Mirepoix 20th January 2019
1 Corinthians 12, 1-11; John 2, 1-11
If, like me, you’ve got a family wedding in the pipeline it’s difficult not to fall into a bit of wishful thinking (‘if only!’) when hearing about the wedding in Cana. A miracle along the same lines as ‘water into wine’ could make budgeting for the occasion significantly easier.
But, by the end of this sermon, I hope to have explained why experiencing fewer and fewer miracles may be a good thing. Let’s see how we get on.
After a casual reading of the account of the wedding in Cana, you could easily believe you’re in the realms of fairy-tale. This story reminds me of Rumpelstiltskin who obliging turned straw into gold, transforming something every-day into something precious. Fortuitous magic! Isn’t it just a story about a domestic catastrophe: big party, important social event all heading for disaster and notoriety. Imagine the talk! (“Do you remember that ghastly wedding in Cana? Do I! One glass of tepid Prosecco whilst the photographer was strutting his stuff and that was it!”). Then Jesus steps in and saves the day: everybody’s favourite neighbour.
Needless to say, there’s a bit more going on.
On a subsequent reading, we probably pick up on the clues John left us. It all began on the third day, we’re told, immediately inviting us to connect with another major rescue operation – nothing less than the salvation of mankind – which happened on Day Three. Mary has a key role in the wedding, pointing the servants in the right direction, just as during Jesus’ ministry she was one of his most loyal and trusting followers. She is at her son’s side here in Cana and at the foot of the cross. Something extraordinarily unexpected and counter-intuitive occurs in Cana (most people serve the best wine first) and that is what Jesus’ death and resurrection is too: from the very worst emerges the very best; God plays his trump card when it looks like the game is over.
Whatever else it is, the wedding at Cana could be said to serve as a metaphor for what is to follow.
One thing I like about this miracle is the fact that it embraces ordinary human merry-making. There is even a casual reference to the inevitability of drunkenness with no stuffy judgement thrown in. Jesus’ intervention is generous and well-meaning. He wants his friends to have a good time. That’s re-assuring and perhaps stops us beating ourselves up too much for preferring that glass of red to a smoothie made from kale and carrot.
Of course, there is more going on here too. And St John makes sure we understand the importance of what he is telling us: this was the first of Jesus’ signs thereby revealing his glory.
Over the next few years, Jesus will continue to leave signs indicating his true identity. None will be as light-weight as the party trick at Cana. He will heal the sick, sometimes without even touching them. He will raise the newly dead. He will be able to read people’s minds and he will defy the rules of nature. He will preach to thousands, showing wisdom, discernment and charisma.
But he will also continue to operate on a very ordinary level. He will trudge the hills of Judaea with his companions. He will break bread and eat in humble circumstances. He will perform the role of a house-servant. Perhaps the ordinariness of the wedding in Cana is not so far removed from this approachable, familiar dimension to his character.
If Jesus (and St John) saw his miracles as signs, revealing his glory, what does that tell us about Jesus? A miracle, by definition, sits outside the natural laws as we understand them. In a miracle, there is some supernatural agency at work which overrides or bypasses the expected, for the good. When Jesus performs a miracle he steps into the everyday and turns things inside out. He demonstrates that whilst he is in the world, subject to the same conditions of animal mortality to which we are subject (for example: sensitive to a scorching mid-day sun or freezing night-time temperatures, capable of feeling hunger and thirst and tiredness) he can, nevertheless, tap into sources of energy which are stunningly transformational.
Since Jesus’ time, the chronicles of Christian life are riddled with stories of other miracles some of which smack of sensationalist theatricality. Anglo-Saxon saints, when dead, invariably demonstrated their holiness by continuing to grow their hair and finger-nails. Many of the saints recognised by the Roman Catholic Church are credited with having effected some astonishing feats. About thirty years ago, I heard stories first-hand from twentieth century pilgrims visiting the Marian shrine in Medjugorje who told how their rosary beads turned into gold as they came down from the mountain. (!) And we have all heard tales of the American evangelicals successfully inviting the lame to leap out of their wheelchairs.
I am sounding sceptical. But, I have to admit, that most of us can probably testify to outcomes where the words ‘lucky’ or ‘fortunate’ seem inadequate. So we fall back, perhaps a little sheepishly, on ‘miraculous’. And what we mean of course is that things have turned out unexpectedly well, far better than anyone could have predicted, possibly in defiance of expert opinion. We suspect divine intervention. We believe that this is God’s work.
Of course, if we believe that God is omnipotent, it follows that everything is God’s work. And when we think about it, isn’t the ordinary cosmic rhythms, the way the earth has evolved, the millenia that have passed with the complex inter-connectedness of animal and plant life, the capacity for creation and ingenuity which human beings demonstrate – isn’t that miracle enough? I do think it is important that we do not lose our sense of just how wonderful, ineffably so, things are. Humankind might mess up (and we do have to face the fact that the price the natural world has paid, and continues to pay, for human progress is enormous) but the laws of nature and physics, the mind-boggling harmony that links every atom that holds every proton and electron and neutron in balance (I’m going to stop here because, as you can perhaps tell, I am way out of my comfort zone!) – but I hope you get the picture – all of it is beyond awesome.
By and large, therefore, we know that God works within his own rules. Few of us now subscribe to the beliefs of the superstitious who think that magpies, if not properly addressed, can reverse the natural order of things. We no longer suspect that the universe is governed by a Being who can only be propitiated if one walks around ladders or refrains from eating off two plates.
But we are still inclined to admit the existence of miracles.
And now we get to the crunch of what I want to say. I long for the day when miracles no longer occur. Here is why.
I believe that God created a world not with a click of his fingers but through the far more incredible processes which cosmic physicists are beginning to understand. We do not necessarily need signs to reveal God’s glory; we just have to school our mind and our senses to appreciate this little rock in the middle of the universe, which we live on, and the life which it sustains.
If God, at the end of his metaphorical sixth day of creation, saw that everything was good, that surely ought to be good enough for us. So, if a miracle occurs (that is: a supernatural intervention) does not that suggest that the natural order of things needs nudging in a different direction, for a higher purpose. That original ‘good’ creation needs correcting.
I cannot help believing that, in these situations, whatever has gone wrong has probably done so because of human agency. Somewhere along the line (and it may be a long way back but the chain of cause and effect has only just caught up with us) human-beings have created a disturbance, knocking the way things ought to be off-balance.
So God intervenes. He makes an adjustment. It is quite possible that he is intervening like this all over the place. And we call his interventions miracles when we notice what he’s doing and it chimes with the way we want things to proceed.
But I hope these miraculous interventions are few and far between.
This is my hope because fewer miracles surely indicates that the world is unfurling along those original lines which so pleased God, its creator. The course we are taking is in tune with his purpose. Human beings, who have stewardship over this planet and all life sustained by it, are fundamentally in alignment with God.
Ergo: there is no need for supernatural intervention. There is no need for miracles.
I would also go so far as to argue that it is our job as Christians, who believe we know something of God’s purpose, to work hard so that miracles are unnecessary. Our role should be in harmony with God or, as St Paul expressed it in his letter to the Corinthians, “in the Spirit”.
Now, the gifts of the Spirit which St Paul listed do not all sit comfortably with our twenty-first century perceptions. Expressing wisdom and knowledge is straightforward enough, having faith and being able to heal others are clearly both positive. But when we come onto working miracles, prophesying, distinguishing spirits and tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, this is where I, for one, have a bit of trouble. Or I would if St Paul had not made it quite clear that it is God who is at work through all these gifts. So what we, in fact, have here is a selection of routes through which God, in the first century AD, was likely to reveal himself. Had St Paul been writing to Christians in Berlin in 1938 or Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or London, post-Brexit, he might have come up with a different list.
The important thing is that he is inviting all followers of Jesus to open themselves up to the agency of God. As his letter continues, he goes on to deliver his analogy with the human body, making the point that each part of the body has its own role to perform and in performing that role, however insignificant, the body in its entirety is animated.
To put it another way, I would argue that it is the Christian’s job to live a life, turning all to the good, whatever the situation, whatever the circumstances, whatever the obstacles which must be overcome. In other words, by opening ourselves up to be willing agents of God’s purpose we are helping to moving everything into alignment. And when everything is in alignment – the miracle becomes redundant.
This role is not without its rewards. St Paul listed them in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness. A world full of these qualities, in place of miracles, seems to me to be a decent bargain.