“Whips & Wine”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, October 2, 2022
Reading: John 2:1-17
The passage you heard earlier is one of the most famous in scripture. Even those who know little of the bible know that Jesus turned water into wine. I saw a tweet recently in which a young woman found a $20 in a parking lot, asked herself what Jesus would do, and so she turned it into wine. In the church we have an off-again on-again frenemy relationship with alcohol. In the early 20th Century when women got the right to vote they wanted legislators to get their men out of the bars, drinking up their paycheques, coming home belligerent, and legislators complied with prohibition. Teetotaling has a social justice element to it. I came to faith mostly with Christians who didn’t drink at all. You have to ask them, “Why would Jesus turn all that water into undrinkable wine?” Jesus is often accused of overeating and overdrinking, hard to accuse him of that if he never touched the stuff. And yet I do respect my grandmothers’ generation for making pledges like this: “Lips that touch alcohol will never touch mine.” Our grandmothers had some gumption, didn’t they?
This story comes early in his ministry as Jesus is introducing himself to the world. He goes to a wedding with no intention of being on the messiah clock. He’s just partying. And his mom comes to say, “They have no wine.” Now, there are several ways to interpret this. Some say this couple would have been majorly embarrassed at the start of their marriage to run out of wine in front of the whole village, and Jesus saves them from that. I don’t know, I prefer to think this is the totally unnecessary miracle. Jesus supercharges a wedding feast by providing hundreds of gallons of the best wine. He loves a good party. But there’s a third element here. He’s annoyed. Our translation has him tell his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to me and to you?” That’s overly polite. The translation should be something like: “Mom, buzz off.” This is how he addresses demons elsewhere, more literally: what do we have to do with one another?
Anyone ever have tension in your families? Mother-child drama? You’re in good company. The holy family does too.
Mary says this perfect thing. Our Roman Catholic siblings in faith point to this as a treasure from Mary herself, describing the whole gospel: “Do whatever he tells you.” That’s the whole of the Christian faith in one short sentence. Do whatever Jesus tells you. But look what Mary’s doing here. She takes her son’s rebuke, rolls with it, and then manipulates him into doing what she wanted all along. He insists “My hour is not yet come.” That is, the hour when he’ll reveal his glory with miracles. She doesn’t care. She also doesn’t argue with him. She just goes and tells the servants, and us, “Do whatever he tells you.” He might be God, but he’s still her boy.
We don’t read about the moment of the miracle, but great figures in faith have imagined it. My favourite is this from John Wesley: “Water saw her maker and blushed.” There are verses in the Bible that condemn drunkenness, the violence that can ensue, but usually when wine appears in the Bible it’s as a sign of blessing. Delight. You can live without wine. I’ve seen it done. I don’t recommend it, but it’s possible. You can’t live without water, not for more than a few days. Water is life. Wine is . . . unnecessary. Extra. But delightful. There’s a famous quote from a blind person who tasted champagne for the first time and said, “Wow, I’m tasting stars.” There’s another myth about the beginnings of wine: our forebears noticed when food rotted. A batch of grape juice went bad and was marked “poison.” And a woman had terrible headaches, so bad she wanted to take her own life. She went and drank from the now poisoned grape juice and . . . she felt better. A lot better. Alcohol is dangerous. But used the right way—in community, and not too much—it’s also good. It’s both risky and delightful. Like God. Like life. Like everything that matters.
We’ve spent years now telling one another to “stay safe.” Maybe it’s now time to instead say “take risks.”
Then this little exclamation from the one who tastes the wine: “Everyone serves the good wine first and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”
This is the mystery. On one level it means Jesus has saved face for the couple and kept the party going but there are always more depths. This is a response to an important question that our Jewish and pagan ancestors often asked: if Jesus Christ is so great, how come he came so recently? Like, yesterday? If he’s so important why didn’t God just send him first in the Garden of Eden? You and I aren’t used to this, Jesus’ life was some 2000 years ago, feels old to us, but it was really too recent for our ancient neighbours. Romans and Jews alike prized longevity, antiquity, not novelty. We called it the Old Testament to make clear it was the reliable one, the anchor, the foundation. So, if Jesus is so great, why so recent? And only at the end of the book?
And the answer is, we don’t know. That’s almost always the right answer to any question about God, by the way. For whatever reason, God provides the good wine first. And then even better wine later, after everyone is past caring. Christians have an old and terrible habit of saying Judaism is bad to make ourselves look good. Sometimes Old and New Testament language can sound like a difference between bad and good. God of wrath vs God of grace. Don’t do it. Don’t believe it. John’s contrast is simple: good wine and then even better wine. Everything in Israel’s story is true. All Jesus does is ferment it. Make it even unnecessarily tastier, more drunk-making, more risky, and more dazzling. The gospel tastes like stars. It heals not just headaches but everything wrong in all creation. When water blushes it’s a sign that all creation will blush: our bridegroom is here and means to marry us.
I asked a mentor of mine, the great preacher Fleming Rutledge, how to grow a historic church like this. She’s taught at Wycliffe College, preached often in this great city, including here in midtown. I pointed out that Forest Hill has some 11 churches in it, all beautiful buildings. We probably only need two. Hard to move ‘em now. If we were starting over, we’d spread them out a good bit more. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? She said, “Well two things: One, you need traffic in the building. Get people inside. People only consider coming to church after they’ve been in your building 10 times or so. Look for excuses. Throw parties. Turn water to wine. Whatever it takes.” And two, she said, “Churches are like teenagers. You gotta feed em.” I know something about this: each kid of mine who’s left for college, the grocery bill goes down so much it’s like a pay raise. Don’t ask about the tuition bills.
There are seven kitchens in this building. Seven! It was designed to be feeding people all the time. We do that with our food bank program, twice a week, its guests have doubled since COVID. We have coffee and cookies on Sundays and little snacks lots of the time. Alpha will feed you a full meal if you turn up on Wednesday! But I wonder if we shouldn’t be eating together more often. Not just snacks, carbs, and caffeine, but the sort of good food you have to linger over. I wonder if Jesus’ people could be known again for how great our parties are. This part of St. Clair Avenue is sort of a desert for coffee shops and wine bars. Someone out there knows how to fix this in our great space with one or more of these kitchens, right? I even know what to call it: coffee-to-wine. Somebody trademark that!
A pastor I met said his first change at his new church was to get rid of snacky food. Every meeting was to be over a proper meal. He said that when you digest things together you settle into a deeper sort of communion, like Jesus’ people are supposed to. Someone wise pointed out Jesus eats his way through the gospels. You can’t open two pages of the gospels where Jesus isn’t eating. I like depictions of him as fat. Suits me. Real life, he is the very hungry caterpillar. If there’s not enough food Jesus just makes more. Bam. And if there’s not enough wine, get ready for a ravine washout of the world’s best wine.
But that’s not the whole story here this morning. I gave you the salacious sermon title “Whips and Wine” because both turn up in this chapter. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for a festival, enters the temple and loses his mind, turns tables over, snaps a whip like some sort of Indiana Jones and shouts things about his father’s house. Now, to be clear, the temple folks aren’t doing anything wrong. Roman coins with Roman emperors and gods on them are idolatrous—against the second commandment. To make an offering in the temple you have to exchange them for something with no image. And to sacrifice an animal in the temple you need . . . an animal. Jesus’ fellow Jews are doing what God askes, nothing more. And Jesus just explodes the whole thing. Imagine him turning up this morning and interrupting our communion service—that would be no less shocking. We’d say, “We’re just doing what you told us.” It’s sobering to think Jesus disrupts us even when we’re right. His disciples think of the verse from scripture: “Zeal for your house has eaten me up.” And indeed, historians think this is likely the event that got Jesus arrested and killed. You can’t go upsetting commerce and religion and expect the soldiers not to come for you.
These are the two halves of our faith. A party with even better wine later than earlier—excessive extravagant, gushing joy, and a demonstration that upsets the powers and gets us pinned to a cross to die. When God comes among us in flesh, it’s first as a partyer and we religious types say, “Sheesh, he needs to calm down, doesn’t he?” Non-religious types say “Wow, I didn’t know God was this good!” Then Jesus comes among us as a disturber of the things we care about. And we say, “Hey, someone should do something about him, the authorities better make an example of him, or we’ll have chaos.” Wine and whips both. There is no kingdom without a cross. And no cross without a festive kingdom.
Friends whatever you’re facing, I can make you two promises: One, it will be more painful than you can bear, and two, it will be more beautiful than you can imagine.
Today is worldwide communion Sunday, when churches commit to kneel together at the Lord’s Table and eat and drink his body and blood. The cup tastes like a party where the wine just keeps getting better. Jesus says zeal for God’s house eats him up, just like we’ll eat him up in a moment. I heard someone say recently that food is God’s love made edible. In the Lord’s Supper we take these simple, tiny gifts, bless them, break them, and give them away, and we all eat. This isn’t enough food or drink, I know. We all still go home and have lunch. But one day it’ll be a feast without end, with the poor in the places of honour, the establishment, and the religious authorities at the foot, but still at the table, and Jesus himself as host. And guest. And food. And wine. And that will be one serious party. “Do whatever he tells you,” Mary says, and mama, she means it. Amen.