Marriage and Jesus' Glory
Epiphany II; January 20, 2019
Our Session appointed a group of folks who are exploring the question of whether we, as a Church, ought to become part of the More Light movement in the Presbyterian Church. More Light Presbyterians are Christians who are committed to inclusiveness, particularly (but not exclusively) the inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer, Intersex, and Asexual Christians. It seems a natural implication of our mission statement to seek Christ "every day, everywhere, in everyone," but we're taking our time to consider carefully whether that is where God is leading us as a Church.
Part of what we are doing publicly is the teaching series I started on Wednesday, "Gender and the Bible." On Wednesday we talked about Sodom and Gomorrah; this coming Wednesday we will talk about the rules in Leviticus and about Adam and Eve. Another thing we decided we should do is a preaching series. Between now and Ash Wednesday we will explore the lives of several people in the Bible and what lessons they may have for us as we explore this question.
But someone, at one of our meetings, said that I ought to preach about marriage. And I agree. There isn't a whole lot about marriage in the Bible, and what there is relates to a very different time in history and a very different understanding of marriage than we have. But it happens that this story from the Gospel of John is one of the suggested readings for today, along with our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 62:1-5), so I thought today would be a good day to talk about marriage.
But first a bit about the "sign" (as John calls it), because that will give me the guiding picture for this sermon. Here's the picture: Jesus takes the water for a legalistic ritual and turns it into wine for celebration. This "sign" (or miracle) has always seemed to me to be just about the most pointless miracle in the Bible. So they ran out of wine; so what? As Jesus said, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" But John makes a big deal out of the sign, saying that it was the first thing Jesus did to reveal his glory and that, because of it, his disciples believed in him.
And practically no one knew what had happened! This isn't big and showy, like the first miracle in the Gospel of Mark: casting a demon out of a man right there in the middle of the church, where everyone saw what had happened, causing his fame to spread throughout Galilee (Mark 1:21-28). Mark wants to emphasize that Jesus has power on display and everyone is amazed! John, on the other hand, gives us a story about a quiet sign on the fringe of a big, raucous party, one that hardly anyone knows about. "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him."
Wedding feasts in first century Palestine were long affairs, sometimes lasting for three days. If it was going well, there is no surprise that the wine might begin to give out. There's no cash bar here folks; it's up to the groom to make sure there's enough wine and up to his friend in charge of the party to see to it. When the wine was giving out, Mary wanted to do something about it. It seems no one else noticed yet that it was giving out; she must have been paying attention. And typically, when the wine gives out, you figure the party's over and go home, possibly grumbling that the groom didn't plan very well. Why did Mary get involved? Was she related to the groom? Or was it just part of the way she cared about people? Well, for whatever reason, Mary decided to butt in and suggested that Jesus do something about the situation. Grumbling about it ("Mother, give me a break!") Jesus did do something about it.
When Jesus does something, he does it in a big way. Maybe that's why John says that he revealed his glory. He didn't just change water into wine, he made a lot of it: between 120 and 180 gallons. And it wasn't cheap wine, either: vino fino, vintage Thursday. The steward of the feast scolded the groom for saving the best wine for last, when everyone is too much into their cups to notice that it isn't just ripple.
Jesus does it big and does it well: it's a lot of wine, and it's good wine. Jesus is not into piddly little signs and he doesn't go cheap.
So: where to go with this? Here: the changing picture of marriage seems to me to be not merely changing social expectations but to be in keeping with the ways of Jesus. How has marriage changed? In many ways, some good and some bad, but I'll focus on the good. One of the chief ways marriage has changed is the reasons for which people get married.
Traditionally, people got married for certain expected reasons. Primarily, it was for the propagation of the species. Marriage ensured that a man and woman would mate and stay committed to each other for the well-being of their children. Human offspring demand a lot more care than the offspring of any other animal, and so that their parents create a stable household is critical for the well-being of human society.
Marriage feasts were long, joyous celebrations because two families were ensuring the continuation of their family lines by this marriage. In many cases, the bride and groom had never even met before they were married, but their families knew each other and had made a contract with each other. Sometimes the marriages were political: they could make peace between feuding families or warring nations. Or they would increase power by merging two families. Sometimes the marriages were economic: after all, you wanted to ensure the children would have the resources they needed.
So marriage was for procreation and for politics and for economics. In our society, people primarily get married for love. Now, throughout history, the intention was that the couple would also love each other. The difference was that they were expected to learn to love each other after they were married (remember the song from Fiddler on the Roof? "Do you love me?"); we expect that people will love each other before they are married and then will grow in love throughout their marriage.
So the history of marriage is that it was for social and biological reasons. It makes me think of the water for the legalistic ritual of purification: it's wonderful and grand, but it is surrounded by social expectations and has little to do, at least at first, with feelings and relationships. The current practice of marriage still concerns itself with the union of families and creating a stable environment for children, but it has a new dimension of love and deepening friendship. It makes me think of wine. Jesus took the water of social expectation and turned it into the wine of love.
If you think about it, isn't it somewhat surprising that gay and lesbian people should want to get married? If we are stuck in the ways of thinking while it's still water for a legalistic ritual, then why participate in an institution that exists for biological and political reasons? Then we taste the wine that the servants drew out of the jar, and we smile and say, "Oh, this wine is good; it's very good. Perhaps marriage is not just to ensure the propagation of the species and the raising of children. Perhaps it is also for the cementing and deepening of love."
There is, of course, a whole lot more that I have not touched on: why Christians and others have believed that sexual intercourse is most faithfully practiced only within the covenant of marriage, the changing dynamic between men and women in heterosexual marriage, the problem of divorce, and more. I could turn this into a whole series! Today, though, I don't want to lose sight of the glory of Jesus in the sign he performed at Cana.
When we're stuck in old ways, seeing stone jars for the water for a legalistic ritual, then Jesus can quietly surprise us. Maybe most of us don't even know it's Jesus, since he works on the fringe, but the servants who draw the water know. Jesus makes wine for celebrating love, a lot of wine, a lot of good wine.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master