Sunday, 25 January 2009

A binge drinking wedding at Cana

Cheddington Sunday 25 January 2009


John 2.1-11

1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, 10‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. 


Last week – vocations and calling. Jesus called first disciples. One was Philip, who finds Nathaniel. Nathaniel asks whether anything good can come out of Nazareth? Philip does not argue the point or debate with Nathaniel. He just knows they have found the Messiah. Rather than enter a discussion, Philip just invites Nathaniel to ‘come and see’ for himself, and as soon as Jesus tells him he encountered Nathaniel, possibly in his prayer, or study, or perhaps meditation under a fig tree the previous day, Nathaniel is convinced.

We then move to Cana, a place in Galilee. This is where in John’s gospel chapter 2 we have the account of a wedding attended by Jesus and his disciples. At this wedding, Jesus at the behest of his mother Mary turns water into wine. This is not retold by John as a miracle, but as a ‘sign.’ Of course, it is a miracle, but every detail is symbolic and in order to understand these ‘signs’ we have to look at the details.

I have previously mentioned Jeffrey John’s little book The Meaning in the Miracles. It costs only £8 and helps our understanding of the miracle stories.

The story starts with John telling us the wedding took place ‘on the third day.’ Why is it important how many days had passed since the call of Nathaniel? ‘On the third day’ is symbolic, just as Jesus’ resurrection took place on the third day. The new covenant through Jesus is inaugurated, replacing the old covenant between God and his people Israel.

Weddings throughout the gospels are highly symbolic. They represent the Kingdom of God in almost every case. Just to give you 5 examples:

· The wise and foolish virgins

· The king who gives a wedding feast and no one turns up

· The man who comes to a wedding without proper clothes and is thrown out

· The master who returns from a wedding banquet to find his servants ready or not

· The guest to takes the lowest place and is called to a higher place

So we have to read the story as a wedding where Jesus was present, but at a deeper level as a sign of the Kingdom, and one that reveals something about Jesus himself.

The chief action in the story is the turning of water into good wine. The feast is in full swing, and the wine is running out. Jesus is reluctant to help – he tells his mother rather curtly “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?” Mary must have been upset at being addressed in that way, but persists. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars of water used for ritual washing, and the water miraculously becomes good wine.

In the gospels, new wine stands for new life in the Kingdom of God. Remember the story in Mark’s gospels when the Pharisees criticise the disciples for not fasting? Jesus tells the Pharisees that wedding guests do not fast whilst the bridegroom is still with them. Here’s another example of a wedding, where Jesus is the groom and the feast is the Kingdom. Jesus replies that you would not put new wine in old wine skins. You would put new wine in new skins, or the old skins would burst and the wine would be lost. More symbolism. Is Jesus giving advice on storing wine? No. Jesus is really talking about his teaching: his message cannot be confined by the laws of the OT or it will break out.

Back to Cana, and the amount of water in the jars is 120 gallons. When the water becomes wine, this means there is the equivalent of 750 bottles of wine, on top of what had already been drunk. We are talking about some serious binge drinking here.

The amount might be embarrassing, but the point is this. God’s provision in his Kingdom is super abundant. Just like the feeding of the 5,000 when everyone had enough to eat, and there were still baskets of food left over. After the wedding is over, there will be some serious headaches in Cana. And hopefully a lot of wine to start married life.

So what is the point of this story for today? As a sign, it reveals Christ for what he is, and the story ends with the disciples believing in him because of what they have seen. The divine power is revealed in Jesus – a speeding up of the ordinary everyday miracle of nature, as water is turned in to wine when rain falls on the vines and the ripening sun shines, then at the harvest the grapes are gathered and pressed into wine. And this same wine appears in the Eucharist representing to us the blood of Christ.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom, not only in the future at the end time, but now on earth. Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. So this superabundance of God’s love and grace can be ours today, not at some point in the future. Ours is the Kingdom in the here and now, and the promises resulting from such ‘signs’ as the turning of water into wine are waiting for us to claim them from our heavenly father today.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

A priest for ever

Cheddington Thursday 22 January 9.15 am

Snowdrops just emerging

Gospel – Mark 3

Crowds Follow Jesus

7 Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. 8 When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. 9 Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. 10 For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. 11 Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God." 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell others about him.  © TNIV


Long and difficult discourse. About Christ as high priest in the order of Melchizedek – figure to whom Abraham gave his tithes after Abraham had rescued kinsman Lot and defeated coalition of 5 kings. Melchizedek said to be superior to the Levite priests which makes him resemble a Son of God. He has no ancestry and is said to be like the angels. So Christ is compared to Melchizedek, except that Christ’s priesthood is eternal and perfect.

The high priest and the priests have to sacrifice twice a day to atone for the sins of the people and themselves, But Christ as high priest is superior in that his sacrifice was of himself, and it was a once for all sacrifice that does not need to be renewed over and over again.

The writer of Hebrews then goes on to compare the earthly priesthood, serving at the sanctuary and offering sacrifices proscribed by law with the self sacrifice offered by Jesus. Jesus is the high priest who sits down at the right hand of the throne of heaven, and serves not in a sanctuary made by a human being but in the true tabernacle set up by God himself. There is no longer any need for an intermediary nor for regular sacrifices offered to God as laid down by the law, because the sacrifice of Christ is once for all, and there is no need for it to be renewed or repeated.

So it’s a complicated and theological reading – but for us even if we don’t delve too deep into the actual meaning, we have the assurance of Christ’s sacrifice, made once and for all, for the forgiveness of sins – and it is relying on this reassurance that we make our confession and receive absolution at our holy communion services today.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

I saw you under the fig tree

Mentmore Sunday 18 January 2009

First Reading

1 Samuel 3.1-10(11-20)

1Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4Then the LORD called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The LORD called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ 11Then the LORD said to Samuel, ‘See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’

15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the LORD. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, ‘Samuel, my son.’ He said, ‘Here I am.’ 17Eli said, ‘What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, ‘It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.’

19As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the LORD.


John 1.43-51

43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Readings © NRSV


John’s gospel – baptism last week – John says “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me… I have seen as I testify that this is the Son of God.” Unlike Mark – only Jesus sees the vision. So Jesus identified as Lamb of God.

Then calls his first disciples. First two detached from John the Baptist and followed. One was Andrew. He brought his brother Simon Peter. Jesus called Philip who found Nathaniel. Philip told Nathaniel he had found the Messiah, Jesus from Nazareth. Nathaniel only appears in 4th gospel.

Nathaniel scoffs. Can anything good come from so obscure a place? Surely the Messiah is expected to be from Bethlehem? Philip does not argue – “Come and See.” Our faith is based on relationship with God through Jesus – argument and persuasion rarely prevails – only by personal experience are we persuaded.

Jesus tells Nathaniel – “I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathaniel astounded – confesses “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” Must be more than ‘Weren’t you the one I saw…’ What was Nathaniel doing under the fig tree? Scholars suggest he was meditating and praying. As a good Jew he may have been praying for the coming of the Messiah. He may have had some special encounter with God that caused his confession when Jesus identified him and said he had met him when under the fig tree. There was no further doubt in his mind.

Samuel’s call was far less clear. “The word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” God’s voice calling Samuel in the night was indistinct and easily mistaken. “Was I dreaming?” The answer given to Samuel by Eli was Listen. Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

Too much noise and too many words in our modern lives. Too little listening. Devout Jews might stand in silence for an hour before reciting the Jewish version of the Lord’s Prayer. Nathaniel was obviously listening under the fig tree, and received his answer in the call of Jesus through his friend Philip. But it took Philip to make the call. Is this a call we are prepared to make?

This reminds me of a story about two business associates. One said to the other Why don’t you give up all this church stuff? Why do you say that, he asked? How long have I known you? You asked me to come to your golf club with you and I did. You asked me to come fishing with you and I did. You even asked me to come to a fund raising event for your favourite charity and I did. All these things mean a lot to you. But you’ve never asked me to come to your church, so it can’t be very important to you, can it?

Of course we need to listen more, but we also need to act on what we have heard. The voice we hear might be indistinct, barely audible, and easily mistaken but we need to listen for it. But listening is not enough, because it affects us only. We need to engage – not in academic argument or persuasion, but by inviting others to share the relationship we have with Jesus the Messiah. Jesus says: I saw you under the fig tree and we have to answer, Speak Lord for your servant is listening.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Baptism of Christ

11 January 2009 at Mentmore

Baptism of Christ. Commemorated in eastern church last week at Epiphany, but in Anglican communion a week later.

Mark – earliest gospel – probably written in the 70’s AD – some say as early as 60AD. In his gospel, Mark keen to present a picture of Jesus as Son of God who suffers and dies. Theme of suffering and discipleship important to him.

Verses 1-13 form introduction. No birth or infancy narratives. Dives straight in with John the Baptizer who announces the good news – evalgelion – gospel.

In Mark, John has little life of his own – no preaching – no message except baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins – and function of acting as messenger, pointing ahead to the Messiah.

Clothing deliberately like Elijah. Elijah supposed to come again before final Day of the Lord predicted by the prophets. Like Elijah, John operates from the wilderness.

In v9 Mark says Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptised. He explains Nazareth is in Galilee, so Mark’s readers might not be familiar with geography of Palestine. Mark’s geography is hazy in places too.

Jesus sees vision of heaven torn apart and a dove descending. Notice in this reading Mark makes clear not everyone sees the vision of dove descending. Not shared by others?

Characteristics of a dove: Faithfulness. Loyalty. Gentleness (Christians are sent out as sheep among wolves – told to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves) Peace - one of fruits of Holy Spirit.

Not clear at this stage what is meant by Son of God. Phrase routinely used for monarchs in OT. Difference is the heavens are torn apart – clear reference to theophany – manifestation of God to human beings. Other examples are Transfiguration, burning bush.

Why should Jesus, sinless Son of God, be baptized by John for forgiveness of sins? Matthew is clearly embarrassed – in other gospels no such reticence. Mark makes no attempt to explain. Baptism in this case is clearly not for forgiveness of sins. Most likely that this episode is an opportunity to mark the start of Jesus’ ministry with a theophany – marking Jesus as Son of God in whom the Father is well pleased – a seal of divine approval to start his ministry.

John says Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit, whereas he can only baptize with water. No record of anyone being baptized by Jesus, although his disciples do so. Baptism by Holy Spirit and with fire may refer to Pentecost.

Shortly after the baptism, Jesus is sent into desert for 40 days and tempted by Satan. When he emerges victorious, John has been thrown into prison. Jesus takes over, travelling into Galilee and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. ‘Repent and believe the good news,’ he says.

Immediately afterwards he calls the first disciples, Simon Peter and Andrew, then the brothers James and John. After that he starts his ministry of healing and teaching, not evangelism. He chooses and develops a small group of people, rather than preaching the coming of the Kingdom to large crowds.

So the Baptism of Christ is more about the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry than it is about baptism as we understand it. Jesus may have set an example in agreeing to be baptised, but really the account is about the descent upon him of the Holy Spirit and the start of his work on earth.

It may also be about submission. Jesus is not the kind of Messiah to exert authority over others, but to be meek and humble. In this sense it’s not surprising he should submit to baptism by John, as others had done in large numbers. He did not want to set himself apart, but associated himself with the popular religious revival movement led by John.

In doing so, he sets us an example of humility. There were no bright lights and booming voices – Mark makes it clear only Jesus himself witnessed the vision of the heavens torn apart and the dove descending. He was glorified by God, but not in view of others. Most often, this is the way it is. We glorify God through the quiet services we offer others, not seeking recognition or thanks, not wanting to be singled out for praise.

So once again things are not quite as they seem. The passage is not so much about baptism as the inauguration of Christ’s ministry. Not so much about a theophany, manifesting God in human form as humility and service. Not so much about leadership and glory as submission and following.

As it says in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.


Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Children and Communion

During the Summer and early Autumn I consulted church wardens at Cheddington and Mentmore and those involved with youth work about baptism, confirmation and the policy of the diocese to enable children to take holy communion prior to being confirmed. The PCC voted in favour and Bishop Alan has now given his agreement.

The inclusion of children in this most central part of our worship is not something to be taken lightly. There will be no pressure or even expectation they should do so, but it will be a matter for parents to consider prayerfully and talk to me about whether or not they feel their own children aged 8 or over are ready. With the support of parents and the desire of the child to start taking communion, there will then be a process of preparation for the children, a service of first communion when this important first step in their lives can be recognised and celebrated, a certificate presented, and a register of names kept in the safe.

Between 15% and 20% of churches in our diocese have already taken this step, and the proportion nationally is increasing all the time with the support and encouragement of bishops and children’s advisors. I have written some notes explaining the theology and referring to a number of sources including the Oxford diocesan web site, a paper written by the Bishop of Reading, and advice and guidance for churches by our own Children’s Advisor. These notes are available to anyone on request, and of course I will take other opportunities as they arise to answer questions and explain.

The theology in the Gospels is clear. Take for example Matthew 10
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Those who work with children rightly stress we underestimate children’s spirituality and ability to understand at our peril. Children pick up very quickly when they are being excluded from something important, and nothing can be more central to our life as a worshipping community than holy communion. The Church of England has already made it clear no child who takes communion at their home church will be denied it as a visitor to another place.

You may wonder about the place of baptism and confirmation. Whatever one may think about infant baptism, the position of the church is clear. It is a full and complete rite of Christian initiation. The baptised person is received and welcomed as a full member of the church, and not as a ‘junior’ member. Confirmation is important but it does not make complete what was somehow incomplete beforehand. There is therefore no theological or other reason to wait for confirmation before people are able to partake in holy communion. In the past, there has always been a risk that confirmation may be seen as a ‘pre entry qualification’ for communion. In the future, this will no longer be the case, and confirmation takes its rightful place as a public statement of faith by an individual of an age to make that commitment.

Parents of children aged from about 8 are therefore invited to contact me to discuss their preferences prior to talking with their children if they feel it is appropriate. If they wish to proceed, their children can be included in the forthcoming classes when they will be prepared for communion. There will also be a chance for adults and young people to prepare for confirmation – the next opportunity in our own deanery will be March 2009.

Robert Wright