Monday, January 14, 2013

A Gospel of Comparisons

Water into wine. What does it mean? Depends on whom you ask.

The subject of “to drink or not to drink” came up at our Rotary table at lunch today. A newcomer to our table probably didn’t know that four of us are Episcopalians. He mentioned that a non-church group that he’s a part of is going to be using the Gray Camp and Conference Center in Mississippi later on this year and that he was surprised to learn that alcohol won’t be a problem at that particular church camp. Then we all starting sharing the tired and worn-out anecdotes about Episcopalians and booze. After a few chuckles it occurred to me that this Sunday’s reading is John 2—the Wedding in Cana. I couldn’t help myself. So I asked him what his preacher might say about that if he were preaching on it this Sunday.

Well, he said, some of the people would say it isn’t real wine—that Jesus turned the water into grape juice. Others wouldn’t care so much. He even confessed to partaking of strong drink in an earlier chapter of his life—back before he went to this particular church. I guess it’s easy for preachers to ignore what the text says if it suits them.

Now I have to figure out whether I am going to ignore another important part of the text. Jesus didn’t just turn water into wine. He turned “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification” into wine, and it wasn’t just any old vintage. The Chief Steward goes out of his way to praise the host for saving this wine—the best wine—for last. That’s the kind of detail John sticks in there on purpose. It isn’t just accidental to his message. It’s the center of what this passage is about. Jesus’ wine is set in direct comparison with the water jars and, by implication, with the Jewish rites they were set aside for, and John makes it clear which one is better.

I don’t want to preach the anti-nomian, borderline-anti-Semitic sermon that Protestant preachers from sixty years ago might preach, but the fact is that John—the gospel’s author—had an anti-first-century-synagogue-community agenda in mind when he shaped this story the way it is. The Christian community of that day was in battle with the Jewish community. At this point, the two religions were becoming distinctly separate. Jews were chasing Christians out of synagogues, and Christians were burning sacred Jewish writings. Both were turning the other over to the Romans for persecution. It wasn’t a good time for interfaith relationships. For John and his readers, though, the division was religious rather than ethnic, but, still, it wasn’t pretty.

The fact is that for John the Jesus movement isn’t just more of the same. It was new, and it was better. John wasn’t afraid to say that Jesus left Judaism in the dust. But I’m afraid to say that. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t sound the same in 2013 as it did in 93. Maybe that’s because the Christian community in which I live dwarfs any Jewish presence in this area. Maybe that’s because Christians have a bad habit over the last eighteen-hundred years of persecuting Jews in the name of religion. But, if I strip all of that political, cultural baggage away, I’m left with a gospel lesson that says, “If you want to follow Jesus, you must leave behind the old and embrace the new.”

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I must remember that I’m speaking to a community that has been shaped by two millennia of interfaith relationships. I’m talking to a group that doesn’t know what it feels like to be the minority faith, struggling to survive. This gospel lesson is about change. It is about grace over law. It is about a heavenly banquet that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ and the new and full manifestation of God’s kingdom as expressed by the Christian tradition. But it isn’t anti-Jewish. And it isn’t anti-Torah. Finding that balance isn’t easy.


  1. Do you have the Jewish Annotated New Testament? I got a copy for Christmas (my presents often befuddle my family) and am now curious to return to it and see what it has to offer on this.

  2. I don't have it--don't even know it. I'll look it up. Thanks for the lead.

  3. Evan, Good to see you this morning. I have been a lurker on your blog, but also a serious reader. I was a little startled by the interpretation you put forth for the Cana Story. I have never thought of it as anti-Jewish. I can see your point, but my understanding of the text is that Jesus does change the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. The Gospel of John (chapter 6) provides the difficult but helpful bread dialogue. All of this together leads me to Baptism and the Eucharist.

  4. Thanks, Jim. I'm glad you like to read it, and I'm particularly appreciative of your comment. As I hope you can tell from the original post, I resist that interpretation. I'm pulling largely from Jeffrey John's "The Meaning in the Miracles." He's certainly not a conservative theologian, but he points out that the text is overtly laden with imagery that is designed specifically to distinguish between the Jesus movement and the Jewish movement (stone jars, the number 6, the evaluation of the wine itself, the fact that the first round of wine wasn't sufficient, etc.). The point I wanted to make was that even though John had his own agenda we have to be willing to see past it and carry a text to a higher level of abstraction to make it make sense to us. In some very real ways, John's agenda is not our agenda.