recorded on Jan. 20, 2019
A while back, I was having a conversation with a friend that I was very close to during my seminary days. This friend has long since left the church. My friend asked me, “Dawn do you still believe in Jesus?” I remembered all the long conversations in seminary about believing in Jesus and at that very moment I had an epiphany of sorts. I hesitated to answer, because like all epiphanies, I recognized that if I let myself go to the place where my epiphany was pointing me to, I would be in very unfamiliar territory. My friend would not let me off the hook, “It’s a simple question Dawn. Do you still believe in Jesus?”
“No.” I said, and my friend smiled, the way she used to smile when she scored a point against me in some theological debate. My epiphany was shedding light on what could prove to be a painful reality. After all, from where my friend now sits, outside of the church and beyond all the church’s teachings, belief in Jesus is kind of a non-negotiable bottom line for a pastor. From her perspective, I ought to be able to give an unequivocal, “YES” to her question.
“No.” I said it again. “I do not believe in Jesus.”
My friend’s smile seemed to shine brighter than my epiphany. It was as if she was already celebrating my departure from the church. Before she could welcome me to the place where she now stands, outside the church, I said it again. “No, I do not believe in Jesus. But, ……….I do believe Jesus. I believe Jesus. I believe Jesus. I believe what Jesus said. I believe what Jesus said .I believe what Jesus taught. I believe that the way Jesus lived embodies a new way of being human. I believe Jesus when he says, “Do not be afraid.” I believe Jesus when he speaks about the MYSTERY that we call God. I believe Jesus when he insists that justice is worth dying for. I believe Jesus when he risks everything for the sake of his conviction that non-violent resistance is the way to achieve justice. I believe Jesus, the way he lived, the way he died, and the way he lives on in the hearts and minds of all those who follow his way of being human. I believe Jesus. I also believe that it doesn’t matter a whole hill of beans whether or not I or anybody else believes in Jesus. But it makes all the difference in the world and to the world that we believe Jesus, because at the core of who Jesus was and what Jesus taught is LOVE. LOVE God with all your heart, with, all your soul, and with all your mind and LOVE your neighbour as you LOVE yourself; this I believe is a way BEYOND the kind of humanity that is always being consumed by itself. This LOVE moves us in to a new way of being. I believe Jesus’ call to look beyond our selfish needs, our selfish desires, our self-self-centeredness, and to move beyond our fears, to LOVE.
A lot of water has flown under the bridge between believing in Jesus and simply believing Jesus. Now I realize that some people would say that they don’t see much difference between believing in and simply believing. Well that’s where the story of the Wedding at Cana is helpful. You see, so many people see the story about the Wedding at Cana as a miracle story; a story that proves Jesus is who people say he is. You either believe in Jesus or you don’t. You either believe in the fact that Jesus turned actual water into wine, or you don’t. You either believe in miracles or you don’t. Well, I believe the story of the Wedding at Cana, but I do not believe in miracles; at least not the kind of miracles that defy reality. I believe the story about Jesus turning water into wine. But I don’t believe that any water actually turned into wine. I believe the story, but I don’t believe that Jesus was some sort of super-natural being who instantaneously changed water into wine. I believe the story, because the story points to the truth.
This story is not about Jesus being a miracle worker and the story is not about a miracle. As it says in the text itself, this is a story about signs, a sign is something that points to something else. This is not a story about a miracle. If you stop there you are not getting past the sign, the sign is not doing its job, you are not getting to what the sign is pointing to. The miracle in this story functions as a sign. This is a story about what the miracle points to. This is about something beyond the story itself. This is about LOVE. This is a story about abundance, about extravagance, and about transformation. 150 gallons of wine for people who have been feasting for three days and have already exhausted an ample supply of wine. They are already drunk. 150 gallons of wine is an abundance of wine! This is a story, a sign that points to us to the reality of overflowing, abundant, extravagant LOVE, that has the power to transform our traditions, our way of being in the world, and our very selves. This story is believable precisely because it points beyond the story itself to a deeper truth. The Gospel according to the anonymous storyteller we call John was written some 70 to 90 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The anonymous storyteller we call John was, in the words of our friend John Shelby Spong, a Jewish Mystic. As a Jewish Mystic, the anonymous storyteller we call John uses symbols, metaphors, mythological, and mystic language to create an image of who Jesus was and is and more importantly, this master, mystical storyteller creates for us an image of divinity that is LOVE; LOVE beyond our ability to comprehend.
Jack Spong suggests that the Jewish Mystic who wrote this story uses the characters in all of his stories as symbols that point beyond themselves. I want to talk about two of those characters. The first character is the one whose name has traditionally been ascribed to this gospel. The character of John, the beloved disciple. The character of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, follows Jesus all the way to the cross. This character points beyond himself and functions as the archetype of ideal follower of Jesus, the one who follows Jesus to the very place where crucifixions happen, all the way to the cross. Hold the symbol that the beloved disciple in your mind, as we look into the story of the Wedding of Cana. Remember it is part of a bigger story.
Our story begins … On the third day…the phrase “on the third day” is a sign of things to come. “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.” We know the mother of Jesus by the name Mary. But the writer of this gospel does not use her name, thus allowing this character to function as a sign. The mystical gospel-story-teller has Jesus call his mother, “Woman.” When asked by his mother to step in. Jesus replies, “Woman my hour has not yet come.” This “Woman” functions as a symbol, a sign of something much bigger than the unnamed mother of Jesus. At the cross, these two signs, these symbols will also appear. At the foot of the cross, the beloved disciple, and the “Woman” meet again. At the cross we hear an echo of this story, in the words “Woman my hour has come.”
The story teller creates for us a picture of a radical new way of being in the world. That radical new way of being is intimately connected to all that his audiences hold sacred. The traditions that have held the Jewish people together in community with one another, the traditions that nurture ground and sustained their ancestors, are transformed by abundant, extravagant, free flowing LOVE. A whole new way of being is revealed. The mother of Jesus is cast by the story-teller as the Woman who is a symbol for Judaism.
The character of John is cast by the story-teller as the ideal disciple, follower of Jesus; the follower who travels all the way to the site of crucifixion and beyond to the healing from the crucifixion. The clay jars in this story are the repositories of all that the people revere; the traditions, the beliefs, the way of doing things that have nourished the Jewish people for generations. The mother of Jesus stands between the waters used for the Jewish rites of purification and the wine of the Christian Eucharist. Remember these stories were written in the second century and distributed to these new christian communities who were at odds with the Jewish neighbours.
The “Woman” the mother of Jesus is a transition figure who becomes the mother of a new way of being. The story of the Wedding at Cana comes to fruition at the site of the crucifixion. The story-teller uses words from this story to indicate how the healing from crucifixion will happen. At the foot of the cross stands the Woman, accompanied by the Disciple whom Jesus loved — the ideal follower. Standing, grieving at the horror of what has happened, at the foot of the cross, they hear Jesus speak to them: “Woman, behold your child.” And to the beloved disciple Jesus says “Behold your mother.”
This “Woman”, the mother of Jesus, is the symbol of Judaism; for Judaism is the mother of Christianity. The waters of Jewish purification have been turned into the free-flowing wine of the emerging community of the followers of the way. This is the miracle. Woman, behold your child, you gave birth to this child. Judaism, you are the mother of these followers of the way. Beloved, you follow me, behold your Mother, you are her child, care for her, love her. The miracle of free-flowing, abundant, extravagant LOVE’s ability to transform lives, this I believe. Recognize that you are the child of Judaism. We are kin. Do not forsake your mother. You are bound up in one another. We are bound up in one another.
This story is so much greater than the words we use to communicate the story. At the heart of reality is an abundant LOVE; a LOVE that flows beyond the boundaries of race or clan, country or religion. I don’t believe in miracles that defy reality, but I do believe the miracle that is LOVE. The miracle of LOVE is the way to life that has the power to transform everything.
I believe Jesus when he points to LOVE as a way of being in the world. I believe Jesus when he talks about the ONE who is LOVE. I do believe Jesus’ non-violent resistance to injustice is the way to peace. I believe that crucifixions continue to happen and the way to heal from those crucifixions lies in the power of free-flowing, abundant, extravagant LOVE. I believe Jesus. May the LOVE that Jesus revealed, and continues to reveal, flow freely, abundantly, extravagantly, in all our lives. May that LOVE transform our traditions, our ways of being in the world, into free-flowing, abundant, extravagant, loving ways of being in the world; ways of being, that embody the LOVE that Jesus taught and lived.
Believe Jesus. Behold the other she is your kin. Behold the other he is you kin. Be LOVE to, for, and with one another, and transform suffering into healing, injustice into justice, hatred into kinship, death into life, fear into LOVE. Behold the LOVE that is the MYSTERY we call God. Now and always. Amen.
Inspired by John Shelby Spong’s work in “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic” to see the characters in this story as symbols of entities much bigger than they first appear, I have begun to see that just as the early followers of Jesus found themselves in a time of transition that gave birth to new practices, we 21st century followers of Jesus find ourselves in the midst of transitions that have the potential to give birth to new ways of being in the world. As always I am indebted to Jack Spong, who has visited Holy Cross three times to share his work with eager learners. Indeed, in the Preface of “The Fourth Gospel” Jack thanks Holy Cross for being a place where his book “first found public expression. Jack’s insights continue to challenge us.
(Pr. Jon Fogleman)
you are not following correct classical biblical interpretation.
Curious: who gets to decide what is the “correct classical biblical interpretation”???
Pastor Dawn, I like what you do with this passage. I have wrestled with the miracle that is obviously a sign of abundant, extravagant gift at a wedding by Jesus (not the bridegroom) where the water is specifically said to become wine “ύδωρ οινον γεγενημένον” and again in John 4:46; it’s hard to get around that literal interpretation. But you and I guess Bishop Spong have moved into a different level of interpretation, which could be called allegorical or symbolic, something presented by Cardinal Henri de Lubac as part of the four senses of Scripture: literal, symbolic, moral or action of the disciples, and anagogic or mystical. You do include the moral as a call to LOVE radically, and, the mystical, how the church and the Judaica origins can be held as one, by tying in the John 19 piece. Wonderful exegesis, in my view!