Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison, 20/01/2019
John 2: 11: ‘So Jesus performed at Cana-in-Galilee the first of the signs which revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.’ Well you would do, wouldn’t you? If you met someone who could do something like that right before your eyes, and there was no possibility that it was some sort of conjuring trick but rather that here was a person with command over the elements of God’s creation, you would believe in him.
You would believe in in him, not just because he can do something impressive – dreadful people can do impressive things – but because in turning water to wine Jesus demonstrates divine power over creation. And he does so in a way that expresses love: love for the mother who draws the need to his attention.; love for the unnamed couple whose wedding day might be spoiled; love for a crowd of guests, his own disciples included: ‘So Jesus performed at Cana-in-Galilee the first of the signs which revealed his glory and led his disciples to believe in him.’
Yet something that puzzles me. John has already told us in the first chapter of his Gospel Jesus had already attracted disciples – followers, pupils. Why then are we told that when he performed this sign, when he turned water into wine and kept the wedding party on track, that this led his disciples ‘to believe in him’?
Didn’t they believe in him already? If not, why were they following him and why were they described as his disciples? We are told, Andrew, having previously met with Jesus, had sought out Simon Peter, his brother, to inform him, ‘we have found the Messiah.’ (1: 41) Nathaniel, when introduced to Jesus by Philip, heard what Jesus had to say, responding with a declaration: ‘you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel’. Isn’t that enough believing? Yet, as we have heard in this morning’s reading, when Jesus performed the first of these signs that revealed his glory it ‘led his disciples to believe in him.’
As I ponder that conundrum three things come to mind. You shouldn’t be surprised that three things come to mind – this is a sermon, after all! The first thing that comes to mind is that there is room within the company of those who follow Jesus for those who don’t believe. We don’t know which disciples came to belief at that wedding party. Were Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathaniel amongst those who now came to faith? Perhaps, but by the time the wedding day came around others had tagged on to this new group of people following Jesus; people whose understanding and commitment was more limited.
In recent years, we have begun to rethink, in the light of experience, the process by which people come to faith in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Until relatively recently we worked with a model that assumed that people came to faith somehow, perhaps through some evangelistic event, where the message ‘clicked’ and as a result they started coming along to church. Asking people who have made a public declaration of their Christian faith how they come to that point reveals a different story as far as most of them are concerned. The process seems more often to flow in the opposite direction. Generally, people don’t come to faith and so come to church; people come into the life of the church and then come to faith. My bet is that this is the way things worked for most of us who are here in this church building today.
That makes sense in the context of this verse from John’s Gospel. People were attracted to Jesus and what he said and did, but they were not yet personally committed to him either as ‘messiah’ or as ‘Son of God’. For such people this sign, this change of water to wine, was a significant moment in the process of a change that had been taking place in their lives. Indeed, it was so significant it was worthy of explicit mention by John, that they came to ‘believe in him’.
It also makes sense then, today, that every church congregation ought to contain people who do not believe, for within fellowships like this one those who do not yet believe can have the opportunity to discover the things they need to do in order to come to belief. In fact, if this congregation does not contain non-believers then it is time to get worried, for how else do we expect significant numbers of people to come to belief? Some people love to tell me, ‘you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’. Usually I reply, ‘and you don’t have to be a Christian to go to church’; today, I feel I’ve been saying the right thing.
So, firstly, there is room in the church for those who do not believe. Secondly, there is always room for those who do believe to believe differently. One of the implications of Jesus attracting a group of followers who were at different stages of belief and who came from different backgrounds is that there must be room in a church for people to believe differently.
Some years ago, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I attended the Queen’s University of Belfast, I was having a conversation with a fellow student. In those days, as today to a large extent, many young people from Protestant backgrounds did not meet or make friends with Roman Catholics until after they had emerged from the de facto segregated schooling system. My friend was (and still is) a committed Roman Catholic Christian, and she was telling me that she had been to an ecumenical event – daring for the time – where a Protestant clergyman had been preaching on this Gospel passage where Jesus turns water into wine. When I asked what she thought about the sermon – Irish Presbyterians always want to know what you think about the sermon – she shared with me her shock at what had been said, or not said: ‘Trevor’, she told me, ‘you won’t believe it, but not once – not once! – did he make any mention of the fact that Jesus performed this sign because his mother, Mary, asked him to do so.’
How many of us, I wonder, have given great thought to the importance of the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in getting her son, Jesus, to do something about the wine crisis at the wedding at Cana in Galilee? My guess is ‘not too many’ and yet, there it is, in black and white, in the verses of scripture that we United Reformed Church folk declare is ‘the highest authority for what believe and do … God’s Word in the Bible, alive for his people today through the help of the Spirit.’ (From Statement Concerning the Nature, faith and Order of the United Reformed Church – R&S 760)
There must be room in the church, amongst Jesus’ disciples, for people to believe differently, not just so we discover how to avoid some of the conflicts and suffering that comes when those of different beliefs meet together, but positively, because through the different beliefs of others our belief in Jesus can grow and mature, and, hopefully, so can theirs.
So, in the church, among the group of Jesus’s disciples, there must be room for those who do not believe, there must be room for those who believe differently, and thirdly, there must be room for us to believe more.
I’m still thinking about those calculations about how much wine Jesus provided for the wedding guests if it was produced on a one-to-one ratio with the amount of water in the jars: a one-thousand-wine-bottle-sized miracle. Some people wonder why St John records this event in his Gospel. I’m more surprised that anyone was capable of remembering the wedding itself, never mind remembering the drinks crisis or the identity of the miraculous wine supplier. The question is, ‘how open are we to being surprised?’ How much room do we have for more belief, not less? How ready, for example, to acknowledge Jesus as Saviour and Lord of creation, not just of its human element; not just the people like you and me.
Through custom and practice people talk of about ‘laws of nature’, as if that description is simple “common sense”; taking for granted that nature of itself is all that exists and matters; that we human beings can, in our greatness, discern the set of “laws” that govern its course, and that through utilising them we can govern it. With that sort of belief or conviction, water turned to wine makes no sense at all. It just does not happen. The laws of nature say so.
Is that how we understand ‘creation’? “Creation” is a rather different word from “nature”. “Creation” presupposes a Creator. A Creator could decide to introduce a variation into their creation on occasion – variety’s the spice of life we’re told. A Creator can do things for the Creator’s own good reason – maybe even that it would be fun to do so. Is it a problem for you to picture God doing something fun? It’s the Creator that makes the laws – the rules – not the laws which control a Creator.
And if this Creator – let’s call her God – should decide to inhabit his own creation and do so in the person of one human being – let’s call him Jesus – who knows what Jesus might do on occasion, even if that has the effect of surprising us, perhaps even making us feel uncomfortable? And John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus, with his mother’s prompting, transformed water into wine, and as a result, some who followed him also put their belief in him; belief in him as Messiah as the beloved child of the God of creation.
Today, then, in this church, among this group of people who are known to follow Jesus, there is room for those who do not (yet!?) believe. In this travelling company of Jesus-followers there is room for those who believe differently, and as a result, we others also may in turn come to come to believe differently. In the company of Jesus, who turns water into wine, there is room to believe more; more about God, more about the Lord of this creation, discovered anew in Jesus; someone to believe in and to follow today.
‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.