Believing in the glory
Jn 2.11: Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
‘Our Lord Jesus Christ was himself a guest at a wedding in Cana of Galilee’ – as a parish priest, I have said that so many times as part of the introduction to the marriage service in the Alternative Service Book – and longed secretly for the sonsorous cadences of the Book of Common Prayer: ‘which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee’. Nowadays, Common Worship includes this sentence: ‘St John tells us how Jesus shared in such an occasion at Cana’. Any way, whatever words we use to describe it, is the point of this gospel passage really that Jesus was a wedding guest at Cana? And, let’s remember, not a very good guest – having. a very public domestic with his mum, taking control of the wine list, generally stealing the limelight of the bride’s big day.
But in fact the truth at the heart of this gospel passage is not that Jesus was at Cana to express his approval of the institution of marriage; a wedding does provide the context in which this, ‘the first of his signs’, is performed, but it is not the meaning to which the sign refers. For me, the point of this first sign, the transformation of water into wine, is the abundance, the super-abundance, even the excess of the provision which God offers to his people. Think of the figures involved. There are six stone jars, each of them holding 2 or 3 firkins, 20 or 30 gallons, and each filled up to the brim with water. Taking the lowest figure in the range that St John offers, we have 120 gallons, i.e. 545 litres, of wine. A standard bottle of wine today is 75 cl: Jesus has produced the equivalent of 727 bottles for a party which has already drunk its way through its host’s provision. If we take the upper figure, the stock taking rises to 1090 bottles, I think. Even by the standards of a clergy event in the Diocese of Southwark, that is prodigious; indeed, it is prodigal.
And this super-abundance, this exuberance undaunted by anxiety over wastefulness, is a theme which appears again and again in the New Testament. In the parable of the Sower, the grain is scattered everywhere; most of it is lost, but that which falls on good soil produces astonishing yields – thirty-, sixty-, a hundred-fold. In another parable, the workers who are recruited to labour in the vineyard late in the day are rewarded with the same generosity as the others, much to their bewilderment. St Paul writes that the love of God is shed abroad by the Holy Spirit into the hearts of the ungodly, and it is in their justification that the justice of God bears the fruit of amazing grace. Christian faith speaks throughout of undeserved, unexpected, unscientific abundance; and this is the sign which Jesus sets before us at Cana of Galilee.
In enacting that sign, says St John, Jesus revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. This is a sign set in the most basic of human settings, that of a wedding; it is performed through ordinary human actions, the drawing of water from a well; it uses the everyday stuff of human consumption, wine; it is described in markedly understated human language, a simple past participle form ‘water become wine’. Yet we know that we are being pointed beyond the boundaries of normal human experience, to the burgeoning abundance which is the sign of God’s presence – a reality which cannot be adequately described, but for which John uses the word ‘glory’.
Of course, ‘glory’ is not a word coined by the New Testament writers; the divine glory repeatedly breaks into the narrative of the Hebrew scriptures too. In our first reading, Isaiah speaks of the glory of the Lord that will arise upon Jerusalem and draw the nations to his light. The gospel message is, that in Jesus that attracting, dazzling light is embodied in a human being: ‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’. How is such an economy of divine prodigality received in our world. What difference might it make to the way we live, if we are among those who have seen his glory?
Well, let’s go back to what John says at the end of his story of Cana – Jesus ‘revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him. Think about each of those three words in turn: ‘revealed’, ‘glory’, and ‘believed’.
In the first place, as always in the gospels, this revelation of God’s glory takes place in a particular place – at Cana of Galilee – at a particular time – during a marriage feast – and through a particular person – Jesus of Nazareth. It is in these specific interactions that ultimate meaning is disclosed, and it is through telling and re-telling this specific narrative that that meaning is brought to others. And that means that Christians should always be wary of any general theories which try to predict what is going to happen; always approach with a hermeneutic of suspicion any reporting that generalises how groups of people are going to act or think; because if God’s glory was revealed in a Galilean wedding feast, we never know what might happen anywhere, or who might do what when. It is in the telling of particular stories of particular people at particular times and in particular places that revelation happens, and one of the great strengths of the Church of England is that through our presence in parishes, schools and chaplaincies across the land we are daily hearing thousands and thousands of such stories. As a bishop in South East London, I never cease to be struck by how very much more interesting, more compelling and more meaningful are the real human stories that I hear, compared to the opinionated stereotypes that I read in newspapers or see on TV. It is in the particular that God reveals his glory.
And, second, what he reveals is just that, glory: an overwhelming, life-giving grace which cannot be reduced to our limits, which infinitely exceeds our expectations. No doubt the chief steward at Cana had estimated how much wine should be bought; no doubt the guests felt he had underestimated; but all calculations are as nothing before the enormous quantities God’s glory dispenses. Whether 727 bottles or 1060, the numbers are vast beyond measure: glory cannot be measured.
To set something immeasurable and unimaginable as that which we value most is to be profoundly subversive in today’s world. We live in a society which is obsessed with measuring targets, with paying by results, with putting a numerical figure on every value, with looking for a financial analysis of any transaction. But the economy of God’s glory does not work in this way: knowing that we always fall short of any target that his infinite holiness may set us, we rely on his illimitable grace; it is that grace alone that gives us true value, and it is that standard that sets us a new way of relating to one another. It is not easy to learn to relate to one another according to the economy of glory, because we are very suspicious of this way of thinking. Like labourers in the vineyard, we grumble at God, envious because he is kind.
But then, thirdly, becoming kind as God is kind is what we have to learn to do if – like the disciples – we believe in Jesus, the one who has revealed his glory. Believing in Jesus means staking our lives on the hunch that the divine glory he reveals is the most important reality we can know, and then living our staked lives according to the economy of that glory in the world. That in turn means, taking the risk to give of ourselves to others generously, prodigally, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to believe in others as God believes in them, to expect great things from the God whose grace is at work in them as it is in us. That is a challenging way to live, and it’s much easier to slip back into suspicion of others, into defensiveness, cynicism, criticism.
I see all those attitudes in my own church much of the time; I see them in myself nearly all the time. But two days ago I was in Lewisham at a memorial event for a great little girl of Nigerian heritage, Ella Kissi-Debrah. Ella was a devout server at her parish church, St Swithun’s, Lewisham. Last year, she suddenly died, aged 9, from the severe asthma that had been with her through much of her short life. A few weeks before her death, Ella said this to her mum: ‘Mum, life is too short to use it being horrid to people’.
‘Life is too short to use it being horrid to people’ – simple words, but out of Ella’s short life they speak to me powerfully of what it means to believe in the Jesus who reveals his glory among us. In Cana, in Lewisham, in Oxford, he gives us gallons of the new wine of his glory so that we can love one another as he loves us – or at least not be horrid to one another.