Maybe it’s just that I love a good story, but weddings are great, right? They have so much humanity on display: Family drama, overzealous wedding planners, that one weird relative, wardrobe and weather malfunctions- a good wedding usually has a good story to go with it. I think of the two amazing aunts at a friend’s wedding, dancing all night in their kilts and full Scottish regalia. I think of the horrible DJ who played only back catalog Bruno Mars and then pulled out a guitar and played a few songs he wrote in high school. We all have a good wedding story. And, we hear today, the unnamed couple who were friends of Jesus certainly got theirs, when Jesus turned water into wine, to save the day and save the party.
Implicit in the story is the joy that is present at most weddings, right alongside all the story-worthy drama. Weddings are celebrations of community and communities coming together to share in the love of a couple. There’s an abundance that we often feel at weddings- love and joy spilling over from the couple to the rest of the world- something for all of us to share in.
This is Jesus’ first sign in the Gospel of John. It’s the first time that the community around Jesus really starts to see who he is and what he’s come to do. Many other signs and teachings will follow- Jesus will heal many people, and feed the 5000, and walk on water, and even raise Lazarus from the tomb. It’s clear, from here on out, that Jesus is not an ordinary teacher or even an ordinary healer, although the people around him are trying to figure out what that means.
And so there’s something so beautiful about this being Jesus’ first sign. In some ways it’s a pretty trivial one, compared to what would come next, right? Everyone probably would have had a perfectly good time at the wedding without Jesus’ actions- it didn’t really change any lives.
So I think this story is, at least in part, meant to situate Jesus’ work in the context of abundance, of gratitude, of overflowing joy, of celebration and thanksgiving. All those things that characterize a wedding- joy, community, love- that’s what Jesus came to bring. Abundant life, humans in loving relationship, an overflowing of joy- it’s in that context that we begin to see who Jesus is, and what he came to bring.
What emerged for me this week from these readings was that Jesus is giving us a glimpse of the abundant life that God intends for us, the life that he came to bring, to point us toward, to invite us into. We’ve all had glimpses of that life, moments when we have been filled with joy- at those weddings and celebrations, maybe even here in this room. This story lets us know that Jesus didn’t come to shame us or to placate an angry God who hates us- Jesus came because he is about bringing us more fully into that abundant love, that abundant life that God wants for us.
All that is true. And it’s also true that that message, that glimpse, comes to us very much in our humanity, very much in a world that is not always overflowing with joy, where abundance is not always shared, where there is not endless life. The world still is broken, and it needs healing. There is still death here. We know that, very well, this week.
Last Friday I brought Peg and Pete communion from our altar here. Thin, small wafers, sealed up in plastic for safety, wrapped in a little paper with some words. Those wafers, we believe, are a sign of our great thanksgiving, of the great mystery of Jesus’ presence here among us. Those wafers hold all that and yet they are so small. They are just a taste of the feast that is to come, that feast that we trust is real, but that is beyond our realm. Our faith consists of trusting in the glimpses, the tastes that we get here- trusting them even when we are also faced with the enormity and awfulness of death, and grief, and loss. We live in the almost, but not yet, time of the kingdom of God, the realm of God. Christ has died, Christ is risen, but Christ has not yet come again. Every tear will one day be wiped away, but we still cry today. We aren’t wrong to.
So what does this all mean for us, we who are grieving, we who live in a world filled with grief, a world in need of healing, we who also seek to be healed?
Well, I think one thing is to acknowledge the mystery, the paradox of our existence- that grief, and loss, and death, can and do live side by side with joy, and abundance, and gratitude. We celebrate that each Sunday here at this table- we name that mystery. We lift up the many gifts that we bring together to this table. And right alongside it, we talk about the crucifixion- we remember the betrayal and the death, we name it. And right alongside that, we proclaim the resurrection and look toward Jesus’ coming again. We lift up the sign of our feast, and then we break it, and then we share it, together in love. What a great and terrible mystery it is, that all those things live side by side. It’s big work, to try to hold the two together. We aren’t called to try to push aside the recognition of brokenness and pretend everything is okay. And we are also not a people of despair- we are called to hope.
I think we bear the fearful work of hoping and trusting that those glimpses beyond this realm- those tastes of the joyful feast to come- that they are real. We can trust that part of our faith, the part that doesn’t always make logical sense, even though we continue living here, on earth, where death is still present, and healing doesn’t always come. We trust that there is a God of love who is seeking us out, who is breaking in, pulling us toward a place of healing and life, even if we won’t fully realize it in our lives here.
Because we are witnesses to the incarnation- that Jesus came to bring life, and healing, and abundant life to us in this radical way, by coming to join us in this unhealed world, not even stopping at death. We are witnesses to the truth that Jesus is working here in this world to bring that kind of life, that kind of reign of God, and that we can work alongside him.
That Jesus isn’t just about making life tolerable enough until we die, but that Jesus came to bring it now, to build up that kingdom of God now, and that we are a part of that. That kind of work takes great care, and great love, and faith that there is a power at work here that is greater than death, greater than loss, greater than the sin that makes us hoard our abundance and forget that it’s there to share.
I think the wine, in part, is a sign of that care. I’ve spent some time among winemakers, having spent the last few years in the Napa Valley. One of the things I did come to understand while I was there was just how much care goes into wine, especially very fine wine. There’s plenty of fancy science and artistic vision involved, but there’s also a more practical kind of care than I had in my imagination- like, your ability to be reeeally sure that there aren’t any bugs in your wine is crucial in determining how good you’re able to make the wine. So you hold that vision of abundance, and plenty, but then you also take really good care of the process by which the wine is created.
As healers, and as those who need to be healed, our job, in this in-between world, as people who live in the mystery, the already but not yet, is to be the kind of carers who can make fine wine- who believe in those glimpses of joy and love and abundance, who cultivate them, carefully and well. We share that abundant life that we glimpse, that we try to build up here, lavishly, with ourselves, and with others. We seek to invite others to the table, and to make it the kind of table where people can catch a glimpse of the feast we believe is beyond it. Sometimes that work is glamorous and transcendent, and sometimes it’s mundane. Just like at a good wedding, we do this work in our dramatic and weird and beautiful humanity, with all our problems and all our love. We do that because we believe in a God who came to bring us healing and abundant life, whose love is more powerful than death. We do it because we know a God who will always be drawing us more fully into that life of healing and abundant love, right up until our life here ends, and we cross over into that realm beyond us, the great feast of love and life that awaits us all.