Epiphany 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 62: 1-5; 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11; John 2: 1-11

I wonder what kind of response you have to receiving an invitation to a wedding or other big party event? Do you get excited and immediately get the date into your diary? Are you someone who goes through your wardrobe and begins to plan what to wear? Or are you one of those people whose anxiety levels are raised and who wonders whether it would be ok to decline the invitation? Perhaps you like the idea until it gets a bit nearer to the day when you start to look for excuses to change your mind. Do you need to know who else might be there? Or does it feel that there is no option but to accept?

And what about the guests at the wedding feast at Cana. Were they a mix of people who were up for a good night out and those who were checking the time, wondering how soon they could politely leave? We’re led to believe that there were plenty of the former – after all the wine had run out. Perhaps people were starting to think about going home – the wine was finished, maybe they were beginning to feel a bit weary. And then Jesus and his mother come into the story and the next thing we know is that the glasses were replenished with wine that was far superior – and the party was given a new lease of life.
If you’d been there and were thinking about leaving, perhaps you’d have stopped and thought again. Would you have been tempted by that glass of quality wine? Would the changed atmosphere have drawn you back into party mood? Would you have noticed the late arrivals whose actions changed the whole event?

We’ve spent a couple of years wondering when it’ll be time to leave the situation that we find ourselves embroiled in – when we can go home and sleep it all off and wake up in a world that feels a bit more familiar. It’s not felt much like a party, at least for most of us, and there wasn’t an option to decline the invitation, but we’ve certainly reached the point of weariness.

For some of us, there have been elements that we’ve enjoyed. Working from home has turned out to have a silver lining for a lot of people; there has been time and space to re-evaluate our priorities and many people are making different lifestyle choices as a result; societal views about what is important appear to have shifted to some extent.  Of course, for many people it has been a truly awful time – a time of isolation and fear; a time when life really has ground to a halt.

And that has all been true in a particular way within our church communities. There have been surprising benefits alongside the really difficult challenges. I’m not suggesting that we in the churches have been more impacted than other areas of life, but that the impact has perhaps been felt more acutely within our collective life. There are lots of places where people haven’t been able to gather in the usual way – theatres; cinemas; sports events – but those are places where the gathered community is different each time. In church, there is a core community that is the church – we are fundamentally about people not places. The focus is always on the gathering, on the formation of the Body of Christ in a particular place and time. Even when we are worshipping in this mixed mode of in person and online – our emphasis is on becoming community, becoming something more than the sum of our parts.

In the same way that a party is about the gathering and the fellowship, about spending time with other people in a particular way, so worship is about gathering and fellowship and a particular shared purpose and focus. That has been challenging when we haven’t been able to see one another properly – even when we are in the same building, we’re wearing masks and keeping our distance. But we have been able to read Scripture together, to reflect together, to pray together, to worship together.

One thing that is true about church is that wherever we are, and however weary we may feel, Jesus turns up. He may not always turn up in the way that we had anticipated, but Scripture reminds us that it’s only necessary for two or three to gather together, two or three with a shared desire to encounter God. Each and every act of worship has the potential to be the wedding feast, to be the event at which something miraculous happens and our outlook is transformed.

One of the features of a wedding feast is that everyone is served the same food, in the same space. There isn’t an elite who are treated differently; the bridal party eat the same meal and drink the same wine. A wedding party is perhaps one of the better examples within our society of an opportunity for an experience of equality; there isn’t a them and us. And we are told in this morning’s Gospel that it was at just such an egalitarian gathering that Jesus performed his first miracle. At an event where everyone who attended had access to the new wine; an event where everyone who attended shared the experience of being surprised by the man from Nazareth.

And that is why this story about tables laden with wine points towards something good, something that we want to know more about. The bride and bridegroom may have been the first to be told that something extraordinary had happened, but they didn’t keep the gift for themselves. There was suddenly an abundance of wine, much more than the gathered assembly was able to drink and it was for everyone. Poured out simply because it was available.

Jesus made a difference for everyone who was there; young and old, rich and poor, believer and unbeliever. For those who were at the top table and for those who were ready to leave. The new wine bringing with it a new understanding of God’s generous and abundant love for everyone. It was genuinely a gift, with no strings attached.

And that is what Jesus offers to us. In our weariness and in our newly discovered joys; in our isolation and in our opportunities to gather; when we feel important and when we feel insignificant, Jesus meets us where we are and brings us an abundant gift that has the potential to transform. A gift to remind us that God doesn’t make differences between people – that we are loved and honoured equally; that we are all invited to God’s party. The wine that symbolises this new life is freely and generously and abundantly offered.

The invitation to God’s party is issued to each and every one of us – we choose whether and when to accept.

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