Song of Songs (selections); John 2.1–11
A Sermon at the Wedding of Michael Lloyd and Abigail Doggett
in St Peter’s Church, Ugley
by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
On the front of your service sheets there is a painting of ‘the Wedding at Cana’, to story we read a few moments ago. The focal point is of course on Jesus and Mary at the left of the picture; but I want you to imagine thought bubbles coming from the heads of some of the other characters, particularly the two in the middle, the ones wearing crowns and anxious expressions, the bride and the groom. What are they thinking, and how does Jesus deal with that?
There are many reasons why St John’s story of the wedding at Cana seems appropriate for today, but there was one that struck me with peculiar force as I thought of Michael’s remarkable achievement in putting off this happy moment as long as he has. ‘Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ One might even suggest a repunctuation: ‘Woman? What! Has this to do with me?’ It’s very nearly thirty years since I first encountered Michael, and throughout that time this kind of Johannine suspense, from the first mention of an ‘hour’ which has not yet come, has been maintained to this very day, the true day of love and glory. As with the wedding at Cana, today we witness a sign which speaks of both love and glory, and speaks, not just to Michael and Abigail’s family and friends but in a sense to the whole world, the whole cosmos. One of the reasons why marriage is so important, and actually one of the reasons why marriage is so difficult, is that it puts up a signpost, against all the odds, speaking of love and glory in a world of suspicion and shabbiness. And, Abigail and Michael, we are here today as much to thank you for raising that flag, for putting up that signpost, as to congratulate you and pray for you and wish you well. The question has been answered; the hour has come; the glory is revealed.
Glory! When St John declares that Jesus ‘revealed his glory’ by changing the water into wine, we shouldn’t limit his meaning to that single extraordinary act – as though God’s glory should be understood in terms of what some might see as a spectacular conjuring trick. (I know it’s dangerous for bishops of Durham even to mention conjuring tricks, but this is a party and I trust you’ll cut me some slack.) No: as John says elsewhere, Jesus did plenty of other signs, and John has chosen this one, the wedding at Cana, very carefully as the opening one in his sequence. Everything in God’s creation points beyond itself. The first creation account in Genesis builds carefully through the different pairs: heaven and earth, light and dark, sun and moon, sea and dry land, animals and plants, and finally humans, part of creation yet standing over against the rest of creation as God’s image-bearers, God’s under-gardeners – and themselves divided, as are the animal and plant kingdoms, into the ultimate complementary pairing, male and female. John’s gospel is all about the marriage of heaven and earth in Jesus Christ. That is the final purpose of God in creation – not the separation of heaven and earth but their wonderfully fruitful combining. And it is that coming together of the complementary God-given pairings that we celebrate in the marriage of a man and a woman, of this man and this woman, of Michael and Abigail. And let’s say right off the top, in case anyone is in any doubt: the faithful and joyful mutual love of man and woman is no curious social convention, no accidental genetic quirk, no arbitrary regulation made up by some mad old moralist. It is a sign of what the wise creator intends for the whole creation.
And that of course is why marriage is not only difficult – so difficult as to appear to some today totally impossible – but also full of potential for awkwardness and embarrassment. John’s splendid little story of the wedding at Cana turns on one of those moments when it all goes horribly wrong. One of my first memories of Michael was of him spending half of his own twenty-first birthday party frantically finishing the preparations for the second half; and one of my most recent was of him and Abi, last week, getting cases and cases of wine out of the car in readiness for today, guarding no doubt against the possibility that reading John 2 might be tempting providence. I’m not sure how far they went: the six stone jars John speaks of would together hold about 150 gallons, that is, about 800 bottles’ worth. Sounds like quite a party. In fact, it’s a bit like the picnic in the desert four chapters later, when Jesus feeds the crowds out of next to nothing and they find twelve baskets of bits and pieces left over. This is all about God’s lavish provision, God’s generous overflowing love, the glory of heaven filling the earth as the waters cover the sea.
And it’s all to rescue this poor couple from social embarrassment . . . an embarrassment which reflects the blushing of Adam and Eve, hiding from God in the garden, a couple gone wrong, a fault symbolized by wrong eating now being put right by a redemption symbolized by right drinking. Jesus’ changing of water into wine is designed to say, not just to this couple whose day was about to be ruined but to the wider world, to you and me, to Abi and Michael, to the whole creation, It’s all right! It’s going to be OK! And since all of us need to hear that word quite often, not least within our homes and our marriages, we need to turn this story itself into a good, strong drink and inhale its bouquet, roll it around our mouths, savour its aftertaste, the multiple resonances of good news, of gospel, of glory, the glory of God in the face of a surprised and relieved husband and wife.
And of course John frames the story so that it points ahead to the ultimate moment of glory, the resurrection itself. ‘On the third day’, he says, an unnecessary note of time unless he intends it to carry this Easter significance, as surely he does since he repeats it in the next story, the cleansing of the Temple and the promise that when the Temple is destroyed Jesus will raise it up in three days. There is something about this wedding, this wine, which speaks of resurrection, of new creation, of new beginnings and new hope. Of course, there is a local meaning to this ‘third day’ theme: as you may know, Abi and Michael have been trying to get married for a few weeks now, with a blessing by the Bishop of London, no less, and a pre-nuptial service in London in addition to their engagement service, so that this is at least the third day for them, presumably on the dangerous philosophical assumption you find in Lewis Carroll’s great poem ‘The Hunting of the Snark’, that ‘what I tell you three times is true’. But if the third day stands for resurrection, there is a hint of this in the way in which the wine replaces the water in the jars which would normally have been used for purification, water to bring you back from the debit of uncleanness to the zero balance of precarious cleanness once more. Instead of mere purification, Jesus gives transformation: a new life altogether, catching up the old and doing something with it you couldn’t have guessed. So it is, or can and should be, with marriage: the whole is much, much greater than the sum of the parts, so that this new creature, this one-fleshness, this Abigail-and-Michael person whom God is creating today, is a sign of resurrection, of transformation, not just meeting one another’s felt needs and mirroring one another’s hopes and longings but also, together, discovering something new, a same-yet-different new thing, a union of complementaries which, like the coming together of heaven and earth in Jesus himself, produces something both utterly natural and utterly unexpected, creeping up from behind us like Jesus surprising Mary on Easter morning or the disciples by the lake . . .
. . . So that when old Prayer Book service speaks of ‘the natural instincts and affections’ being ‘hallowed and directed aright’, as though to say ‘so it’s all right really’, I think the wedding at Cana wants to say ‘No, it’s much more than that: the natural instincts and affections, when expressing that lifelong self-giving which mirrors God’s own unbreakable commitment to his creation, mean something quite different from what they mean in any other context. They tell a different story, a story not about self-gratification but about new creation, about transformation, about resurrection itself.’ Christian ethics, here and elsewhere, ought to be a sub-branch of celebration, of worship, of new creation not just by redemption but also by transformation. Marriage is about grace, not law, though as with John’s gospel the law constantly points forward to the coming grace, so that grace is never a reason for abandoning law but only for going to its deepest meaning. As St Paul put it, what the law could not do (though it wanted to), God has done in Christ and by the Spirit. So though grace transcends law it never leaves it behind: I suppose Abi deserves a few lawyer jokes today, though the trouble with that, as someone said in Synod last Monday, is that lawyer jokes don’t exist because lawyers don’t think they’re funny and the rest of us don’t think they’re jokes. Well, it’s either that or theologian jokes, since that’s where Abi is now heading, and as we know theologians are people who live blameless lives giving answers to questions nobody is asking. Well, at least you don’t have to pay for them, and by the time you find out they’re wrong it’ll be too late to sue anyway. So what d’you get if you put a theologian and a lawyer together? T. S. Eliot got it right: a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.
But marriage transcends both law and theology, because it actually embodies the earthy and heavenly reality to which theology points and which the law gazes at longingly but by itself can never bring about. It isn’t that you’re a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ and you happen to be married. You, husband-and-wife, are a new person, a new reality, and this is now the primary reality about who you are. And of course this does not mean that everything is going to be easy, that you’ll never make any mistakes, or that you will remain in a haze of blissful romance to the end of your days. That would be to misunderstand entirely the whole point of the earth-and-heaven marriage which John’s gospel is all about. ‘My hour has not yet come,’ says Jesus, but he anticipates that ‘hour’ in what he then does: because the ‘hour’, when it comes, consists of nothing less than utter, giving, self-giving, forgiving, freely-giving love. ‘Jesus knew that his hour had come,’ writes John eleven chapters later: ‘so, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’, to the uttermost. There was nothing that love could do that love did not do. The hour came, and the glory was fully unveiled at last, in the last sign, the seventh sign, the full revelation of what it meant to be human and the full revelation of what it meant to be divine, the moment when Jesus, in dying, cried out ‘it is finished’, like God himself at the end of creation.
And that means that marriage, whether it is blissful or perplexing, whether it is hard work or relaxing, is always about the strange, contested and complicated business of real earthy life being shot through with real heavenly life, which meant for Jesus and means for us a constant dying which is also a constant though hidden glory. The stumbles, the misunderstandings, the frustrations, the disappointments and the sorrows which accompany the dancing, the delight, the unexpected blessings, the sudden happy surprises – they all alike are part of what you should expect if earth and heaven are coming together. They are not accidents. They are signs of God’s redemption meeting us where we are, not telling us to pretend we’re somewhere else.
So go back to the picture and think about the bride and the groom and their thought-bubbles. You realise how down-to-earth this story really is. She is clearly thinking, ‘I told him to order five extra cases of wine! Will he never learn?’ and he is thinking, ‘Boy, am I in trouble now – three nights in the cowshed at least’, and she is thinking ‘Well, I’ll let him stew, serves him right,’ and he is thinking ‘But I had to take out an extra mortgage to pay for the stuff we already had’, and she is thinking ‘perhaps I’ll flirt with the best man to pay him out’, and he is thinking ‘oh dear, she’s in a real mood now’ . . . and then suddenly the thought bubbles evaporate as they realise that the whispered conversation at the far end of the table seems to be not just about how badly this whole party has been planned but about something else, something nobody had expected, something strange and solemn and full of hope and forgiveness and new possibilities, a story that seemed to start small but then grew bigger, a story of love and laughter and weddings and wine and new life in all its rich and ridiculous variety tumbling out of God’s exuberant creativity, a story big enough and joyful enough to scoop up our little stories with all their niggles and naggings and dance them back into healing and reconciliation, a story which makes the water of our lives blush into wine at the presence of God’s glory . . .
And at the end of the story, the bride got the wine, the bridegroom got the compliments, and Jesus got the glory. That’s how it should be. Woman, what have you and I to do with one another? Everything. You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride. Set me as a seal upon your heart. Let us together enact the mystery at the heart of creation and the deeper mystery yet that points on to new creation. Let us live and love as a sign and seal of that day when heaven and earth shall be one, when love outpoured in death, because stronger than death, will complete the task of purification, so that the new wine of resurrection may flow from hills and valleys into the final banquet, the Messianic feast. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Mike and Abi: marriage is hilarious; laugh with it. Marriage is solemn and serious; stand in awe of it. Marriage is hard work; get on with it. Marriage is a celebration: drink to it. Marriage is a gift: thank God for it. Marriage is a signpost: raise that signpost and maintain it for the rest of us, for the rest of the world. The hour has come. God has kept the best wine till now. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.