Sermon: The Wedding at Cana

Last week Robert and the ministry team gave me a wonderful painting for my birthday and on the back, was written some words from the Benedictine Tradition: ‘Why have you come?’  Which you might think are strange words, I mean I work here!  In the Benedictine tradition when anyone comes to join the religious community they are not given an easy time, in fact Benedict’s rule states that they should be kept outside for 4 or 5 days to see if they persevere with their knocking on the door.

Its good to hear that religious communities want to ask some difficult questions of people who want to join.  But it is also common for individuals themselves to be reluctant to respond to a sense of vocation.  Often people discerning their vocation to the priesthood say, ‘I was reluctant, but God had other plans’ and traditionally in some parts of the Church those who are asked to be Bishops decline at first as a sign of their humility.

One begins to wonder how anyone ever gets to do anything in the church with on the one hand people saying that they are reluctant and on the other hand the Church asking, ‘Why have you come?’

In the Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding – and they go because they have been invited.  The story begins with the words’ ‘On the third day’ which could mean exactly that but could also be a reference to the resurrection which took place ‘on the third day’.  This gives us a little clue to some of the ways in which we can read this story.  So I just want to share with you some of the key themes of this story to help us unpack it.

This miracle is only in John’s Gospel, it is the first of seven miracles or signs which reveal to us that Jesus is no ordinary man but is the Son of God.  That is why we have this reading in Epiphany, the season all about the revelation of Jesus to the world – the miracle at the wedding at Cana is the first sign that Jesus is not just anybody, that Jesus is divine.

 

At the end of the story we hear that Jesus did this sign, the first of his signs, and that this revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.  We, like the disciples, have come to follow Jesus maybe reluctantly, maybe feeling judged by a church which asks us why have you come here, but this miracle is the first stage on the journey – the disciples saw it and they believed in him.  So one of the key themes of this story is discipleship – that when we follow Jesus, when we begin the journey, maybe sceptically or reluctantly, God rewards us with the gift of belief.  Some more than others, but we are gifted belief.

The second important theme is the wedding.  Jesus draws on the theme of the wedding and the banquet often in his ministry.  The wedding Banquet is a sign of messianic fulfilment.  i.e. it’s a vision of the ideal community of the church, of life in heaven, of our life with God in Jesus.  The end of discipleship in this life might be suffering and death but ultimately it is the marriage feast, the banquet in heaven.

So when the waiter says ‘you have kept the good wine until now’ – it’s a proclamation of the coming of the messianic days, that Jesus is the messiah, that God has come to be among us.

And of course, the main theme is the abundance of wine.  120 gallons – that is a lot of wine.  Throughout the Old Testament one of the great signs of the Joy of God’s Kingdom is an abundance of wine.

 

So three big themes: discipleship, the disciples follow and believe, the wedding Feast as a vision of the fulfilment of God’s promises, a vision of heaven and lastly an abundance of wine, a sign of what the kingdom of God is like, filled with the abundance of God’s love.

Aside from Jesus the other key person in this story is Mary and her last recorded words in John’s Gospel:  ‘Do whatever he tells you’.  Mary can be seen as both a symbol of the Church and of the New Eve.  Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’ in this story, which always sounds a bit rude but it actually gives us a clue about who Mary is.  Just as Jesus is sometimes called the New Adam, so Mary is the New Eve in a very particular sense.  God is redeeming, saving creation and he does it through showing us a new way of being human, a new Adam and a new Eve.  Just as Mary will stand at the foot of the cross and be a sign of God’s mission after the death of Jesus so the Church is called to be a sign of God’s love in the world.

Her words ‘Do whatever he tells you’ are good advice.  Once we make the decision to follow Jesus – however reluctantly, sceptically or uncertainly we are obliged to try to live according to Jesus’ instructions.  We may fail to live according to Jesus’ advice, but we nevertheless seek to follow it because we consider ourselves to be disciples of Jesus.

So, answering the question ‘Why did you come?’ is in one sense very easy.  We came to follow Jesus.  But we know from bitter experience that in our life of discipleship we often fail, we are weak, we lack discernment, we lack judgment, we lack courage.

The story of the wedding at Cana is essentially a story about discipleship – about you and me being followers of Jesus.  And what it seems to say to me is that although we don’t have all the answers, although we are often confused or hurting, although we are often sceptical or uncertain, yet by remaining faithful disciples we open ourselves up to the free git of a mystical abundance.  Not a sufficiency but an abundance.

The abundant love symbolised by the wine at Cana prefigures the abundant love of the cross, resurrection and ascension.  This is the wonder of the glorified Christ which Fr. Benson was talking about last week – this is what the wedding Banquet and its abundance of wine represents.

What are you doing here?  Why have you come?

Do whatever he tells you.

“What Jesus did at Cana in Galilee marked the beginning of his signs; thus he revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.”

 

Amen.

Sermon for January 14th 2018: Fr. Benson Commemoration.

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Relying heavily on M.L.Smith’s essay “The theological vision of Father Benson” in “Benson of Cowley” OUP 1980

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom”

One of the joys of getting older is that you forget things far more often, but I had forgotten just how miserable January can be.  Days where it never quite gets light properly, where one struggles with some new variant of flu, where the problems and anxieties you left in the last year wake you in the night to remind you just what a mess you’ve made of things.  Positive thinking, like the cold fog, seems next to impossible.

 

So maybe it wouldn’t be your first choice to come to church today to celebrate the memory of the founder of the Cowley Fathers and first Vicar of this Church, who was once described as being made of ‘cat gut and iron’, a man who inherited much of the sober austerity of his hero Edward Pusey, a man who in one version of the story made the Cowley Fathers so gloomy and life denying that they sent him off to America so others could inject a bit of joy.

 

If that’s how you feel then its worth remembering that we don’t come here to meet people we like, we come here to meet people we are called to love – and we might end up liking them in the process – maybe.

Benson, our first vicar, is worth spending time with because he shares so many of our hopes and fears.  He once said, a very January thought I think, “Christian Dogma is often spoken of as dead and dry and indeed as men are apt to fight for it, it is dead and dry…It remains a dogma of the faith but no more like the original dogma of the faith than an empty husk that lies on the ground identical with the fruit once found upon the tree”.  Benson shares our January grumpiness.  He is also critical of the conventional concept of faith as an assent to propositions.  The divine Mystery is not mere knowledge says Benson but ‘the continuous apprehension of a continuous realty, a living receptivity’.  He goes on to say the Beatific vision will not be a stationary contemplation of a fixed form… we are called to rejoice in God’s truth as a continually progressive acquisition’.

 

And I hope by now you are warming to Benson, to his desire not to be static but to an elastic, and energised faith.  It turns out that Benson is quite Tiggerish, and invites us to some theological tiggerishness in this dark time of the year.

And as we all know The wonderful thing about tiggers / Is tiggers are wonderful things / Their tops are made out of rubber / Their bottoms are made out of springs / They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one / IIIII’m the only one!

Benson, like Tigger, is a man on the move, he has an ecstatic and dynamic understanding of human beings and this feeds all his writings.  He bemoans those whose antagonism to faith lacks ‘the clothing, the atmosphere, the elasticity, the emotions of the divine life’.  Benson is forever ‘stepping forth’, rising up or breaking bonds.

In our most gloomy January moments God seems so static, so brittle but Benson speaks of ‘the relative energy of God within himself’ – the word energy keeps coming up in his attempts to give utterance to the Divine life.  In talking about God’s creative act, God’s outpouring of himself into creation he speaks of God “Having burst the bonds of his own Divine existence”.  What an amazing thing to say – God bursting the bonds of his own divine existence, as if even God can’t keep God in – the creative energy bursts forth, it must be proclaimed, like a kind of undiluted joy.

At the heart of Benson’s thinking about God was a great devotion to the mysteries of the Ascension.  I love reading about this because I am deeply fearful of a Christian community that has so lost its elasticity, its bounce, that it has fragmented the birth of Jesus from his death and from his resurrection and ascension.  This is Benson at his most beautiful, talking about the Ascension, about Jesus’ joy in his exaltation: “His humanity rejoices to be welcomed and rewarded as the Father’s son with the infinity of eternal love flowing forth in the perfected consciousness of his human nature”.

In Baptism, in the Eucharist, in our life together in the Church we are caught up in Christ, we inhabit the space of the risen and ascended Christ.  Benson writes: “We do not, I think, dwell as we ought on the present glorification of our natures, in our own persons, as the members of the glorified body of Christ”.

It is January, it is gloomy but we are here, we are members of the glorified body of Christ.  As its my birthday indulge me by listening to this much over used quote from Thomas Merton when he, it seems, had a revelation of our common calling:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

Benson was fascinated by the 10 days between Pentecost and the Ascension – days when Benson imagined Christ moving through the nine angelic orders in an intensifying process of glorification.  Even here Benson cannot let Christ stand still, his glory is intensifying.  We are singing two of Benson’s hymns today – they don’t write them like that anymore – wow, that last verse:

“Oh the depths of Joy divine

Thrilling through those orders nine

When the lost are found again

When the banished come to reign.”

On this day when we honour Fr Benson’s memory, may we too be filled with the energy, the bounce, the elasticity, the light and the Joy of the ascended Lord, with a Spirit filled faith that recognises our salvation as rooted not in personal good works but in the grace we find in the community of the Church.  Angelic Light, illumination not of our own making but, in Fr Benson’s words, ‘an inherent participation in Divine self knowledge’.  Amen.