Sunday 17 January 2016
1 Cor 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have sadly lost a number of celebrities over the course of the last week or so. It started with Lemmy from Motorhead – I don’t know if there are many big Motorhead fans in this morning but, trust me, he really was famous – and then, of course, this week has also seen the loss of both David Bowie and Alan Rickman. All three died of cancer, which does seem to be the scourge of the modern age. I doubt that there is a person in this church who has not been affected by cancer either personally or via a loved one. And it is not just a disease of the older generation – many of you know that my best man died of melanoma about 14 months ago which means that I am now older than he was when he died. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will know that Annabelle is currently fundraising on behalf of a charity which makes wigs for children with cancer, and she is doing so because one of her friends has had lymphoma and lost her hair.
Where am I going with this? Well, I just want to say two things: Firstly, the fact that everyone here probably has some experience of cancer means that no one need suffer alone or think that no one else understands. We are a church family and we are not just here to sing songs once a week, rather we are here to journey together and to share one another’s joys and pains. We don’t need to put a brave face on when we come into church and pretend that everything is alright when really we are screaming inside. And we don’t need to avoid coming to church when we feel unable to put a brave face on. None of us need suffer alone. I hope that that sharing and compassion can be a natural part of what it means to be the church here but perhaps there is also a need for some kind of fellowship group expressly to be alongside those in need. Something to pray about.
And the second point to make is that we are reminded of our own frailty and mortality. In the face of the knowledge of one’s own mortality it seems to me that there are three main responses: 1. Complete denial – I am going to live forever because death is for other people. 2. Depression and nihilism – what’s the point of living if it just ends in death? or 3. Seeking to live fully in the moment so that when death comes we do not regret the things undone. Of course this last response can also be used for both bad and good – it could lead to a hedonistic obsession with self-fulfillment or it can lead to responding fully to God in the here and now in the knowledge that today may be my only chance so to do.
There are no prizes for guessing which of these responses I am advocating. As a church, and as individuals, our response to the frailty and mortality of ourselves and of others, should not be denial or depression rather it should always be compassion, fellow suffering, in the here and now. And never forgetting, as Christians, that despite walking through the valley of the shadow of death we maintain the hope of eternal life because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Right, after that rather down beat introduction let’s try and liven things up a little.
Let me just try a little experiment with you. Repeat after me: “Jesus is Lord”!
According to St Paul in today’s reading from his letter to the Corinthians no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Many can admit that Jesus may have been a real person, many may admit that Jesus was a good man or even that Jesus was a prophet. But to proclaim him as Lord, to accept his divinity and all that flows from that, is an act of faith. And faith itself, according to St Paul, is a gift of the Holy Spirit. So if you can say that Jesus is Lord and somewhere in your heart believe that to be true then we know that God the Holy Spirit is at work in you right now.
It may not always feel like it, it may not always look like it, not least because God respects our freewill to ignore him, but God empowers his church, which is every baptised believer, by the Holy Spirit and gives us many rich gifts and fruit for the nourishment of the whole church, of one another, and of the wider world.
So what are these gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit? St Paul offers a number of lists in his letters. In today’s letter we are told that the spiritual gifts include wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy and the speaking and interpretation of tongues.
In his letter to the Ephesians the gifts of the Spirit include being an apostle, of prophecy, evangelism, being a pastor or a teacher and in the letter to the Galatians the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control. And he says there too that we who live by the Spirit should be guided by the Spirit.
Now, I expressed my suspicion last week that this part of the Anglican church probably doesn’t live by the Spirit, or allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, enough. However it is also true that there are parts of the church which misunderstand the work of the Holy Spirit too much the other way. I have told some of you the story before of the time I attended a ‘Holy Spirit away day’ as part of an Alpha course, when I was a curate. The afternoon ended up being dominated by one women who insisted that in order to be a proper Christian it was absolutely necessary to pray ‘in tongues’ and she was forcing people to copy her in order to get her seal of approval. Not only was that placing the gift of speaking in tongues above all other gifts of the Holy Spirit but it was also a form of spiritual abuse which is sadly common in some churches.
And it seems that something similar may have been going on in the church in Corinth at the time Paul wrote his letter to them. The people of Corinth seemed very good at lording it over one another in various ways and if you read the whole letter through it is clear that the Corinthian Christians were a long way from being a united body of believers. In this section of the letter Paul is making it clear that the Spirit gives a variety of gifts, that there are a variety of ways of serving and that there are various activities within the church but, as he says in verse 11 “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” And, as he goes on to say in the next section, all are needed by the body of Christ in order for the whole body to function properly. Therefore no one should lord it over another or claim that their gift is superior because God gives out the gifts and all are equally necessary.
To be properly Anglican we need to seek a middle way, a via media, between ignoring the guidance of the Holy Spirit entirely on the one hand and making the mistake of the Corinthians and parts of the modern church on the other and becoming so obsessed with individual gifts that we lose sight of the well-being of the whole church.
We need to be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit but also humble in the knowledge that the gifts we are given are not for our glory but always for the glory of God.
And if we manage that then the water of our lives will be transformed into the finest wine.
If you spend any time on Facebook then you may have seen a photograph that has been doing the rounds. It is a picture of a supermarket shelf and the label on the shelf says “Water”, but the shelf itself is full of bottles of wine. The caption to the photo says: When Jesus gets to the supermarket before you.
The gospel reading for today was obviously Jesus transforming the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. It is a wonderful story with many layers of meaning and imagery, but I am not going to try and unpick them all this morning, not only because time is against me, but because I have preached on this reading in some detail recently.
But I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts with you that have struck me since I last looked at this passage.
The first is the way in which this sign is, in some ways a mirror image of a miracle performed by Moses.
In the book of Exodus Moses was seeking to free his people from Egypt and, as we know, Pharoh would not let them go and so Moses was forced to perform powerful and miraculous signs against Pharoh and his people. Moses’ first sign, if you will, was the first plague, in which all the water in Egypt was turned to blood. Not only was the whole River Nile turned to blood but in Exodus 7:19 it says that even the water contained in vessels of wood and vessels of stone shall be turned to blood.
For Moses the point of turning the water into blood was to make it undrinkable for the Egyptians and we are told that the fish in the river died and the river stank. It was intended as a plague or a curse on the land.
At the wedding in Cana we also have water contained in stone vessels and here Jesus transforms the water into the finest of wines.
But we also know that for John the gospel writer, and for us, that wine is not just wine. In John 6, just a couple of chapters further on, that Jesus is telling his followers that they have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to enter into eternal life and, of course, in the last supper he tells us that the wine we drink is his blood. And so turning this water into wine is also symbolic of turning the water into blood, like Moses, but unlike Moses this blood is not a curse but a blessing and indeed a necessity.
We know from many other places in the Old Testament, including from the prophet Jeremiah which we had only a week or so ago, that the coming Messianic age was often portrayed as a great feast with an abundance of wine and now here Jesus attends a wedding which seems poorly provisioned and he turns poverty into abundance.
And his purpose for doing so? Well, this season of Epiphany should give us a clue. Epiphany is about making that which was hidden manifest to the world.
. Verse 11 it explains clearly why we have seen what we have just seen:
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana in Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
What shine through is his glory and the only reaction emphasised is the belief of the disciples. Glory and belief. Surely these words sum up the season of Epiphany: Glory and belief.
Next week Jesus announces in the Synagogue that he has come to fulfil the prophet Isaiah and the season of Epiphany ends the week after that with the presentation of Christ in the temple, or Candlemas, in which the baby Jesus is recognised as being the one sent to save Israel. These are all out of chronological order, but that doesn’t matter they are still all about those around Jesus coming to an understanding, a revelation, an epiphany that Jesus is Lord and, as we know it is only possible to say that Jesus is Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit.