicated independently by other researchers. Unfortunately, turning water into wine is not an experiment that has been successfully repeated. The word St. John uses to describe this transformation is not “miracle” but “sign”. This transformation was a sign that revealed Jesus’ glory. This sign revealed a reality beyond anything the disciples had ever experienced. Like Mary earlier, the disciples didn’t know the full extent of Jesus’ glory, but they believed in his power. The disciples had “faith seeking understanding”.[x]
St. John uses the word “to believe” nearly a hundred times in this gospel. When Jesus turned the water into wine, this was a sign that “revealed his glory”[xi]. Then the disciples believed in him in a more profound and more intense way than before. Notice that John doesn’t use “belief”, the noun form of this word. Instead, John uses “to believe”, the verb form. This active form of the word emphasises that “to believe” involves action, not merely agreeing to a set of statements. Believing is not passive, but active. For example: Mary notices the wine has run out. She points out this problem to Jesus. She gives orders to the servants. As well as being active, for Christians, “to believe” is not unchanging, but grows. Only as the disciples followed Jesus, did they gradually grow to understand that he was the Son of God. Although we state what we believe in the Creed, this is not our complete and final understanding of God. We are always discovering more about God. Our believing is not static, but dynamic. Our believing is a life of energy and growth.
Why do we, as Christians, believe in God’s power? We do not believe because we have seen physical miracles, such as Jesus turning water into wine. We do not believe because our knowledge of God’s power is complete. Even St. Paul, who had a life-changing vision of heaven, wrote, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am known.”[xii] We believe in God without fully knowing God. Ours is a “faith seeking understanding.” Like Mary, we believe that God can help, even though we don’t know exactly how He will help. It is through our actions, by doing God’s will, without fully knowing God’s plan, that we glimpse God’s power and come to believe in Him. Jesus says to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”[xiii] AMEN.
[i] “fides quaerens intellectum” –Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) quoted in McGrath, Alister, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell 1994) p 43
[ii] John 2.11
[iii] John 2.3
[iv] John 2.4
[v] John 2.5
[vi] “fides quaerens intellectum” –Anselm of Canterbury quoted in McGrath, op. cit.
[vii] “fides quaerens intellectum” –Anselm of Canterbury quoted in McGrath ,op. cit.
[viii] John 2.10
[ix] John 2.11
[x] “fides quaerens intellectum” –Anselm of Canterbury quoted in McGrath, op. cit.
[xi] John 2.11
[xii] I Cor. 13.12
[xiii] John 20.29