A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, January 20, 2018
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
A British Bishop once quipped, “Wherever St. Paul went, there was a riot. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” This bishop was commenting on disparity between the Christian ministry today, especially the formal, organized denominations in places like America and England, and the ministry of St. Paul, which was filled with riots, shouting, prisons, and lots of public arguing. So, if everywhere bishops go they serve tea, and everywhere Paul went there were riots, what would we say about Jesus?
Our first instinct is probably to think of the miraculous. Wherever Jesus went, he performed miracles, healings, and exorcisms. Except there are lots of stories where Jesus goes around teaching and speaking in parables without performing any miracles. So maybe, wherever Jesus went, he was teaching. That’s probably closer to the truth because Jesus is almost always talking wherever he goes, but still it doesn’t always feel like that’s the main point of the different stories in the Gospel.
Take the next story in John’s gospel for example. After this morning’s reading, Jesus goes to the Temple, makes a whip of cords, and drives out the animals and the money changers. Sure, there’s a lesson to be learned here, but this story really isn’t about teaching. It’s about something else, and we’ll talk about that in a bit.
So, let’s get back to that original question: Wherever Jesus went, what? What was happening? Our reading this morning answers this question in two ways. One is the big overarching answer. Wherever Jesus went, this was always true, this was always happening. The second perhaps wasn’t always true of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but it is especially relevant today because it is particularly true after the resurrection.
Let’s start with the first one. Wherever Jesus went, heaven and earth connected. To make sure we see this properly we have to zoom out a bit in John’s Gospel. This Gospel is the Gospel of the Word made flesh, of heaven and earth connecting in the person of Jesus. John says as much in his prologue, and right before this morning’s reading, Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus is saying, if you follow me, you’re going to see what it’s like when heaven’s transforming power comes to this earth. This is Temple language, and it’s not an accident that this saying to Nathaniel is followed almost immediately by the cleansing of the Temple. If Jesus is now the place where heaven and earth connect, if Jesus is the new Temple, or maybe better the new Tabernacle, that can only mean one thing for the Jerusalem Temple, and so Jesus comes to it in judgment.
And standing between this saying to Nathaniel and the cleaning of the Temple is our reading this morning, the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana. There’s a lot we could say here because this story is so thematic for John’s Gospel that it’s hard to overstate it’s relevance. This is the first of Jesus’ signs where he displayed his glory, the glory of heaven on earth. Two chapters later John will tell us about a second sign, and then after that John leaves us on our own to figure them out. John is inviting us to read his Gospel for signs of the love and power of heaven being poured out on earth in the person of Jesus. The first place this happens is a wedding. Not exactly the final place, but the ultimate place this happens is at the cross and the resurrection. This story and those stories are connected. Mary is at the wedding, but she will disappear from John’s Gospel until she appears again at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to Mary, “My hour has not yet come.” When Jesus speaks of his death he says to the Father in prayer, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). And don’t miss that this story takes place, “On the third day.” When Jesus goes into the Temple, he says to the Jews, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days.” And just in case we missed the point, John adds, “He was speaking about the Temple of his body.”
So, what’s going on here, and what’s the second, more general “Wherever Jesus went, this was happening”? The Old Testament and Jewish literature outside the Old Testament often described the fulfillment of the covenant in terms of a banquet. This is sometimes called the Messianic banquet when it is specifically focused around the Messiah. Let me give you a taste of this imagery in the Old Testament. This is Isaiah 25:6-9: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa 25:6–9).
So, wherever Jesus went, he was bringing a party. Wherever Jesus went he was bringing about the end of death and bringing in the Messianic banquet. The party has run its course. The old wine of the Old Testament has run ou. The party seems to have come to an end without any proper conclusion, and here comes Jesus, and he brings new wine in new wine skins. He will be known for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he will say the unthinkable that those who would be saved must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and as he hangs on the cross, sour wine will be placed to his lips. He will drink, he will say, “It is finished,” and he will die. He says my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Jesus brings death to an end with a meal.
And our job is to rejoice, to lift up our hearts, to be glad and rejoice in his salvation. There’s a party going on. We have waited for him and behold, this is our God. And yes, that party is focused most clearly in the Eucharist, but the early Christians celebrated the eucharist in the context of actual meals. We’re missing part of the celebration here by trading in a good meal at a party for a sip of wine and a wafer of bread. That’s why any time that we get to share a meal together as the body of Christ, whether that’s Lunch with the Rector, our monthly theme dinners, or our quarterly meetings and picnics, are truly valuable times because there’s a party going on, folks, and Jesus has brought the wine. So, I hope to see you at our theme dinner, and I hope to see you next Sunday at our combined service with the annual meeting and picnic right after. Because the Eucharist is obviously important, but that’s not a party. Community, friendship, relationships, those things are formed at meals. They’re formed at parties when people enjoy not only each other’s company, but the joy of our common salvation in Christ our Lord.
So, here’s my closing remark. Community isn’t about you. It’s about each other. We all have our own preferences. We all have our own way that we think things should be done, but community isn’t about you, it’s about each other. This Wednesday we’re having a party, and next Sunday we’re having a party too. And we’re going to be glad together and rejoice together because in his new Temple, Jesus Christ, God has swallowed up death forever, and he has begun the celebration of our salvation, and if that isn’t a reason to get together, and if that isn’t a reason to come together as a community and have a party, then I don’t know what is.