“This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee’. John 2:11
A lecturer in college days was fond of what he called ‘demythologisation’; he believed in taking the supernatural out of Bible stories, miracles didn’t fit in with his way of looking at Jesus. It was very hard to argue with him without sounding like a backwoods fundamentalist and, anyway, I liked the lecturer. He was a very warm and friendly man and his words were always lively and challenging, but I was always troubled by this aspect of his theology, this desire to take anything non-rational out of the story.
When it came to this morning’s Gospel reading, the lecturer’s line would have been that Jesus neither could nor would have engaged in such an action The water could not have been turned into wine in any literal sense, rather the story was a symbolic one – Jesus was the one who would supersede the old Jewish ceremonies symbolised by the six jars of water. Jesus would not have engaged in such activity, according to the lectures, his mission was an ethical one and such wonder-working would have been a diversion from the true purpose.
I spent years reflecting on these stories, and on two questions:
Could Jesus have done these things?
Would Jesus have done these things?
The answers to those questions are important, the answers we give to them should shape the way we see the world and the way we live our lives.
Could Jesus have done these things?
What sort of God do we believe in? If he is a God who is bound by the laws of physics, if he cannot bring about a material change in 180 gallons of water, then in what sense he is God?
A contemporary view of Jesus is that he was a great prophet and teacher, but then so was Muhatma Gandhi. We would not dream of singing hymns of worship to Gandhi, so if Jesus is to be worthy of worship he must be something considerably greater than a prophet and teacher. If the reality of Jesus is going to reflect the words we use in our worship, the words of our hymns, of our prayers, of the Creeds, then that reality must be someone who finds turning the water into wine to be no trouble whatsoever. The miraculous runs against both our intuition and our experience, both of these tell us these things don’t happen, but if the idea of God is going to mean anything at all, then he must be a God of miracles, a God who is not bound by scientific laws.
Could Jesus have turned the water into wine? I believe so.
If God is a God of supernature, a God beyond our explanation, a God who does the unexpected, then this must have a serious impact upon the way we see the world and the way we live. Faced with this God, how do we respond to him? There’s no escaping, no avoiding a God like this.
He could have performed the miracle, but would he?
The objection to this miracle, and to other spectacular actions like Jesus walking on the water, is that they are stunts that distract from the vital ethical teaching that Jesus came to bring us. Even Jesus objects to using power to impress people, in the story of the temptations in the wilderness he is tempted to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple so that the angels will catch him, and he refuses to do so.
There were many wonder workers around at the time of Jesus, we would call them illusionists now, people who could convince their audience that the impossible was happening before their eyes. They were for the most part charlatans and tricksters, surely Jesus would not have aligned himself with such people?
To see the miracle of turning the water into wine as a stunt is to see the event through modern middle class eyes. Most of us have lived fairly economically secure lives where we have never really been financially embarrassed. If we have ever been unable to afford something, particularly something as important as being able to provide hospitality to our friends, then perhaps we can have some understanding of the importance of this miracle.
The host has done his best, the wine has run out because there obviously hasn’t been a great deal to go round in the first place. This is a small village wedding, it is a gathering of people who haven’t much to come and go on, who can’t just put money on the table and order more wine. This isn’t just a story about providing more drink for a party, this is Jesus saving the host from embarrassment, even humiliation, in the eyes of others. This story is about allowing a man dignity and self-respect in his community.
Poor communities elsewhere in the world would much more readily understand this story than people who have never been under great pressure. Jesus declares himself that he has come with good news for the poor; there can be no clearer way of demonstrating the seriousness of these words than in responding to the obvious and immediate practical needs of a member of a poor community.
Would Jesus have performed the water into wine?
Why not? If the Christian faith is about a God who is with his people, then why shouldn’t Jesus respond in a way that shows he identifies with his community?
If we believe that Jesus could and did perform this miracle, then we must take him far more seriously than we do. If Jesus is more than just a name, more than just a distant concept far removed from our lives, if Jesus is with us now, as he was with the party in Cana, then what difference is it going to make to us?
‘His disciples put their faith in him’, John tells us. Is the church prepared to do the same?