Check out these compelling lines from a 6th century Greek Orthodox hymnographer named St. Romanus the Melodist. He writes about Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana in Galilee:
When Christ, as a sign of His power, clearly changed the water into wine All the crowd rejoiced, for they considered the taste marvelous. Now we all partake at the banquet in the church For Christ’s blood is changed into wine And we drink it with holy joy, Praising the great bridegroom, For he is the true bridegroom, the Son of Mary, The Word before all time who took the form of a servant, He who has in wisdom created all things.
Jesus says to his disciples in John, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He [or she] will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”
Of course our first reaction is to ask, “Greater than Jesus? How is that even possible?”
One possible meaning: Because I am going to the Father–because I am going to die and rise again–sin and death will be defeated and you will have even more power than you do now.
The Kingdom would be even more fully ushered in at the end of John. Is this what Jesus means?
In short, the works that the disciples perform after the resurrection are greater than those done by Jesus before his death insofar as the former belong to an age of clarity and power introduced by Jesus’ sacrifice and exaltation. Both Jesus’ words and his deeds were somewhat veiled during the days of his flesh; even his closest followers, as the foregoing verses make clear, grasped only part of what he was saying. But Jesus is about to return to his Father, he is about to be glorified, and in the wake of his glorification his followers will know and make known all that Jesus is and does, and their every deed and word will belong to the new eschatological age that will then have dawned.
I think it could also be helpful to understand Jesus’ statement in light of the signs he has performed.
Jesus says the above in John 14, shortly after the conclusion of the “Book of Signs” portion of John–the first 12 chapters containing his “7 Signs.” John 13-21, then, constitute what scholars call the “Book of Glory.”
A sign, after all, is that which (while good in itself) points away from itself and to a greater, deeper, fuller reality. So if Jesus is referring to “greater things than these signs,” that is not so hard to grasp if we consider that signs always point to something greater anyway. One could read Jesus’ statement as a sort of tautology, where the “greater things” mean that somehow the deeper reality Jesus’ signs point to is more fully unearthed through the ministry of the disciples.
In other words, Jesus says to Philip, these signs are just a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, and you and all the disciples after you are going to work and work and work together to keep bringing the Kingdom in.
When puzzling over John, I can think of no better place to turn than to Raymond E. Brown, to whom I give the last word. Note especially the final sentence of this paragraph.
One preacher says, “Weddings are accidents waiting to happen. Something almost always goes wrong at a service of holy matrimony.”
That doesn’t match my experience with weddings, but there is something quite wrong at the wedding in Cana, in Galilee (John 2:1-11): they’ve run out of wine.
So maybe there’s no better place for Jesus to show up, his first week of public ministry, than at a well-attended, days-long wedding.
Jesus turns water into wine—“the first of his miraculous signs,” John says.
The Seven Signs of Jesus in John
Jesus performed more than just seven signs, but John uses seven signs, or miracles, to organize the first part of his Gospel.
1. Jesus changes water into wine (John 2:1-11)
2. Jesus heals the official’s son (John 4:46-54)
3. Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9)
4. Jesus feeds the 5,000 (John 6:1-13)
5. Jesus walks on water (John 6:16-21)
6. Jesus heals the man born blind (John 9:1-12)
7. Jesus raises Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
A translator’s handbook, intended especially for those who are taking to Bible into new languages for the first time, talks about it this way:
[A] “sign” is a means of revealing a greater reality to which the “sign” itself merely points. The Gospel of John speaks of seven “signs” of Jesus, and these are “signs,” not necessarily because they are miracles, but because they point to a truth beyond themselves, to a truth regarding God’s salvation.
Signs are good, even powerful, in and of themselves, but they point to a “greater reality.”
A sign is deeper than itself.
The signs of Jesus, in particular, are meant to tell us something about Jesus. The “signs” and wonders Jesus performs are witnesses to his glory. They’re each a vignette, a window into Christ’s revealing himself to anyone who would receive him.
Sign #1: Water Into Wine
Jesus, his mother, and his disciples have all gotten invitations to this wedding. It’s Jesus’ first week of public ministry, as John tells it, and it’s a huge event. It would not be unexpected for just about the whole town of Cana to be there. The local shops and businesses probably all put a “Closed for wedding” sign on their doors. Will be back in seven days. It was likely a week-long event.
But, even if not all weddings are “accidents waiting to happen,” this one was. The guests drank the wine down to the last drop.
It would be pointless (but fun) to speculate as to whether or not this was poor planning on the family’s part, or too much drinking on the guests’ part.
Either way, this family is about to go down in history as “the ones who ran out of wine at their wedding.” You sort of hope for them, at this point, that they don’t have any other kids to marry off, ‘cause no one’s coming.
Verse 3 says, “When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
One early theologian said, “Perhaps his mother, as mothers do, incited him to perform a miracle, wishing that the greatness of her son would be revealed—and thinking that the lack of wine offered the right occasion for the miracle.”
The (1984) NIV gives us the reply: “Dear woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.”
There is a sense in which Jesus isn’t ready to fully reveal all his glory. But he whips into action. It’s a good way of honoring his mother.
Because… not only is the reputation of the family at stake, but the festive spirit of the wedding is in jeopardy. The Talmud, a text of Rabbinic Judaism from a couple centuries after this, bluntly says, “There is no rejoicing [without] wine.”
Jesus is on it. He performs the miracle, in kind of a subtle and smooth way. Maybe this is because his “time had not yet come,” as he said to mother Mary.
Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
Just to be clear, we are talking about anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.
This doesn’t mean that a bunch of wedding guests are going to get toasted. If you think of a whole town of people celebrating for a week, a lot of wine is needed.
Here’s the town today that might have been 1st-century Cana:
Imagine the effect of 180 gallons of wine!
This picture is probably 30 gallons or a little more:
So if my calculations are correct, here’s a visual on how much wine Jesus made:
The result of this sign, besides a happy wedding, is in John 2:11:
This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee.
He thus revealed his glory,
and his disciples put their faith in him.
Or, in another translation, “There Jesus showed how wonderful he was.”
It was looking back and thinking of moments like this that John could write in his Prologue, in chapter 1: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We have seen how wonderful Jesus is.
What Does the Sign Show?
N.T. Wright says, “The whole point of the ‘signs’ is that they are moments when heaven and earth intersect with each other.”
From these signs of Jesus, we on earth learn more about ultimate, heavenly realities: who Jesus really is, what sorts of things God is capable of, what kind of intervention is possible in the problems of the world today.
Especially with this first sign, when Jesus is fresh on the scene, we get a portrait of who our Savior is.
—Jesus likes to have fun—
“Eat, drink, and be merry” is not just a mindset that the Bible shoots down. Jesus wants us to eat, drink, and be merry—so long as we’re not neglecting important things.
Jesus upset the religious elite of his day by all the feasting he and his disciples did. In Luke some angry leaders say to him,
John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Luke 5:33-35)
As long as you’ve got me, Jesus says, party on.
And did you catch this nice touch from John: these jars, where the chemical miracle happened, were ones “used… for ceremonial washing.” There’s nothing wrong with religious ritual, per se—I quite like it myself. But these jars for ritual cleansing—Jesus turned them into party favors. That’s kind of like co-opting the baptismal font for a punch bowl.
This family made good choice in inviting Jesus to the wedding. Maybe he already had a reputation as a fun guy—someone you wanted to celebrate with.
—Jesus is generous—
This sign also shows Jesus to be generous. Under his command, the servants “filled [the jars with water] to the brim.” There’s no skimping with Jesus.
Next chapter Jesus will say, “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.”
God does not withhold his good gifts and his love from us. He wants us coming to him with open hands, even empty cups, so he can fill us with good things.
Also, just a geographical note here: we know the stories of Jesus, so we take it for granted, but Cana was 70 miles north of Jerusalem. This is pretty far outside the city of the religious power brokers.
But being a religious insider or expert, so to speak, has never been a requirement for receiving Christ’s love.
Jesus does not withhold his presence from the ones who have never known power, wealth, or the comfort of living in the mainstream of society. Jesus is generous.
—Jesus is accommodating—
Jesus is accommodating. He says his “time has not yet come,” but then he does the miracle. He seems to be flexible on timing. You’ll see in other places in John where Jesus says “his time has not yet come.”
We know the frustration of when God’s timetable or timing in the world does not match ours. But God is not impassable. God is not unaffected by our needs and desperation.
If God has a massive planner on his desk, with dates and times and places, it’s written in pencil. God can change the future. God can even accommodate our requests when he maybe otherwise wasn’t planning to. Jesus is accommodating.
How Shall We Respond?
Having seen this intersection of the heavenly and earthly, having caught a glimpse of a God who changes reality, a Jesus who is fun, and generous, and accommodating… how shall we respond?
John models a response for us in verse 11: “He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.”
We can eat, drink, be merry, trusting that our God is a God of celebration… assured that he’s generous… and confident that he’s flexible to respond in real time to our needs and intercessions.
Look at Mary’s response in verse 5 to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you.”
I think we can safely assume, 30 years in, that she’s onto the whole divinity thing. She doesn’t know what he’s going to do or how, but she expects something, when she comes to him with a need: “They have no more wine.” Her words to the servants model an admirable submission to the Son of God: “Do whatever he tells you.”
Do the good you know to do. Act in love, in the ways that you see it within your reach to do. “Do whatever he tells you.”
John, by showing Mary and the disciples’ response to Jesus’ first sign, calls us, too, to submission and faith and trust in Christ.
I think another response this passage can call forth from us is just… relief.
Jesus isn’t boring or a killjoy. He liked to celebrate, to enjoy parties and good wine and food with others.
Jesus says of his mission, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus wants disciples to live life to the fullest, and one implication of this is that we enjoy the good things on earth.
We read in the Psalms:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
Jesus wants us to enjoy the abundance of his creation. He is not stingy. He’s not inflexible.
This passage can offer us relief because it reminds us that prayers regarding needs do affect God. We can invite him into broken and unresolved places in our life.
An Even Greater Wedding Feast
The wedding at Cana, in fact, serves as a foreshadowing of a great heavenly banquet, where Jesus is the groom. And he invites everyone, not just in one whole town, but across many nations. It’s not just a weeklong wedding celebration, but an eternal one, with Jesus as host.
The prophets saw this day and were relieved. Amos rejoiced, “New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.” Joel saw a day when “the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk.” (And that milk—it accounts for those who don’t drink wine… so God’s got everyone covered.)
We, like Mary and the disciples, have seen the glory of Jesus. Witnesses to this and many other signs of Jesus, may we put our trust in him. May we hope in him. May we present our needs and lacks to him, asking for his help. May we place our confidence in him. And may we give ourselves over to him, and keep our hands open for the good things he has to give us.
There is a compelling book about Jesus that I’ve been working my way through again recently: Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise, by Virgilio Elizondo. Elizondo’s context is that of one who, as an ethnic minority in the United States, has experienced oppression and racism, which he connects to Jesus’ own experience of being ostracized as a Galilean with a non-mainstream identity.
Jesus can have compassion on the weak and erring because he himself has lived through the same situation. Without ceasing to be God, he entered the world of the voiceless, the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the public sinners, the emarginated, the suffering. He did not come just to do certain things for them: he came to become one of them, so as to enable them to find new life in him and thus be able to do things for themselves.
I could go on about how rich the book is (and it’s barely 130 pages). But I especially wanted to share these lines, where he describes what he calls the resurrection principle:
Only love can triumph over evil, and no human power can prevail against the power of unlimited love. The more that the sinful world tries to crush and destroy the ways of unstinted love, the greater will be love’s triumph. A Spanish dicho can be applied here: no hay mal que por bien no venga (“there is no evil from which good cannot come”).
It’s been a quiet week at Words on the Word. Don’t worry–I’ve been working on some future posts, not the least of which is a review of the new Caspian record. In the meantime, just for fun, here are the top six posts that keep people coming back to the blog, based on traffic, in increasing order.
I know–taken from the vantage point of Christian interpretation, it might seem a dumb question. So bear with me. Here is 2 Samuel 7:11b-16:
“Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.
This could all so easily be about Jesus, until you get to: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.”
Even if you want to say God somehow punished Jesus on the cross (uhh…), Christians don’t (generally) believe Jesus committed any iniquity.
So that part, at least, has to be about David’s literal next-of-kin descendant, Solomon.
Verses 15 and 16 go on:
But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
There are at least Messianic undertones to this whole passage, though. Surely God had more than just Solomon in mind when he spoke these words. He is, after all, promising a throne to David forever. Two other things:
1. The lectionary reading stops after v. 14a (!), so you don’t get the stuff about punishment. Is this to intentionally make it read more like it’s about Jesus?
2. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 17 also omits the iniquity part… does this mean the Chronicler was taking it to be a Messianic promise (only), too?
What say you, O readers? I’m still mulling this one over.
One place I like to go, from time to time, to rouse my spirits and draw me closer to the heart of God is Wendell Berry’s Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
I’ve been chewing on one line in particular the last part of this week: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Berry’s words are good for us to hear right now, because “all the facts” include the reality of living in a country with a deeply ingrained racism habit that we just can’t seem to kick. The Deacons and I were praying Wednesday night in the back of our sanctuary, right about the same time another group of believers was praying in a Charleston, South Carolina church…. People of color in this country continue to suffer at the hands of racist persons and racist systems that perpetuate their mistreatment.
But, Berry says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
If Wendell Berry were narrating Jesus’ state of mind in Mark 4:35-41, he would have said, “Jesus relaxed and took a nap, though he had considered all the facts.”
The disciples are thinking, “Oooh, nice—we’re going to go out in a boat with Jesus into this serene lake:”
Whereas Jesus probably knows that this was in the offing:
Here’s Rembrandt’s rendition of it:
And yet Jesus “lies down and sleeps in peace,” as the Psalm says.
A Furious Squall…
Mark 4:35 says, “That day when evening came, [Jesus] said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’” From what I can tell, evening can be a good time to catch fish, but to traverse a lake…? When you’re out camping and sunset comes, you try to set up camp, not embark on a new leg of your expedition.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and Jesus’ ways are not the disciples’ ways, so off they go. Verse 36 says, “Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him.”
“Just as he was”—it’s like when you’ve made a spontaneous decision to pick up a friend and go out for coffee, and you are in a hurry and you say, “Just come like that, just come how you are. Atomic Cafe doesn’t care if you wear your pajama pants and fleece-lined Crocs. Get in the car.”
Jesus and the disciples just went.
Next verse, verse 37: “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.”
I love this genius storytelling of Mark. If you’re reading or listening to this story, you don’t know yet where Jesus is. “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.” And then, you expect, verse 38 will say, “And Jesus, with power and authority, stood up and made the waves stand still.”
But, no, verse 38 says, “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” He needed his introvert time. He found a pillow, or a big sandbag, and put his head on it.
The disciples take this as apathy, some kind of a cruel joke.
If the boat is nearly swamped, and Jesus is still sleeping, he must not be wet yet. It’s possible the stern was raised. The boat could have looked something like this:
Which probably makes the disciples all the more upset. You wonder… if Jesus knew this storm was coming, is that why he was at the stern, elevated above the rest of the boat? And if so, the reader of this text wonders, why didn’t he quell the storm before it started? Or give the disciples a heads-up? Mark doesn’t tell us.
But his students ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we down?”
The specific wording Mark uses in the text suggests that the boat was filled “to the extent of its capacity” (HT).
And doesn’t this imagery of a flooding boat go against the axiom that “God won’t give you more than you can handle?” Maybe it’s more like, “Sometimes we get more than we can handle, and God’s not necessarily the one who gave it to us, but he’ll be right by our side anyway.”
…And an Omnipotent God
If Mark’s given us the full humanity of Jesus—he was sleeping on a cushion—now we see his full divinity. Verse 39 says, “He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.”
“Who is this?” the disciples ask. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
The text says it goes from a “great” windstorm to a “great” calm.
Jesus talks directly to the wind and the waves. Can you think of another person in biblical history who talked to the waves and the sea, and told them to do something?
Jesus, they are starting to see, is more than just an amazing teacher. Listen to how God questioned Job:
Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
I don’t know if the disciples, in that moment of fear, would have had Job in mind, but the kind of thing Jesus is doing in this passage is the kind of thing that only the LORD God Almighty does.
Here he is. God himself, in the boat with the disciples.
Psalm 107 says, “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”
But They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships…
I wonder if Jesus had this Psalm in mind as he went out into the Sea of Galilee with his disciples. Maybe he thought, “Alright—it’s Psalm 107 time. Let me show these young ‘uns what I can do.”
Listen to part of Psalm 107 in the King James Version:
They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind,
which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They mount up to the heaven,
they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted
because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still.
Did part of that ring a bell? You might recognize this guy:
Here’s a close-up of the Fisherman Memorial overlooking the Harbor:
“They that go down to the sea in ships,” the inscription reads, 1623-1923.
They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;
These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.
…These See the Works of the LORD
What about those who go unrescued?
And the Psalm goes on to describe the wind and the waves. Those at sea “reel to and fro… and are at their wits’ end.” Surely this describes the lives of those lost at sea from 1623 to 1923, and before and since.
Then they cry unto the LORD in their trouble,
and he bringeth them out of their distresses.
He maketh the storm a calm,
so that the waves thereof are still.
That very much sums up the experience of the disciples in Mark 4. They’re living out that Psalm with Jesus
But herein lies a theological difficulty. I don’t know how many fishermen cried “unto the LORD in their trouble” in stormy seas, but the memorial in Gloucester stands there to honor those who were not brought out of their distress… or at least, not brought out of a storm. There are some storms–literal and metaphorical–that God just does not make calm. Unlike the ones the Psalm 107 goes on to describe, these men and women that the man at the wheel stands for were not rescued.
“Teacher, don’t you care if [they] drown? …Why didn’t you save them?”
It’s one of the perplexing questions that confronts us—why a God who can and does intervene so often… just lets some things go… lets some evils move ahead. Allows men and women to get lost at sea.
That existential question has come up again this week in Charleston:
You can’t kill love
The 9 members of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church barely had time to “cry to the LORD in their trouble.” And though Jesus was in attendance at that Bible study and prayer time—“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them”—he didn’t stop the hateful actions of a deeply racist young man.
Surely those 9 didn’t have to die. I don’t know how many more of these things it will take for our nation and lawmakers to finally move ahead in a serious conversation about gun control. I don’t know how many more unarmed black people will have to die before our country wakes up to the pervasive racism in our midst.
They didn’t have to die. But, you know what? In the lexicon of the Kingdom of God, dead isn’t really dead.
Because you can kill a person, but you can’t kill love. You can try to cut somebody down, but “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” From even horrible death can come new and powerful expressions of life.
Rev. Clementa Pinckney was the Pastor of Mother Emanuel, one of those who died. There’s a short YouTube video you can easily find: a couple years ago he welcomed a group of folks who were on tour in historic Charleston. Here’s what he said:
The African American Church… really has seen it as its responsibility and its ministry and its calling to be fully integrated and caring about the lives of its constituents and the general community. We… don’t see ourselves as just a place we come to worship, but as a beacon, and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.
But I like to say this is not unique to us. It’s really what America is about. Could we not argue that America is about freedom? Whether we live it out or not… but America’s about freedom, equality, and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s what church is all about. Freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be… and have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you maybe have to die… to do that.
We saw this week how the family members of the victims responded. They called on Dylann Roof to repent of his sins and believe in Jesus. As Rev. Pinckney suggested, they called him to a life of “freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends [him] to be.” They said things like, “Though every fiber of my being is hurting, I forgive you.” And the nation watched, amazed at the witness of the families in that church.
And so God, working through the amazing mercy of the families, calms the storm, after all. The winds of hatred and the breaking waves of destruction die down as Christ works in the hearts of his disciples in Charleston who choose faith over fear.
When God’s children find themselves in choppy waters, our Lord, Jesus, is right there with us in the boat.
And because they know Jesus is in the boat with them, the families of Mother Emanuel have chosen to be joyful, “though [they] have considered all the facts,” though their loved ones have been lost at sea, as it were.
Not a sudden storm, not even a tragic shipwreck can keep Christ’s disciples from making it to the other side. There they see the works of the LORD, and their witness lives on.