It is wonderful to welcome members of Palmerston Place Church to St Mary’s in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is good to be together once again – a visible sign and foretaste of that unity for which we all long. Not just unity between and for ourselves, but that unity, that reaching out across difference, which our world desperately needs. Our readings today suggest something of what that being together, or more accurately, our following of Jesus together, might look like.
Quentin Blake, the famous author and illustrator of children’s books, wrote his first illustrated children’s book, more than fifty years ago. It’s a book called Patrick – some of you may know it.
It concerns a young man called Patrick, who, on something of a whim, spends his last pennies on a dusty old violin from a market trader. Having blown the dust off, he proceeds to play it as he walks along. You really need Quentin Blake’s exuberant illustrations at this point to bring the action to life, but unexpected things begin to happen behind Patrick as he walks along, in the wake of the music. A couple of scruffy, down at heel children, suddenly find their old shoe laces turning into resplendent blue and red bows. As they turn and follow Patrick through an orchard, the trees don’t just sprout apples and pears but cakes, hot dripping buttered toast, jelly and ice cream. My children always made me pause at that page to relish the moment, choosing what they would pick and eat. The birds in the trees sprout glorious plumage, and are joined in the sky by the fish leaping from the local pond. Patrick walks on with his violin, almost oblivious to the mayhem behind him, the glorious procession now joined by a herd of cows, their black and white hides suddenly sporting a profusion of colours and patterns. This glorious and strange procession, winding its way through the countryside, finally meets an old tinker and his wife. The procession stops, and the tinker’s wife pours out her woes – her husband is sick, pale and wan; they have no chance of reaching the town in time for nightfall, and she is worried. Patrick’s only response is to play his violin – the tinker perks up, colour returns to his cheeks, his skinny body plumps out; the procession begins again, wending it’s way to town, fireworks erupting from the pipe of the old tramp they also pick up on the way.
It’s a glorious tale, and worth recalling any time, but it came to mind particularly as I read today’s gospel, that familiar but strange tale of the wedding at Cana, the reluctant and almost unintended miracle of abundant wine. As Austin Farrer dryly observed, this a wedding where our Lord did not preach to the happy couple their Christian duty in marriage, rather ‘he saw to the supply of wine.’
Like all good jokes, that has a degree of perceptive truth about it. Unexpected, glorious, abundant things happen in Jesus’ wake. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is, we are told, the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’, signs that will structure John’s Gospel. After the first chapter of his gospel concludes with the calling of the first disciples, John then presents this first public sign. John doesn’t want you to read too much into it – hence that strange exchange between Jesus and Mary about the hour being not yet here. That hour will come later, on the cross, the greatest sign of all – the crucifixion of the Son that reveals the limitless love of God in all its vulnerable glory. And yet, in this first sign the disciples see enough, this seeing to the supply of wine shows that they are in the company of someone who makes things happen; they are in the procession of someone around whom extravagant, exuberant, abundant things happen, they believe as Jesus ensures that the guests at a wedding can party on. ‘Seeing to the supply of wine’ is important and revealing.
On the face of it that importance is odd, however – Jesus appears reluctant; and this is a miracle of provision where the need is not exactly great. There might be some embarrassment for the steward as the wine runs out – but this relieving of a domestic crisis is small beer, if you’ll pardon the phrase, it hardly compares with restoring a blind man’s sight or raising a dead man in full view of his family, friends and neighbours – the signs that will come later in the gospel. Things begin in understated fashion, behind the scenes, with only servants as witnesses – those who can give no admissible testimony in a court of law at that time. It is only the disciples, we are told, who begin to see what being in Jesus’ company might mean.
In our OT reading we heard that wonderful intimate image of salvation being like the marriage of God and his bride Israel. John revels in the paradox that it is Jesus who, at this wedding feast, is the true, but unknown, bridegroom – God coming to restore salvation. And this bridegroom ensures that the necessary wine for a wedding feast does not run out – in fact, he doesn’t just replenish it but produces an overabundance of new wine – 120 gallons of the stuff. This is how Good News starts – not with Jesus drawing attention to himself, but by ensuring that the feast goes on; not with heavy pronouncements on the doctrine of marriage, but in a gratuitous, over the top supplying of new wine. Perhaps churches have something to learn from that.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is urging his readers to notice the gifts, the abundance of gifts that are all around them, the Spirit of God at work in each person to build up the common good of all. So this is where Christian Good News starts, in having our eyes opened to God’s abundant providing – not worrying overmuch where it comes from, but delighting in the provision, in the abundant gifts present in ourselves and those around us, whose company we share.
So we gather in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as disciples, at the beginning of something, to find our stocks replenished, our joy rekindled, to feast with one another and in the company of Jesus. For we are wedding guests – invited along with all humanity – and the marriage feast is before us. This is where it starts and who knows what signs we might discover, what bursts of exuberant, abundant life might unexpectedly bloom as we learn to travel together in the company of Jesus. Amen.