Sunday 4th January 2015, Epiphany, evening
by Revd Chris Palmer
I’ve been to quite a lot of weddings in my life – ceremonies anyway, if not receptions. As a child I got paid for singing in the choir. When I was a bit older I played the organ, and now I officiate at wedding- we had a very nice one yesterday. But let me tell you about two weddings where I did make it to the reception as well as the church.
When I was about three years old I went to a wedding with my parents. They served champagne. When no one was looking I wandered around the tables and finished the dregs of the guests’ glasses. I have no memory of this occasion, but my parents tell the story. I slept very well that night.
When I was twenty-one I went to another wedding; again they served wine and champagne. Unfortunately the way the day had been planned I had to drive 150 miles after the reception to get to our honeymoon hotel, and so very little alcohol passed my lips at my own wedding.
Wine and weddings seem to go together. Wine is a sign of celebration, of joy, of prosperity, of goodwill; it gladdens the heart. And it’s a sign of hospitality, of generosity. And so running out of wine was definitely not the done thing. It would have signified meanness, lack of regard for guests, a miserly spirit. It almost certainly meant a premature end to the party, and gossip. I think Mary was engaged in gossip when she whispered to Jesus, ‘They’ve run out of wine.’
But this perspective of gladness, goodwill, hospitality is the point of view of host and guests. What about the others, the overlooked of the occasion, the servants? They are the people who float around at the party, but you don’t need to notice, to flatter, to make small talk with. They are the scenery. Except in this story they are mentioned more times than anyone else except Jesus. Mary says to them ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Jesus tells them to fill the jar; then he tells them to draw from the jars. And finally – and importantly – John adds an editorial comment: ‘When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it had come from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)…’ I think the editorial comment is important.
For a start ‘knowing’ is important in John’s gospel: amongst you stands one you do not know; how did you come to know me?; If you knew me you would know my father; they do not know him who sent me; we know that his testimony is true. Just a small selection! The verb ‘to know’ comes almost as many times in St John’s Gospel as in Matthew, Mark, and Luke put together. No wonder scholars have thought there might be some connection between John’s Gospel and early Gnostic sects – ‘gnostic’ of course means ‘the knowledgeable ones’. To know is to be given the insight which is God’s gift, to be the recipient of revelation which comes only through grace; to know is to be in relationship – not only to know about, but to know. ‘This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent…’
The servants are given the gift of knowledge: ‘the servants who had drawn the water knew’. The miracle of water into wine is a sign that reveals Jesus’s glory; it says that at the end. But to whom? The guests are none the wiser, the steward simply congratulates the bridegroom, the bridegroom is doubtless mystified and relieved. But the servants ‘knew’ – John makes a point of saying it.
Those let into the things of God are not the main players, not the people presumptuous enough or self-important enough to think they are in the know and that others don’t matter. Those in the know in the kingdom of God are the servants; they are the recipients of grace; they see glory. It’s the same point that Jesus makes elsewhere: ‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to little children.’
Insight or knowledge in the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with intelligence, importance, education, or authority. God’s revelation flies under every intellectual radar. But despite this, many of us end up either in some spiritual pride of thinking we know God’s will and can tell it to others, or of thinking we’re too unimportant for God to bother with – and so having no expectation of encountering God. That isn’t humility, it’s just allowing ourselves to be humiliated. But at least these feel like solid ground.
The problem is that the place between these that God invites us to occupy is shifting, uncertain. It means straining for, longing for, searching for the things of God; being teachable, so that we are responsive to the word of Jesus; always knowing that we don’t know, but believing that we might. And when a beam of revelation bursts through and warms the soul, or inspires us to action, or deepens our love, it is being filled with gratitude without needing certainty or finality; not abusing the experience to tell others what’s right for them; not recruiting grace to inflate our own influence.
I wonder what conversation the servants had after the wedding. Did they gossip about bridegroom under ordering the wine, comment on the guests’ appearance or lack of gratitude? Probably! But their conversation about Jesus would have been puzzled: they knew something had happened; there’d been water and now there was wine. Was it a conjuring trick? Did it signify the presence of God? Or was it the trick of a darker power? 150 gallons of wine! Was this throwing a good party or trying to get people into a compromising situation? What strange power was at work?
Because, you see, I bet the servants didn’t have quite the same reaction as the disciples. ‘Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him.’ I bet they had more questions than that. Or probably I should say, I bet they had more questions than we infer from ‘his disciples believed in him’. I bet really that the servants – the disciples too – stood with questions before something wonderful and beyond their capacity to explain. They knew and yet they didn’t know – all at the same time. But the real test of their knowing would not be any claim to special insight, but the quality of their joy, and celebration, and goodwill, and generosity, and hospitality. Because when all is said and done, that’s what wine is about.