January 6, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using John 2.1-11, at Mattins on Sunday 6th January 2019, The Epiphany.
Turning water into wine takes time. It’s a miracle, but it’s also a process. And it’s a miracle partly because of our propensity for turning wine into water. We love to spoil what is good: as the story of Adam and Eve reminds us, in Paradise, when all is calm and well, evil insinuates itself into our hearts.
Turning water into wine is a process that involves us being determinedly fixed on the good, living with an openness to the good we do not yet know and can hardly imagine. The wonder of the steward at the wedding feast is key. It’s not normal for the best wine to be served last, but with God anything is possible.
The whole of Christianity can indeed be set in a pessimistic frame. The story would be told like this: God made the world and it was good. He made humans and it was very good. But then human being rebelled and it all went deadly wrong. Creation had all the good sucked out of it by sin and death, so that God had to set about plucking souls from the face of the earth, through faith in Jesus, who died for our sin to give us a life in heaven, away from this creation, which, with everything mortal, has been consigned to corruption.
And a Happy New Year to you, too!
That’s a deeply skewed and unfaithful reading of our Christian story, which we ought to boot into the long grass. Those who hold it, really ought to listen again to Isaiah saying to those long-locked in exile,
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
God is not defeated by anything we’ve done to spoil this world and exile ourselves from Paradise. God’s redemption is in this world and for this world, and we will see it manifest in real and surprising differences in this world. He saves the best wine till last. And this means we should read the Christian story as a comedy rather than a tragedy: ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well’, as Julian exclaimed from her anchorage in Norwich, where she was granted her Visions of Divine Love.
If we want to see this redemption at work, we have to be prepared to start small – take a second look at babies stuck away in pub outhouses, and that sort of thing. A village wedding feast is another everyday event, where you might expect the joy to drain away as soon as the wine runs out. But this is exactly where we see God’s glory renewing the ordinary, bursting out of stoneware jars, common-or-garden vessels that simply belonged to the regular, ritual life of the community, creating new possibilities and new hope.
Christians should not be the pessimists, the ones always prepared to be disappointed and to assume the new and the unexpected is, by definition, going to be worse.
Now enough of generalities. Let’s take a tough nut to crack with this theological optimism, which a former colleague of mine now holds in his hand as the bishop tasked to bring a report to Synod. The subject is gay marriage. By way of a spoiler, let me say that no conclusion has been reached about this. The Church of England is in a lengthy process of discernment. Miracles involve a process of listening to God. ‘Do whatever he tells you’, says the mother of Jesus – she trusts that there is a better future with God, but we have to listen for it and let God complete his work.
Let’s start with the reality of the situation in this country. The institution of marriage has been in decline since the 1970s. Only half the population are now married, more men than women for the first time, and there’s been a big rise in cohabitation at all ages.
Relationships are seen to be a matter of personal choice rather than social convention. The case which showed this above all was the straight couple who went to court to assert their right to a civil partnership, so that they could avoid the ‘historically heteronormative and patriarchal’ associations of traditional marriage, as their solicitor put it in the High Court. In other words, their choice on these grounds was upheld.
In fact it is the popularity of marriage among gay couples which has halted the decline of the institution of marriage in society.
What is the Church to make of this? Does it belong to the world-going-to-perdition script? The Anglican Archbishop of Tanzania has no doubt that it does. But this is where we must credit the Church of England. Rather than bury its head in the sand, it’s opening out the issue and seeing what the Spirit is saying to the Church today. It’s certainly not trying simply to put a Christian gloss on the dominant and assertive liberal attitude of society, nor is it retreating into a conservatism that’s content merely to repeat traditional views as traditionally understood. The Church is seeking the new wine in this fluid situation.
It’s doing this by reframing the issue. The report being produced is called: Living in Love and Faith. This is not first of all about making decisions about who is allowed to do what. This is about learning more about how we can fulfil our humanity, and how the Church can support and guide that journey. To do this, we need to understand our Bible better, our history better, our theology better and science better. Over 40 scholars have been enlisted in this project and 70 academic papers have so far been produced for the benefit of the house of bishops.
However, we are not going to be left out. A report will go to General Synod and then in 2020 church members will have their chance to discuss the findings in a digestible form. This is the biggest exercise in consultation since Faith in the City in the 1980s, and It will be good to wrestle with these issues in the cathedral, as surely we should find here the space to seek truth in competing and complementary perspectives.
Wine usually takes a while to ferment and still longer to come to maturity. So I am told, anyway! But sometimes the Church needs to have confidence in God and his future. We are not the guardians of a truth long since defined and now in danger of being degraded by abuse. We are the ones who must bring our stone jars to Jesus Christ in the obedience of anticipation and openness to the future. The best wine has been saved till last.
Human sexuality has always been part of our untameable nature. Its real and unruly energy frankly delights us most of the time. When used with grace it can take us into the most satisfying relationships of our lives, and cause us to lose ourselves for the sake of the beloved. But love is fed by many streams, and for naked desire to tend to love and turn into chastity and charity we need wisdom.
I urge prayer, then, for this courageous and thorough look at human identity, and for the Church’s mission – that it would be, and be seen to be, a positive force for flourishing in the world. Above all, I hope we can abandon a pessimism diametrically opposed to the gospel of redemption. Arise, shine; for our light has come!