As we continue the journey of Lent, I think reflecting on the life of Jesus is a great way to help us finding our footing on its true meaning: learning to walk in Jesus’ steps. Because of this I want to share a series on the life of Jesus I gave earlier this year at Diversity in Faith, a Progressive Christian Alliance church in Fayetteville, NC.
Here is the fourth message in this series, “When God Brings a Keg”, which examines Jesus’ first miracle. I hope this reflection helps you learn how to embrace the ways your life, unique as it is, can be a place God becomes present in flesh in and blood for others this Lent.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Our Gospel reading comes from John 2
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12 After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
I want to begin by sharing a short video:
I can relate to this video because of my experience in college. I was a pretty strict religious guy in college… I did the whole “True Love Waits” thing, and stuck to it. And in part because of trying to stick the straight-laced faith I grew up with, and in part because of having a family member who was not just an alcoholic but at times an angry drunk when he drank, I would not really touch the stuff.
So I was that guy in the video, standing around puzzled while others partied.
Because of this, like a lot of religious folks, I found this whole story about Jesus a little embarrassing. Like many I had grown up with this picture of faith as a life of discipline, constantly working hard to do the right thing. Which usually meant sacrificing pleasure, choosing the narrow road few went by, however painful. Sacrifice. After all, didn’t Jesus call me to take up the cross.
But here we see Jesus’ first miracle, which you would think would be the one to sort of picture what his ministry and his work was all about. And what does Jesus do? Jesus goes to a party. And, as important as I still think a designated driver is, Jesus does not seem to go as one. This is why later in the Gospels when Jesus is criticized, it is for drinking and partying too hardy … unlike his cousin John the baptizer who never touched the stuff & his criticized for being too rigid. No, Jesus was known to have a drink. Here Jesus went one better: Jesus not only had a drink at the party, brought the keg. Jesus’ first miracle is bringing the keg of wine to the party. Not only is it bringing a keg, but turning the barrels of holy water, which are about the size of a beer keg, into strong wine, the kind you bring out at the beginning of the party when folks are still sober or on a light buzz, not the cheap stuff you bring out later.
In fact Jesus doesn’t bring one keg … he brings six. Six kegs of strong wine to a group of people who’ve already drunk enough.
What can we make of this? What does it teach us about our lives and our calling?
The first thing this shows me is that Jesus did not come to call us to sacrifice.
In fact Jesus tells us this in the Gospels.
Later in John, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10) and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus repeatedly says things like “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7).
I don’t know about you, but for years the opposite message is what I heard: that if you want to follow God, it means choosing suffering, choosing sacrifice. It means giving up the celebration, giving up the joy, giving up the career you love, the life your family wants. I’ve seen people sacrifice caring for themselves, for their families, in the name of this sacrifice, all because they believe that is what God asks of them.
And I don’t know about you, but I have seen the innocent condemned based on this belief that Christian life is all about sacrifice.
I remember having a man, heart-stricken, come to me as I served in a church in Los Angeles, saying “Here’s the thing, I love God, I love this church, but I also know I’m gay”. The message he had been given was that in order to please God, he had to sacrifice who he was, sacrifice his sexual orientation, be something he is not, and live without love and alone. That Jesus, not the thief, was the one who had come into life to steal, kill, and destroy who he was.
I remember seeing a young lady told she had no faith and that is why she was not healed – that her disability was a sign she was not a believer. That preacher and that church lived out sacrifice, not mercy. They taught Jesus came to steal, kill, and destroy who she was.
I am heart-broken to recall a young person struggling, feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body, having a church respond that “we don’t want someone like that here”, because they saw sacrifice, not mercy ruling the day.
I think that Jesus’ miracle shows us that God’s focus is not sacrifice. God’s call is not for us to deny who we are in order to serve God. Instead as it says in Ephesians 2, verse 10, “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do “
Turn to someone and say “You aren’t junk; no, you are God’s handiwork”
Turn to someone else and say “God doesn’t call you to deny who you are, because you were created in Christ Jesus”.
In Jesus’ first miracle, Jesus blesses the very things in our lives so often we are told to sacrifice in the name of religion. Jesus blesses celebration, pictured by the wine and the party. Jesus shows us being filled with God’s presence ought to cause you to enjoy life, to celebrate – drawing you closer to others, helping you see the joy in each moment. For some people, this might not mean lifting wine, because for them that bottle might very well be the very thing that causes them to become so broken they cannot be present in the moment, truly enjoying others, truly embracing life. I know that family member whose drinking made me decide to turn away from the bottle at one point in my life later decided that, for himself, he had to give up the bottle not to sacrifice a good, full life but in order to find it. Now after working through some of my experiences stemming from that relative’s drinking and from my own experience of legalistic religion I can have a drink from time to time in celebration. What is important is not the bottle, but the fact that Jesus is showing us that being able to drink deep of the joy and blessings in life, and doing so with others, is part and parcel of the life he brings. Our faith ought to awaken us to the depths of joy in our life. This is a part of what we have been talking about by saying that God becoming flesh and blood in Jesus not only is a promise of salvation, but a picture of what it makes possible: that in your life, however unique or seemingly ordinary, God is already breaking forth every day in big and little ways if you have eyes to see. So in you, in your every day life, God can also become flesh and blood so that through you others can find more fully the healing, the hope, and most of the joy and celebration in their own lives every day.
Also, though we often fail to notice it in this passage, Jesus is celebrating sex through this miracle. After all, what follows the wedding party but the wedding night? For many of us, we have learned from the church the opposite message – to be ashamed of our sexuality. How many gay, bisexual, or transgendered folks have heard from the church over the years that their sexuality is a curse, their love an abomination, and their relationship a pathway to hell? Even many straight couples I’ve worked withas a pastor over the years have told me stories about how mixed messages in the church calling for them to sacrifice led them to feel ashamed of their sexuality, to struggle to really celebrate intimacy with their spouse.
But in celebrating this miracle at a wedding, Jesus is blessing sex as a beautiful gift. Jesus is showing sexuality to be a beautiful gift with the power to draw people together in ways that are healing and life-giving. I thank God that this miracle is here, because we know so little about Jesus’ own sexuality.
Turn to someone and say, Who you love is a gift. Love can never be an abomination.
In her book Christ the Lord: the Road to Cana, Ann Rice imagines this scene as being the marriage of a young lady that Jesus had been smitten with to someone else, and coming after Jesus, having confronted his own sexuality, chooses to forsake marriage for a life of singleness, because he knows that, headed to the cross, he cannot be there for a wife or children. This is the traditional understanding of how Jesus expresses his sexuality: by choosing a life of singleness. Yet some scholars point toward some writings in the early church that suggest Jesus might have had a wife, as other rabbis did, to suggest Jesus was married. Still others point to the text at the end of John where Jesus entrusts his mother into the hands of the beloved disciple, traditionally the apostle John, as a sign that Jesus was bisexual or gay and had a loving partnership with another man.
The Bible is not very clear on whether Jesus was single, was straight and married, or gay or bisexual and in a committed same-sex relationship. I think the reason why is that any of these paths can be paths of holiness, where we allow God to become flesh and blood in our lives. By not telling us clearly which path Jesus is on the Bible makes room for us to imagine each of these paths as paths in which God can be made flesh in our world. Being single can be a way we experience our sexuality, and do so in a way that is healing and life-giving if we are ones called, whether for a time or for life, to singleness. Straight couples can and do reflect the life and love of Christ when they let Christ-like love rule their relationships. And I have seen so, so many same-gender couples whose sexuality is turned into a portrait of the love of Christ in how they allow their sexuality to help them find true, deep meaningful love through which they build a life together that reflects the life of Christ.
This means that following Christ does not mean denying who you are in terms of your sexuality. Instead it means accepting it, whatever it is, and asking not how can I get rid of this but instead how can I be true to this in a way that reflects the love of Christ? There are a few people who, like Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, will determine the best way for them to be true to who they are in Christ is to be single, whether for the moment or long-term. Most others will find Christ showing them how their sexuality can be a gift which binds them together with others, in relationships whether same-gender or opposite-gender, that call out the best of who they are and help them learn how to love another selflessly as Christ loves us and gave his life for us.
Turn to someone and say Love can never be an abomination, because the Bible says against love there is no law.
In closing, I want to ask you to listen to the words of a Bon Jovi song, which illustrate the central truth of this passage to us.