Readings 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1–11
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
What does ‘glory’ mean to you? Think of a glorious morning, Vivaldi’s Gloria, or the great Danny Blanchflower on football:
The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It is nothing of the kind. The game is about glory, it is about doing things in style.
What makes you say, like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, ‘There’s glory for you’? Glory is a bright and shining thing. It has delight about it. When Lady Gaga says she’s ‘on the edge of glory’ it’s a quite particular kind of glory she’s on the edge of, but the drive of the song has a wider application: in a moment of glory you don’t think about what you ought to do, you don’t dwell on bad things you’ve done or good things you’ve not done; you just revel in delight.
Glory is bigger than you are, yet makes you a bigger person than you were before. Looking back on the costly privilege of hosting London 2012 – ‘The glorious Games’ the papers called them – most of us, according to a survey, think it was worth every penny: perhaps we all walked a little taller because of what we saw giants do.
All this helps us to get a grip on the story of the wedding at Cana. You may at once puzzle over it. Water into wine – how could that ever happen? How can anyone turn simple H20 into C2H5OH plus CO2 and other – stuff? (I’m indebted to Jane Plant for the chemical details.) This is a real question, and how you answer it will say a lot about how you see God and the world. You might say, ‘Well, this is a physical miracle, and Jesus shows here that he is Lord of creation.’ Or, you could say, ‘No, not a physical miracle. What would be the point of such a thing? Why would God override his own creation?’ Or you might say something different again.
It’s an important question, but John’s gospel has no interest in the mechanics of miracles, and gives no help at all in how to answer it. If I say, ‘This story describes a miracle: how could it happen?’ the gospel says, ‘This story gives a sign: what does it point to?’ And what it points to is – glory.
On the face of it, it’s a rather frivolous miracle, not like, say, feeding hungry crowds. It’s more like the scene in that theologically underrated film Bruce Almighty, when Jim Carrey, thanks to the powers God has lent him, parts the waters of the tomato soup in his bowl, just because he can. But think a moment. This is a wedding, and a wedding contains the raw materials for glory. A wedding should (whatever the budget) be a bright and shining thing. It is about what husband and wife ought to do, but much more it’s about delight, the sheer joy of two people giving each other the gift of their life through those extravagant, all-or-nothing promises ‘till us do part’.
(That, by the way, is a neglected element in the debate about same-sex marriage: those glorious promises are not a binding part of the civil partnership, and I think that possibility of making them to seal a union should be open to same-sex couples as well.)
The prophets were seized by the extravagant character of marriage. They talked of God and Israel as husband and bride, and the day of the Lord, when the world would be put right, as a great wedding banquet, awash with fine wines. Why stress the wine? Because of what wine stands for. Do you need wine to survive? Will Cana’s wedding guests die of thirst? No – we know that there’s plenty of water available – but wine is a sign that life is about more than survival, and Jesus lays on the equivalent of 768 bottles of it. Then the head waiter tastes it and has a Marks & Spencer moment: ‘This is not just wine,’ he says, ‘this is carefully selected, grand cru, vintage wine.’ What Jesus brings to the party is superb stuff – not just life, but life in all its fullness. There’s glory for you.
The role of this place is to bring us (in a rather different way from that in the song) to the edge of glory. Look around you. Most of you are sitting in what’s called the nave: did the Georgians need to make it quite so big? Look at the chancel: did the Edwardians need to make the stained glass quite so rich, especially when some of it is invisible to most of the congregation? Of course not, any more than the Cana wine needs to be so darned good. In its scale and adornment, this space goes beyond the water of mere necessity and invites all who come here to drink the wine of God’s extravagance.
And we need that just now. Count the empty shops in George St, which lost its HMV a while ago. See the frighteningly big reductions in the ones that survive. Everywhere there is retrenchment, the pinching of pennies, worry, sometimes desperation. And here is a house of God that says that, when it comes to the deep down things, there is enough and to spare. This is not escapism, but the acknowledgment that, yes, things are tough – but there is also this, which is just as real.
This building, though, with all its potential to make you feel a bigger person than you were before, is just a theatre set waiting for the cast to come on stage. The cast is us, and John’s gospel gives us the stage directions.
In the story, the catering staff see what Jesus does to the water, but they don’t taste it. The head waiter tastes the wine, but doesn’t see where it came from. To know the true glory you need both. You need to have the experience but not miss the meaning. You need to ‘taste and see that the Lord is gracious’ (Psalm 34.8). That means, first, simply coming here, to the Lord’s house on the Lord’s Day (and, if you are somewhere else, finding a church there). Is there anything more important for you and me to do at some point in our waking hours on a Sunday? I can’t think of it. So come, but come in what frame of mind?
If you were hear last Sunday, you will have enjoyed being with our nearly-new Team Vicar, David Gardiner. When we were advertising the post, we drew up a profile for applicants which said that in church we wanted ‘an atmosphere of holiness…hospitality, liveliness and…expectation’; that is, a place where people expect to encounter something bigger than they are, a place to which you come with the hope of glory. It is a thing to ask myself each routine Sunday morning: Am I going to church expecting God to show up too? If I do, then how might I meet God? I can be ambushed by God at any point: in a word of scripture, a hymn that’s sung or prayers that are said as if people really mean it; and, here in the Holy Communion, where we have our own miraculous wine.
If ever we catch the rumour of glory, it makes us bigger people than we were before: more brave, more generous, more willing to experiment with extravagance, with the time and the money and the energy we have, and with all those gifts listed by St Paul that God has been pleased to give us. That’s what it’s like when you glimpse glory: you want to give of yourself, ‘not from a sense of duty but from an overflowing of joy.’
Wine making Professor Jane Plant’s chemical guide: C2H5OH is ethanol; C02 is carbon dioxide. Making wine usually depends on the action of yeast on the natural sugars (glucose and fructose) in grapes. It also usually involves maintaining acidity using C4H5O6 and C4H5O5 – tartaric acid and malic acid present in good grapes.
Not from a sense of duty… From ‘Christmas Gifts’, a sermon by Bishop Rowan Williams, who has just stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury.
This is what it all comes down to: all the useless, pointless beauty of our music and our ritual, our words and our acts, our struggles in prayer, all the great achievements of Christendom, every cathedral, the B Minor Mass and Rembrandt and all the rest of it. All we can do is offer God playful gifts, the gifts of our celebration, our playing. He does not need it but he wants the hearts that will and can rejoice, gratuitously, uselessly, pointlessly and beautifully, in what he has done. It is only when we learn to give, not from a sense of duty but from an overflowing of joy, that we can have some share in the action of his redeeming and recreating love.
‘Christmas Gifts’, Open to Judgement DLT 1994 p 30.