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Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Joy of Messianic Wine


While we in The Salvation Army believe in the inspiration of Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and they alone are “the divine rule for Christian faith and practice,” not every story is given equal weight and value in our practice. The story in today’s lectionary text of Jesus at the wedding of Cana (John 2:1 – 11) is one that has the potential to be swept under the rug a little bit within our denomination.

You see, The Salvation Army is a non-sacramental and tee-totaling denomination; we don’t practice communion and we don’t drink alcohol. We don’t believe that the sacrament of communion is wrong–not at all. But, like the Society of Friends (the Quakers), we don’t believe it necessary to our salvation. And neither do we believe that alcohol is evil in and of itself, but so much of our work is with people whose lives have been ruined by an addiction to alcohol that we have chosen to live our lives in solidarity with them by not drinking.

As a young Cadet (seminary student in our idiosyncratic jargon) I delivered a sermon at one of our ARCs (Adult Rehabilitation Centers–drug and alcohol treatment programs) based on this text. At the time I was somewhat fascinated by prestidigitation and, using a bit of misdirection and a drop or two of red food coloring, I – prestochango - ‘changed’ water to wine. The ARC officer laughed and told me that I was “very bold” to preach this passage in a room full of recovering alcoholics.

So when we come to John’s story (and this story is only in John, it is not found in the synoptic gospels[i] ) about Jesus procuring huge quantities of wine for a wedding celebration, a story told with heavy Eucharistic overtones it doesn’t sit very well with our theological practice.

I’ve heard some of my fellow Salvationists insist that the wine that Jesus drank and the wine that he created in this story was not actually fermented wine but only unfermented grape juice. I’m sure they mean well, but those hold this interpretation[ii] are working too hard to find something there that isn’t there. The wine is wine and, as we’ll see, Jesus made a lot of it. Jesus was free with the wine. In fact, one of the accusations made about Jesus by “the Pharisees and lawyers” was that he was too free with the wine:

“…the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Luke 7:30 – 34 NRSV).

So there was a wedding in Cana, and “the mother of Jesus was there.” (2:1) Curiously, the gospel of John never refers to her by name. She appears only here at the beginning of John’s narrative and at the end of story, at the foot of the cross. In both places Jesus refers to her - maybe somewhat coldly - as “Woman” (John 2:4, 19:26). And Jesus was also invited to this wedding celebration along with his disciples (2:2). 

Jewish weddings were relatively simple affairs, but they were also quite extravagant. After a period of betrothal, when the time was right and all had been prepared, the bride was summoned from her father’s house and publicly escorted by friends of the groom to the groom’s house or tent; she was paraded through the town with shouting and trumpets, with music and laughter. Then under the chuppah, (the wedding tent) blessings were recited by the rabbi (or if the village didn’t have a rabbi, one of the respected elders) and that (largely) was it. Simple. But the celebration that followed - extraordinary, exuberant, extravagant! As many guests were invited as was possible, the entire village, even, (Patai 64-66) to share in the joy of the happy couple.

There was food, and wine, and singing, and wine, and shouting, and wine, and games, and wine, and dancing, and wine… There was a lot of wine. And while the bible may have a mixed message about the consumption of alcohol (in some places wine is condemned as a “mocker” - Proverbs 20:1 - and in others we’re told that wine “gladdens the heart of man” – Psalm 104:15) the scriptures are consistent in their connection between wine and celebration; times of festivity were times of wine. When the wine was gone, joy was gone.

There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine;
all joy has reached its eventide;
the gladness of the earth is banished.
Isaiah 24:11 NRSV

But at some point during this protracted celebration - a Jewish wedding festival could last as long as a week – the host ran out of wine; “…the wine failed” (2:3 ASV). This would be a great embarrassment even today, to run out of food and wine for the guests invited to a modern wedding reception, but even more so there and then in a culture so grounded in the necessity of extravagant hospitality. To run out of wine for your guests, unimaginable horror!

It is at this point that “the mother of Jesus” turned to her son and said, “They have no wine.” (2:3)
How she knew this, we aren’t told. And neither are we told why she came to her son with the problem. But the Roman Catholic Priest and biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown suggests that the wine supply for wedding feasts was dependent, to some extent, on the gifts of the guests, and it may be that Jesus and his disciples, as poor as they were, had failed in their duty to bring a gift and were (at least partially) responsible for the shortage of wine (Brown 102). If, as is likely, the family was only a poor peasant family, and if Jesus and his disciples, (also poor - without homes, without jobs, without money of their own) came without bringing a gift of wine, a shortage would have been inevitable.

The wine (for whatever reason) had run out, had failed, and the joy of the wedding celebration was, as soon as this sad fact was discovered, going to come to a rather abrupt end. The mother of Jesus in disquietude and kindly sympathy with her friends’ growing embarrassment (Gossip 493) came to her son and told him: “they have no wine,” they have no joy…

But Jesus resists her meddling, her scolding (perhaps) saying: “Woman, what do you want from me? My hour has not come yet,” (2:4 NJB) which could be more dynamically translated as, “what does my business have to do with you? – Mind your own business, woman!” (Le Donne 46). But his resistance is minimal, and even before he has consented to assist, she has already instructed the servants to do whatever he asked.

The young Russian Orthodox novice, Alyosha Karamazov, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, reflects dreamily upon this passage: “….Gladness, the gladness of some poor, very poor, people…Of course they were poor, since they hadn’t wine enough even at a wedding….The historians write that, in those days the people living about the Lake of Genesareth were the poorest that can possibly be imagined…and another great heart, that other great being, His Mother, knew that He had come not only to make His great terrible sacrifice. She knew that His heart was open even to the simple, artless merry-making of some obscure and unlearned people, who had warmly bidden Him to their poor wedding. ‘Mine hour is not yet come,’ He said, with a soft smile (He must have smiled gently to her). And indeed was it to make wine abundant at poor wedding He had come down to earth? And yet He went and did as she asked Him…” (Dostoevsky 336).

His hour has not yet come, the time is not ready, but he consents to begin with this, the first of his seven signs as described in the book of John (2:11). And what an inauspicious beginning to the revelation of his glory this is: Jesus does nothing to draw attention to himself in this miracle (and note that John doesn’t even use that word) – only the servants and his disciples (and possibly his mother) know what has happened (2: 9, 11).

Jesus points the servants to the six stone jars that were nearby, stone jars kept, John explains-probably to a gentile audience unfamiliar with Jewish traditions-for the Jewish rites of purification (2:6) and instructs them to fill these jars, each of which holds 20–30 gallons with water. Jesus tells the servants to fill these jars with water, to fill them up to the brim, and then to take some of the water to the steward of the feast (2: 7 – 8).

Now somewhere between the time that the servants poured water into the jars, ladled out a cupful, and carried it to the steward of the feast something happened. And I can’t be more specific than that, because John isn’t more specific than that. He doesn’t tell us what happened or when.  But when the steward tasted what the servants brought to him, it was wine – and most excellent wine too. The steward remarked to the bridegroom, ‘Usually people serve the good wine first, while everyone’s sober enough to taste it, and then the inferior wine, but you’ve kept the good stuff until now.’ (2:10)

The water in those stone jars, 120 – 150 gallons worth, had become fine luxurious wine but how and when it happened is not made clear. In fact, very few seemed to have noticed. The change from water to wine went all but unnoticed except by the servants who carried the water and by Jesus’ disciples. The change went unnoticed because, in John’s view, that’s not what is important here. The primary emphasis is not on the action of changing water to wine. The emphasis is not on the resulting wine – though it was good and there was a lot of it (Brown 103).

These are part of the sign. And the sign is not the destination. The sign points us toward something greater.

The wine, the extravagant quantity of wine, is a mark of the messianic time, a mark of the wedding feast between God and his people.  In Isaiah 62 the prophet spoke of the vindication and the salvation of God’s people, Zion. This time of blessing would be marked with the eating of food and the drinking of wine (Isaiah 62:4 – 8).  The prophet Jeremiah said something similar in his work:

The shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion
and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and over the flock and the heard;
their life shall become like a watered garden
and they shall never languish again.
(Jeremiah 31:12 NRSV)

The expectation of those heady messianic days seems to be marked in the Jewish imagination by great quantities of wine.  In a non-canonical apocalyptic work from (roughly) the time of Jesus we find the following description of those days:
“…the earth shall yield its fruit ten thousand fold, each vine shall have a thousand branches, each branch a thousand clusters, each cluster a thousand grapes, and each grape 120 gallons of wine.” (2 Baruch 29:5).

The old things were passing away – the water for the Jewish purification rites was being replaced by great quantities of messianic wine.  The changing of water into wine at the wedding of Cana isn’t about Jesus and his friends and family drinking a great quantity of wine, but a mark of, a pointer towards the eschatological, end of things marriage of God and his people.  “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19: 9 NRSV).

And we are invited to share in that feast. We are invited to share in that celebration. We are invited to share in the joy of that messianic wine (even us tee-totaling Salvationists.) We are invited to share in the joy of being with God through his son Jesus. The new age is here, the time of the Messiah is now, the new wine of salvation and joy is ours.

“Do you fear Him. He is terrible in his greatness, awful in His sublimity, but infinitely merciful. He has made Himself like unto us from love and rejoices with us. He is changing water into wine that the gladness of the guests may not be cut short. He is expecting new guests, He is calling new ones unceasingly for ever and ever….There they are bringing new wine.” (Dostoevsky 337)



(Let's have some wine!)




Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John (i - xii): Introduction, Translation, and Notes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1966.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. (translated by Constance Garnett). New York, NY: Barnes & Nobel, Inc. 1995.

Gossip Arthur John. “Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible:  Vol. 8 The Gospel According to John. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1952.

Le Donne, Anthony. Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co. 2011.

Patai, Raphael. Sex and the Family in the Bible and the Middle East. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company Inc. 1959.











[i] However… Jesus’ teaching about the new wine in old wine skins, in the context of a wedding, near the beginning of his ministry in Mark 2: 19 – 22 may be an echo of John’s story (Brown 105).
[ii] This interpretation isn’t limited to only members of The Salvation Army, and is not held by all members of The Salvation Army.

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