Sensing God :: See

John 9 is one of my favorite passages in all of the Bible and will be the chapter we look at for the First Sunday in Lent as we talk about Sensing Jesus. In John 9, Jesus heals a blind man. I realize that we can find a lot of these instances in the Gospels, but this one is very different. It includes a conversation challenging a flawed theology of what caused the man’s blindness, an intense conflict between the healed man and the Pharisees, and a realization that the authorities who placed themselves as the judge of others bring judgment on themselves. We also watch the amazing development of the blind man in his knowledge of Jesus move from, “I do not know him” to proclaiming him Lord and worshiping him…quite a transformation.

Today, on Ash Wednesday, I want to focus on the first of many lessons I glean from this passage. In Jesus, God is revealed as the giver of life, not as a rules-maker and rules-enforcer (take a moment to look at his healings on the Sabbath as a primary example). Early in this story, Jesus radically reorients how his disciples (we) see and think about God. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This question reflected the theological belief of the day among Jews – that someone did something wrong for him to be born blind. It was cause and effect. That’s how God works because God is a God of rules they believed. Jesus challenged that.

It is very important to recognize that how we see God impacts how we live life, how we see ourselves, and how we see others.

If you see God as the divine rule-maker and rule-enforcer, they you will see yourself and others in those same terms (well, mostly others). If that is who God is then we will find ourselves constantly judging others by how well they are following codes of behavior.

If you see God as a giver of life, you will participate in sharing that life in yourself and with others. You will participate in healing, reconciling, and loving.

How we SEE God directly impacts how we live, move, and have our being. The beginning of John 9 and this question of the disciples before the actual sign (miracle) doesn’t seem to have the impact of the rest of the story, but I think how the chapter starts is critical…because it challenges us and calls us to examine how we understand sin and its effects. Once we wrestle with this opening section, the rest of the chapter will make a lot more sense. John 9 is about how we all begin our journey through life in blindness. Our spiritual life hinges on our willingness to allow Jesus to transform our capacity to see everything.

This is the first step on the first day of Lent…recognizing that we all begin our journey in blindness.

Love and Hate

Luke 2:25-35

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Love and hate are intimately linked within the human brain, according to a study by Professor Semir Zeki of University College London. Zeki studied the brains of people who profess deep hatred towards a person and deep love and here is what he discovered.  When people looked at the images of those they hated, it involved specific areas in the sub-cortex of the brain. One area they already knew was connected to contempt and disgust. But they found these same areas of the brain were involved in deep feelings of love. Zeki proposes that this may be connected to the preparation of aggression that may come when you feel someone you love is threatened.  While love and hate are found to be at work in the same area of the brain, there is one interesting difference. Zeki and his research team found that the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reasoning become deactivated during love, whereas very little of the area is deactivated in hate.

Zeki concludes with this hypothesis…love seems to be less critical and less judgmental toward those loved. Hate is more judgmental, more critical, and more calculating…seeking ways to injure, harm, or exact revenge. The other interesting find? Hate could be objectively quantified in the studies. Love could not. There was no way to objectively quantify love.

Zeki could have saved a lot of time if he had just read the New Testament…

Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate the coming of the fullness of love to the world. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son… Christmas is the time we celebrate when love came down from heaven. And this is a season of love. There is something warm and cozy about Christmas. Families gather, meals are shared, we reach out to those who are not with us by phone and Christmas cards.

But as we explore the great paradoxes of Christmas, this week we focus on the second Sunday of Advent’s theme…love. We know that the world Jesus came into was not only a world of love. Just as in Jesus day, we are surrounded by the paradox of a world where God is pouring out His love into a world filled with hate.

The Magi search for the child to pay him homage as a power-hungry king tries desparately to keep power by slaughtering innocent young children.  The angels announce the birth of the Savior to a poor band of shepherds.  Joseph and Mary receive news of the miraculous birth, but their experience is not exactly glorious.  Our world is not different. We see the paradoxes all around us.  Love comes in the midst of a world of hate.  People killing innocent people and calling it faithfulness. People mistrusting those around them and those in authority. We need love more than ever in a world filled with hate.

In today’s passage, we see Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple as was the custom. Simeon was a righteous and faithful man and very old. God told him he would not die until he laid eyes on the Savior of the world. As Jesus is brought into the temple, Simeon is drawn in and when he lays his eyes on the child, he rejoices! He says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Simeon sees the light of salvation for all people, including the Gentiles. Love has come down.

IF we ended there, that would be enough. But the Bible points us to another paradox…Simeon continues…“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

We see this bitter prophecy played out in the life of Jesus as he confronts the lives and motives of so many.  He called us to examine our inner thoughts as well.  In John 3:19 Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Jesus was and is the One who reveals our inner thoughts and calls us to choose light and love over darkness and hate.  We are confronted with this Sign everyday.

The good news is that love has come into the world. But that love will call for a decision from the world. A decision to love in the light…or hate in the darkness.

I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

I remember in college a young girl who asked me, “Is it possible to forgive someone who is dead?” She asked it after our college youth ministry team was leading a lock in and several of us had shared about forgiveness. I had shared about my father walking out on my family when I was 14 years old and how my forgiveness of him was important to my spiritual growth. After the program, she felt she needed to forgive to be able to grow in her faith.  As we inquired about the question  she told us that her uncle had died a year ago.  When she was very young he had abused her in ways that were disturbing and atrocious. Now that he was dead, she wondered if forgiveness was possible and if her relationship with God was in danger.

My first reaction was connected to the kinds of examples we had shared in our time with the youth and how insignificant they were to the level of wrong done to this young girl.  Second, as I thought about it then and have thought about it since, I have asked this very human question. “Does that guy even deserve forgiveness?”

Paul, in this passage of scripture today, is also reflecting on some very personal things with his young protege, Timothy.  Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ who has strengthened me…even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence.”  Paul is sharing his own personal confessions with young Timothy. In a wonderful moment of gratitude, Paul sums up the central understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to forgiveness, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is true and worthy of full acceptence. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost.”

Wow! Talk about authentic and self-revelatory (and I remember my preaching professors telling us to never use our personal lives as examples!) This is quite a confession, but the confession is not really the focus here. For Paul, the focus is the grace and mercy and forgiveness showered on us in Christ Jesus.

When we declare each week that we believe in the forgiveness of sins in the Apostle’s Creed, we are first and foremost giving thanks to God in Christ Jesus who forgives us.

Theologian Stephanie Mar Smith, refers back to Martin Luther (1483–1546) when reflecting on this passage because of his similar emphasis upon the mercy of God in the face of human sinfulness. In his early years, Luther was ridden with anxiety because he believed that he could not live up to God’s righteous standards. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he realized that the righteousness of God was not a standard to which he must attain, but rather a gift from God: a mercy by which persons are made righteous through the righteousness of Christ.

The depth of sin was revealed, which Luther interpreted as the human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God (I am sure this doesn’t apply to anyone here – no arrogance and no one who attempts to justify their actions before God and others).  In addition to the revealing of our sin, God justifies us and declares us not guilty through the righteousness of Christ, who acts, loves, and believes on our behalf. This is important to grasp, because many of us don’t really think we are that bad.  We don’t believe we are really deserving of punishment – certainly not hell. But in order to understand how God’s grace works in forgiveness, we must first grasp the grace and mercy God has shown to us for our sins – which is what Paul reveals in this morning’s passage.

The first thing we have to do is get in touch with our sinfulness.  As Methodists, we don’t really preach those kinds of “hell, fire, and damnation messages.”  We prefer the “you are loved of God” messages.  This hasn’t helped our people understand the need for extravagant forgiveness and mercy.  While I am certainly not encouraging us to beat each other up, a healthy dose of our position before God would help us deal with our arrogance as it relates to sin.  How can you really be thankful for forgiveness if you don’t feel you need it?  Which leads to another problem as we begin to think about forgiving others…

If we truly believe God has forgiven us, then it is easier to forgive others as God forgives us. Jesus indicates in the gospels that if we do not forgive others, we in turn cannot receive forgiveness – not because God chooses not to forgive us, but rather because we choose to close off the channel of grace.

Simply put, I like to think of grace flowing through us like a drain.  If we identify our deep need for forgiveness and receive great mercy and grace, we are more motivated to forgive others.  If we really don’t feel we need that much forgiveness, we don’t have that much grace to share with others.  Also, if we refuse to forgive others, we do not allow the grace of God we have received to be shared with others which shuts down our ability to receive grace.  When the drain is clogged nothing comes out…and nothing more can go in.  Forgiveness is a spiritual act between you and God. We must forgive the other because if we don’t, our spirits become narrow, distorted and selfish. That in turn keeps us from receiving the grace of forgiveness from God. When you forgive another, it is something that takes place in the spirit – you are set free to be a channel of grace again.

Forgiveness is required and necessary.  I will never forget that brave young girl in that small church in South Georgia who desired to be a whole person and a vessel of grace. I don’t know where she is now or what she is doing, but I can tell you this. If my God is willing to forgive me…and if that girl was willing to forgive her uncle…than, by God’s help, I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. Lord, let your grace and mercy flow through me.

I Believe in the Church

1 Corinthians 12:12-31
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  Newton actually borrowed that ancient phrase from a saying that dates back centuries – “dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants.”  Simply put, he is saying I did not get here by myself and that is true for all of us. We are not who we are on our own. We each owe a debt of gratitude to more people than we can name for who we are and for what we have done.  And not just thanks to those we’ve known in our lives. We owe a debt to the generations who have come before us that we don’t know! We have all stood on the shoulder of giants. For those of us who are Christians, we are who we are because of the community of faith that has brought us here. That community of faith is the CHURCH.  (My church members were concerned that somehow this statement was connected to recent presidential political banter “You didn’t build that”.  That is not in my mind at all here, so please don’t place your political fears here!)

In the Apostle’s Creed, each Sunday we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” When we say it, we are declaring the unique role the church, the body of Christ, plays in our lives.

Now let me clear something up at the very beginning, the holy catholic church (with a little c) is not the same as talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “of broad scope, relating to all humankind, universal”. For the first 1,000 years there was only one Christian Church, the universal church, the catholic church. When we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” we are not aligning with Roman Catholicism. We are saying we believe that the church universal is the body of Christ and no matter what denomination we are we are.  We are a part of the ONE, UNIVERSAL body of Christ.
If you have a “universal remote control” at your house you can help your understanding of small “c” catholic by referring to it at the “catholic remote” from now on.

The church is important. God’s design and will is that the church is Christ’s body on earth. This is important for us to understand as we think about how God works in the world and how we are a part of that.

There are those who say, “I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” And that is true. Just like you can be an American and not vote or participate in making your country a better place to live. It is true one can be a believer in Christ and not go to church, but it is also true that to be fully committed as a Christ follower and disciple, you must be connected to the community of faith. Trust me, I’ve known hunters and golfers and others who tell me they find God in a tree stand or on the fairway on a beautiful morning. And I will say, sure you can see God there! Christian theology for 2,000 years has taught that God is revealed to all through natural revelation – i.e. the birds and the trees.  But it is only through what theologians call “particular revelation” that one can live distinctly as a disciple of Christ.  In our faith, we believe this “particular revelation” comes through the church.

The second type of person I have experienced as a pastor quite a bit is the one who says, “I will go to my Bible study at my friend’s house and that will be my church.” Or, “I will be involved in Walk to Emmaus or Gathering Place or “(insert valid ministry here)” and that will be my church. Just as Paul stated, the ear is not the eye and the foot is not the hand. These parachurch ministries are vital and important and they are extensions of the body of Christ, but they are NOT the church by themselves. Churches are not perfect, I will be the first to admit. And many of these ministries and groups sprout up because the church hasn’t done its job, that is true. But Paul makes clear that the church, the body of Christ, has a distinct personality because it is God’s prescribed way to save the world. Imperfect as it is, it is God’s vehicle that provides the fullness, balance and accountability we need in our lives. It is okay to supplement your church with other studies and groups, but to abandon the church is not healthy. There is no tradition, obedience, submission, or covenant involved beyond the church. When we look for substitutes for church, what we are really looking for is church on my terms. That is selfish and gives us over to the temptation of power in our lives.

The church calls us to submit to Christ.  One thing I know about people, is we don’t change naturally. I don’t become a better person or a better Christian just because I know I should. The way we change is when others come alongside us and encourage us, and yes, sometimes admonish us lovingly.  If left to my own will, I would do only the things I think are good and worthy. The church calls us to more. To not forget about the poor, the marginalized, the needy – in our world and among us.

I Believe Jesus Will Come Again

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
1Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

This passage took on special meaning for my friends Rob and Gayle Grotheer this week. Rob is pastor of College Place UMC and was formerly on staff here at Wesley. On Monday afternoon, thieves broke into their home and took a lot of things that were very valuable to them. As we reflected together on this passage, it took on special meaning for Rob. How can one be ready for a thief when you don’t know when they are going to come?

The apostle Paul used the imagery of the thief to describe the return of Jesus Christ. He said if we live our lives in the darkness, in complacency, saying “there is peace and security”, then we are in for quite a shock. But if we live in the light, living every day as if the Lord were to return today, we will be ready not only for Christ’s return…we will be ready for the judgment of God as well.

Jesus told his disciples he would return, and the lives of the apostles were spent actively waiting for that return. Throughout Paul’s writings, we see him encouraging Christians to maintain hope and not give up anticipating that Jesus will return.  So Paul says, “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; … and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other”

Each week in worship we declare our central belief that Jesus “…sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” (which is just an old way of saying the living and the dead).  The Nicene Creed is somewhat more descriptive about Christ’s return, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
We recite this to proclaim a central truth that is found throughout the New Testament…Jesus said he will return and he declares there will be a final judgment of everyone.

So how can we be ready when we don’t know when he will return? I mean it’s been 1,979 years since Jesus ascended into heaven and he hasn’t come back yet. That’s just the kind of thought process Paul warns us against. We’ve heard people say, “Live everyday as if it was your last,” and I like that saying, but how do we do it?

The ancient monastics accomplished this in a way that may sound morbid to us.  We must think more about our death. We must contemplate more about our mortality in a way that reminds us there will be an end.  Evagrius of Pontus said, ‘Think about your death and you will see that your body is decaying. Think about the loss, feel the pain. Our mortality helps us put the vanity of the world outside. Think about those who will be in heaven and the souls in hell. It is important to meditate on their condition, the bitter silence and the moaning, the fear and the strife, the waiting and the pain without relief, the tears that cannot cease to flow. Think also about the day of resurrection, imagine God’s judgment. Imagine the sight of the confusion of sinners before God and above them all the sound of the gnashing of teeth, dread and torments. Bring before your mind the good laid up for the righteous, their confidence before God the Father and Christ His Son. Think on all this. Weep and lament for the judgement of sinners, keep alert to the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget this, wherever you are and whatever you do. Keep these memories in your mind and they will cast out the thoughts and actions that harm you.’

I admit this is not the most exciting thing a preacher has asked you to think about. But I am saying to you that this is how we change the way we live. Think more upon your end; So that your actions will be shaped by the limits of your mortality. How I treat others, how I speak to others, how I live my life – if I never think of the end then what I do along the way doesn’t matter.

Thomas a Kempis, the famous 15th century monk wrote, “Happy is the man (or woman) who hath the hour of his death always before his eyes, and daily prepareth himself to die.”  He also wrote, “O the dullness and hardness of man’s heart, which thinks only of the present, and looks not forward to the future. Thou ought in every deed and thought so to order thyself, as if thou wert to die this day.”

Are you ready?

I Believe…In God the Creator

Genesis 1:1-3
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.

We recite it every week.  The Apostle’s Creed.  For some of us, it has special meaning.  For others, it is just what we are supposed to do and doesn’t really mean anything at all.

The truth is that no matter what camp you may fall in, whether the Creed has meaning or seems to have no meaning, the Apostle’s Creed is forming you more than you can even imagine.  The Apostle’s Creed is not something we form.  It is something that forms us.  Creeds are not something we make, as much as they are things that make us.

And the very first line of the Apostle’s Creed declares, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Each week in worship we declare this formative understanding of God.  God is creator of all and everything that exists is dependent upon God.

By believing in God as Creator, we affirm that we are created us in God’s image.  God is maker of heaven and earth and all that is in it.  We are God’s children, formed in God’s image.  The imago dei, the image of God, dwells in us.  This is significant in how we view the world and how we view ourselves.

Growing up, I was exposed to the “Plan of Salvation”?  There were four statements in the Plan and they went like this, “Man Has a Problem, We Are Separated From God; Your Works Cannot Save You; God’s Has a Solution, Jesus Christ; How Do We Accept Christ, Faith”.  This simple plan of salvation was taught to me from a young age, but it wasn’t until college that I realized it was missing something very important – and it was the Apostle’s Creed that helped me discover it.  The first step in the plan states we are, firstly, sinners, separated from God.  This is not the first message about humanity in scripture.  The very first message about humanity in scripture is “You are Created in the Image of God!”  That changed everything about the way I perceived not just the plan of salvation, but all the people I meet every day.  The starting point made all the difference in how I viewed humanity.

The first line of the Apostle’s Creed also affirms that God formed creation out of the chaos, bringing light in the darkness.  Illumination is a significant part of the creation story.  Light reveals to us that God was present even in the darkness – God was and is present in the formlessness…the void…and the chaos.  Out of that chaos and darkness, God brought order, harmony, balance and unity…and God still does that every day.

I was talking to a good friend this week about a difficult time in her life she had experienced a few years ago.  In processing all the ups and downs and twists and turns, she was able to see how God was moving even in the dark chaos.  She could see God’s work of order and harmony in the midst of her own void, bringing light to her life and those around her.

I believe in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth – in that one statement, we are reminded of our identity as children of God and that God is with us even in the dark chaos of life.  I need to be reminded of these things every single day.

Weddings, Water and Wine

John 2:1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Every time I read this passage I envision Cal Naughton, Jr. at the dinner table in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby as he says, “ I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-Shirt because it says I want to be formal, but I’m here to party.  I like my Jesus to party.”  As irreverent as that is, this is exactly the Jesus we see in John 2.  Attending a formal party…a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

This opening miracle, or as John calls them “signs”, in the Gospel of John seeks to help us understand the nature and character of Jesus.  But before I lift up a few of the relevant portions of this passage there is something we need to discuss – wine.   Because the bottom line is this – this story is all about wine, but not about wine as you and I think about it.

In order to truly understand John 2, we need to reclaim a Biblical understanding of wine.  Unfortunately, most of our understandings and misunderstandings about alcohol come more from our culture than the Bible.  If we refuse to open ourselves and gain a Biblical understanding of wine, we will totally miss the point in John 2.

Wine in the Bible is first and foremost a symbol of blessing, abundance, and redemption.  There are numerous verses to support this understanding.  In Genesis 14, the Priest Melchizedek gives the Abrahamic blessing to Abraham communicated with the symbols of bread and wine – in scripture, these are basic fundamental symbols of providence, abundance and blessing, along with oil.  Bread, oil and wine are symbols of God’s creative sustenance and abundant blessing.  Isaac’s blessing to Jacob and Esau, given over bread and wine.  And we see in the blessings passed along by the patriarchs, the hope that God grant you “heaven’s dew, earth’s riches – grain and new wine in abundance.”

In several passages wine is brought as a drink offering to God, the aroma of which, is pleasing to God.

In Psalms and Proverbs, the signs of bread, oil, and wine overflowing are signs of blessing and peace from God, “God will give wine to gladden the heart, oil to shine the face, and bread to sustain the heart.”  During the feast of the Passover, and the Last Supper, there are four cups of wine, representing the four redemptions promised by God to the Hebrews – (The Cup of Sanctification, The Cup of Judgment, The Cup of Redemption, and The Cup of Restoration).

I could go on and on and on, but what I want you to hear is this – wine is a symbol of redemption, abundance, blessing, sustenance and redemption.  If you don’t get this, you won’t get John 2.

As a pastor, I do want to be careful here.  None of this has anything to do with the warnings the Bible gives regarding the abuse of wine – as with anything in God’s creation – the basic symbols of God’s creative sustenance; bread and wine can both lead to sin – too much bread is gluttony, too much wine is drunkenness.  There is a time and place for a discussion or two on the abuses bread and wine, but not today.

The point today is if we can get out from behind our culturally formed sensibilities regarding wine, we are able to see this story and hear its message.  Because after all this talk about wine, let me surprise you.  This story is not as much about wine as it is about who Jesus is.

This is the first sign or miracle in the Gospel of John.  This sign defines him, his ministry, his purpose.

Weddings have meaning in the Bible far beyond the joining of a man and a woman.  The wedding has eschatological overtones – we are called upon to pay special attention because a wedding points to fulfillment, fullness of God’s design and plan, and the culmination of all things.

The celebration of the wedding is confronted with a problem – the wine has run out.  Jesus’ mother comes to him and says to Jesus, “They have no wine.”

Jesus’ response to his mother is hard for us, but let me explain.  “Woman” was not an uncommon greeting for a stranger.  It is neither rude nor harsh.  But it is odd for one to address their mother this way.  Why does Jesus speak to her like this?  Jesus at this moment plays down his family relationship with his mother.  What concern is that to you and me is not rude, but rather disengagement.  Professor Gail O’Day points out, “In this one exchange, Jesus establishes his freedom from any and all human control – not even Jesus’ mother has a claim on him.  He is governed by only one thing – God’s timing and direction.”

And here we see a fascinating image.  Very descriptive, six stone jars for the ritual of purification, each holding 20-30 gallons.  The cleansing of hands, arms, and face before eating is tied to wholeness, blessing, and spirituality.  You receive the blessing of food and life once you are ritually/spiritually clean, so you bless God and you wash – then you eat and drink.

When Jesus turns the water from these jars of purification into wine – the biblical image of abundance, redemption and blessing, we see something amazing.  The sign and symbol of wine will also become the symbol of Christ’s blood – wine, blood, redemption, blessing, abundance, ritual cleansing….

Jesus is the new wine, his blood will purify us.  This gift is not a rejection of their faith, but rather the fulfillment of it.

The last thing I will point out is not only the superabundance of gifts given through Jesus (think about the feeding of the 5,000 and how much food is left over).  But the vast amount of wine is only surpassed by its vintage – it is the BEST wine.  We are not talking $4.99 Trader Joe’s here.

The sacramental nature cannot be missed.  Wine in John 2.  Bread in John 6.  The symbols of life, redemption and sustenance.  The symbols of God’s blessing.  The symbols of life.  They symbols of Jesus.

This miracle is about more than good wine and parties.  It points to the one who comes to embody the blessing of God.  Jesus is the new wine.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Jesus is the redemption of the world.

Methodists and the Importance of New Birth

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” – Romans 5:6-11

In our Wesleyan Methodist heritage, we believe that Accepting Grace (Justifying Grace) is the work of God that grants us pardon and new life. We call it the moment of salvation – when we say yes to God’s invitation to life, we are saved, born again, redeemed, granted pardon. God’s Accepting Grace is two works of God taking place at the same time. When we say yes with our words and our heart, we are Justified and Regenerated.

Justification is what God does FOR us – forgiving our sins. Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Accepting Grace is both of these at work in us. God accepts us, cleanses us, claims us, and changes us.

Justification is that great image of being declared NOT GUILTY. We are actually guilty since we are all sinners, but as we know one can go into the courtroom guilty and through a variety of factors be declared NOT GUILTY. I can’t think of anyone particular to use as an example here, but I can point to the irony of being declared NOT GUILTY when you are guilty in the American judicial system. For example, when you bust into a Las Vegas hotel room to reclaim your stolen memorabilia. But that is another story for another day…

John Wesley, in his sermon Justification by Faith, stated, justification is the clearing us from the accusation brought against us by the law: At least if this forced, unnatural way of speaking mean either more or less than this, that, whereas we have transgressed the law of God, and thereby deserved the damnation of hell, God does not inflict on those who are justified the punishment which they had deserved.Justification is what God does FOR us.

Regeneration is what God does IN us – renewing our fallen nature. Regeneration is not about status, rather it is about nature and being. Regeneration is not a declaration, it is a transformation. The great image here is of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis. What amazes me when I visit the Cecil Day Butterfly Center at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, is how a caterpillar can become a butterfly. It is the same creature and yet completely different. This is the work of regeneration through the Holy Spirit – we are the same creature, yet completely different.

John Wesley, in his sermon, The New Birth, says this about regeneration, “this is the great change God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty spirit of god when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus’, renewed after the image of God, when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender love for all humanity.”

Now here’s the rub, Accepting Grace is our way of understanding what God does FOR us and IN us at salvation. But this work of Accepting Grace must be volitionally accepted, unlike Preparing Grace (Prevenient Grace) which is poured out on all regardless of response. Accepting Grace requires a YES from us. In our recent United Methodist experience and tradition, we have moved away from talking about this YES. This may be one of the reasons we have many church members on the rolls and in the pews who want to think of themselves as justified, but have never experienced regeneration! They have never said YES with their hearts allowing the Spirit to renew their fallen nature.

It is time to begin to reclaim this distinctive and essential doctrine of our faith. Methodists are people who believe in a decision of faith, whether that decision comes in a blinding light, or a slow and nuanced growth in the church. Either way, the moment of Justification and Regeneration must occur.

The beauty of our denomination is the proclamation of love. We respect each other even when we have differing views on issues that are not essential to the faith. We focus primarily on our love of God and neighbor manifested through action. But let us never forget the need of new birth. Let us proclaim and invite. Let us lift high the redeeming cross of Christ.