Book of Signs:
This week our lesson is from the second chapter of the Gospel of John. Our lesson for today begins the section of John’s Gospel that scholars often call The Book of Signs because it recounts seven significant miracles of Jesus. The second half of the Gospel of John gives the passion narrative, and there are no miracles in that section until the resurrection. Because there are so many stylistic differences between the two parts of the Gospel some scholars believe that the Book of Signs was originally a separate document that was edited several times over the years. The original version of the Book of Signs may be as old or older than the Gospel of Mark, but there is no scholarly consensus on this. It is final form, the Book of Signs is preparation for the Book of Glory, and it foreshadows the events later in the Gospel.
There are seven wonderful deeds of Jesus in the Book of Signs, far fewer than in Mark’s gospel where Jesus does numerous healings, exorcisms, and similar miracles. In John, Jesus turns water into wine, heals the son of an official, heals a lame man, feeds the 5000, walks on water, heals a blind man, and raises Lazarus from the dead. Most of these miracles have parallels in the other gospels but they are told in much more detail in John. The only miracle that is basically the same in all four gospels is the feeding of the 5000. The one miracle that appears only in John is the one we will discuss this morning, turning water into wine, both of which recall Holy Communion.
I keep calling these wonderful deeds “miracles” but John always calls them “signs,” and that gives us a clue to interpreting these stories. John’s Gospel itself claims that Jesus did many wonderful things, but these stories have been told been told so that the reader will believe in him as the Son of God. In other words, the author of the Gospel informs us that these were symbolic actions that point beyond the physical details of the event to deeper insights into the nature of God and Christ. In a sense, these signs function like the sacraments. They were physical manifestations of the grace of God. The narrative invites us to become part of the story and experience the nature of Christ. Each sign is intended to lead us into deeper contemplation of the Word of God made flesh. It is probably not an accident that there are seven signs in the Book of Signs. Seven is the number of perfection and creation. The Gospel begins with references to the Book of Genesis and here there are seven signs to remind us that Jesus is the New Creation.
After calling his first disciples and teaching them, Jesus travels to his home in Galilee and attends a wedding. This is one of those details in John’s gospel that I really like, and it reminds us that Jesus participated in the normal aspects of his society. In the 15th century, the Moravian Church’s rules were rather Puritanical. Members were forbidden to have big celebrations, including weddings. The elders of the church moderated these rules a little when the younger generation opened the Gospel of John and pointed out that Jesus himself went to the wedding at Cana. Not only did he not condemn the proceedings, he provided the wine.
This story has always bothered those who want to turn Christianity into a dour and ascetical religion of constant self-denial. One of the first things Jesus does with the former disciples of John is to take them to a banquet. This puts into narrative Jesus’ statement in the synoptics that the disciples of John fasted but the disciples of Jesus did not. Why should the guests fast when the Bridegroom is with them? Though this story does not gives us license for drunkenness and wanton extravagance, we do need to recognize that the first public act of Jesus, according to John, was to go to a wedding! John tells us that Jesus’ ministry is in the world – at wells and in the market place. That is where the Christian message is needed and where Christians should be.
Good Wine Last:
John includes another little detail that rings true to our experience. The master of the feast says that people always serve the good wine first and then you serve the bad wine. The early guests were the most honored and wealthiest, so they got the good wine. Those who arrived late were those who could not afford time off from their labors or who were less honored by the family. Today, we still want to start with a good impression so that people will not notice when you start serving them vinegar instead of wine. You always put the bruised apples in the bottom of the bushel, don’t you? This is one of those realistic touches in John’s Gospel that is delightful, but we should not use this verse in the Bible to justify our actions. This little conversation with Jesus communicates an important lesson. Jesus gives the best wine last when all the guests have arrived. Jesus overturns the normal order of things by showering all of the people with good things. Again, we have some of the most profound teachings of Jesus given in a narrative form in John. The last shall be first.
Whose Wedding is this?
Scholars have long wondered whose wedding this was and why Jesus’ mother was there. Some have speculated that it was one of the close relatives of Mary. Others think it was probably a relative of one of the new disciples, perhaps Nathanael or Philip. That would explain why Jesus left immediately for Galilee after hooking up with these guys. Dan Brown, like some of the old Cathars, argues that this was Jesus’ wedding to Mary Magdalene. Frankly, I think that is rather silly since even the Jewish opponents of the Christians never challenged the tradition that Jesus was single. The Catholic Church had enough trouble trying to repress the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters; it is unlikely they could have hidden a wife. The fact of the matter is that we do not who was getting married at Cana. All we know is that Jesus was an invited guest, not the groom at Cana.
Out of Wine:
I go to a lot of weddings, and weddings are a big deal these days. I’m sure you know that weddings are social events as well as family events. This was even more true in Jesus’ day when ordinary people had few occasions for feasts. Based on Jewish sources, we think that weddings typically lasted seven days, beginning on a Wednesday. Preparations took months, and a family’s social status was determined in part by how well they handled the wedding. Running out of food or wine was a very bad thing because it indicated a lack of generosity, poor planning, or simply lack of money. It could also indicate that your guests were not very generous, since wine was one of the expected wedding gifts. At least one scholar has suggested that the reason Mary tells Jesus that they’ve run out of wine was to rebuke him and his friends for coming to a wedding without bringing a gift! I doubt that was intended in the story, but it does make an interesting picture. Having been in charge of pot-luck dinners in seminary, I have noticed that single men tend to bring far less food to a dinner than they consume there.
The main point, of course, is that the wine had run out, which meant that the wedding feast would not last the full seven days. Mary’s terse statement that they had run out of wine would have sent chills down the spines of the original readers of this Gospel. The joyous occasion could have turned to embarrassment and recriminations, the way weddings sometimes do. Symbolically, the New Creation represented by a wedding would fall short of perfection. Notice that Mary does not appear to be asking Jesus for anything. It is a simple statement of fact that was laden with meaning.
Much to the chagrin of many conservative Protestants, wine in the OT is a symbol of divine abundance and blessing. I don’t see how anyone can claim to be a biblical literalist and a prohibitionist at the same time, but people do. Unfortunately, in dogmatically opposing the idea of wine, they miss the symbolism of the Kingdom of God being a realm of abundance and joy. The promised land was to be covered with vineyards, and clusters of grapes would yield much juice. One of the dominant images in Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time of Jesus was that of the wedding banquet for God’s people when once the Messiah rules. In Jewish thought, Israel was the bride and God was the groom, and the messianic age was the celebration of the wedding, and wine was the symbol of spiritual abundance.
This miracle, then, is more than transforming water into wine; it is a revelation of Jesus as the true Messiah, the one who brings in the joyous kingdom of God. This helps explain Jesus’ curious response to his mother. “Woman, what is this to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus was not being rude to his mother, by the way, even though this was not a typical way for a son to address his mother. The NIV tries to soften this by saying “dear woman,” even though that is not what the text says.
Raymond Brown proposes that the use of word woman without any kind of article was intentional. It connects Mary to two key figures in Jewish literature. The first is the woman in Genesis 3 who was tempted by the serpent. The second is the woman clothed in the Sun in apocalyptic literature. We see here how early in the history of Christianity that Mary becomes a symbolic figure who connects the story of the fall with the story of redemption and the consummation of the work of Christ. Catholic scholars tend to elevate the role of Mary in this story, but her role is similar to that of John the Baptist in John’s Gospel. She connects the old covenant and the new one. She points to Jesus and tells others to do as Jesus commands. Oddly enough, she is never called by name in this Gospel. We’ll return to that fact in a latter lesson.
Hour has Not Yet Come:
Why, then, would John show Jesus trying to put his mother off by saying that this was none of their concern? Part of the answer may be simply that this is historically accurate. Someone remembered that Jesus was reluctant to do anything at a wedding that would draw attention to himself. It is not surprising that the Synoptics ignored this miracle story since it is different from the all the others. Jesus is not healing anyone or feeding the hungry here. He is not battling unclean spirits or making the seas obey him. He is simply providing wine for a wedding feast. So perhaps, he was reluctant to use his powers this way.
There is another possibility, though. He says that his hour has not yet come. In John’s Gospel, this phrase refers to the hour of his crucifixion. For John, the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion was the hour of his glory, as we shall see. That was the moment when the Messiah was lifted up and the New Creation began. This reference to the Hour at the beginning of the Gospel is a foreshadowing of the events to come, and it connects this wedding feast with the crucifixion. The reason Jesus was reluctant to produce wine was because the work of redemption was just beginning. The true wine of the marriage supper of the Lamb would come after the crucifixion and resurrection.
We will see that throughout John’s gospel he uses the language and imagery of Holy Communion in unexpected places. There is no account of Jesus sharing bread and wine with the disciples at the Last Supper in John. Instead, we have allusions to communion through the book, and I suspect that is the case with chapter 2. The miracle at Cana parallels the more famous miracle of the feeding of the 5000. Here wine, there bread. In both cases, there is an amazing abundance for all. Those with Jesus receive “grace upon grace.” In John’s Gospel, the ministry of Jesus begins with wine and feasting, and communion is connected with the joy of a wedding. Communion is the celebration of the nuptials of the church and her Bridegroom, a foretaste of the eschatological banquet and a sharing in the extravagant love of God.
Jars of Water:
This theme that Jesus is establishing a new messianic age is also seen in detail about the six stone water jars, which were used for ceremonial washings. These were large stone cisterns that held 20 or 30 gallons of water. That’s a lot of water for washing. Some have referred to the wine Jesus made as bathtub wine as if it were bathtub gin from the 1920s, but the context of this miracle was different from the 1920s. It is an important detail, though, that this water was intended for purification rituals. These jars were reserved for religious purposes connected to Judaism. The transformation of the water into wine was symbolic of the transformation of the old covenant or purity and law into the new covenant of grace and abundance. The contrast between the old ways and the New Creation is evident in John’s Gospel. They have no more wine. The old law; the old priesthood; the old temple; the old covenant has run dry according to John, but Jesus transforms the situation. The old covenant was not rejected by Jesus; it was transformed into something more.
It is also possible that John wanted the reader to make a connection between Jesus’ action and the miracle that Moses performed before Pharaoh when he turned water into blood in the stone jars that sat in Pharaoh’s court. That was a miracle foretelling of death and judgment, but Jesus’ miracle was at a wedding, a symbol of life and new creation. The connection between the blood in Egypt and the wine at Cana was probably intentional as well since it is consistent with John’s use of Passover imagery to discuss the Eucharist.