On Being Invited to the Ultimate Party

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 3B, Sunday, January 25, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 14.17-20; Psalm 128.1-6; Revelation 19.6-10; John 2.1-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of that strange story of water turning into wine in our gospel lesson this morning? Why would John include it and what might we learn from it? This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning because after all, who wants to be left out of the ultimate party?

As you probably know, John’s gospel reads differently from the other three gospels. For example, in John’s gospel there are only seven signs or miracle stories, seven being the Jewish number for wholeness or completeness that runs throughout Scripture. These seven signs are far fewer than what we find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and here John tells us that Jesus turning water into wine is the first of his signs. But why did John choose to tell about this particular sign? What is he trying to tell us about Jesus? The first thing we need to pay attention to is the rich symbolism included in this story. Why, for example, would John start by telling us that this sign happened on the third day? What other significant event in the life of Jesus happened on the third day? Hold on to this as we look at the rest of this story (and by the way, just because a story is symbolically rich doesn’t mean there is no historical basis for it).

Notice too that the story’s setting is a wedding. The OT writers sometimes used weddings to symbolize the intimate and special relationship between God and his people Israel, with God being the husband and Israel being the wife. There is no relationship more intimate and special than the relationship between a husband and wife (Genesis 1.27, 2.18-24) and so the OT writers, especially the prophets, used the symbol of weddings to remind Israel of their special relationship to the God who had called them to be his people as well as their covenantal responsibilities to God and the world, precisely because God had called them to be his people for the sake of the world. And since wine gladdens the heart, they used wine to symbolize the richness and joy that always results when people really make God their God and not something (or someone) else.

And as we saw in our lesson from Revelation this morning, the NT writers adapted this wedding theme slightly. Now the symbolic groom is the Lamb, Jesus himself, and the bride is the newly reconstituted Israel, those who belonged to Jesus the Messiah. And both OT and NT writers used the wedding as a symbol of the great eschatological banquet that would finally come about when the Lord himself returned to put an end to all that was wrong with his good world, especially death (cf. Isaiah 25.6-9).

Returning to our gospel lesson, one of the first things we notice is the extravagance of Jesus’ actions at this wedding feast. Do the math. Since there were six 20-30 gallon jars that held water for purification, Jesus produced anywhere from 120-180 gallons of the finest wine (I know I have Fr. Bowser’s attention at this point). But what might John want us to learn by telling us this? There are several possibilities that we can consider. By saving the best for last, John might be inviting us to see that in his infinite wisdom and eternal plan to rescue his world and us from evil, sin, and death, God saved the best for last. Yes, Moses and the prophets were important and necessary in Israel’s salvation history (and therefore our own), but Jesus was the most important of all because he was the very embodiment of God who would take away the sin and blight of the world and finally restore God’s creation beyond its original goodness.

We also see John hinting at this when he mentions that the water jars were used for purification. When Jews used water to purify themselves the effect was only temporary and had to be repeated regularly. But given that John tells us this was Jesus’ first sign, John hints at a greater purification for God’s people. Even if you do not know the other signs in John’s gospel, what was the seventh sign? It was Calvary and Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus (remember how John opens this story?)! As Paul would tell us, on the cross God condemned human sin in the flesh as well as the evil behind it so that we no longer have to fear God condemning us and can begin to enjoy a new and reconciled relationship with God the Father who made it possible. Here is purification that lasts forever and it is freely offered to one and all!

We see the same promise in our reading from Revelation in which John tells us about the great end-time wedding feast of the Lamb. It is sandwiched in between the defeat of the great whore Babylon, symbolic of all human sin and evil as well as all human opposition to God, and the defeat of the Satan and his minions. At the root of their defeat stands the cross and God’s condemnation of evil and sin and the powers behind them. They have rejected God’s offer of life and salvation by rejecting Christ and persecuting his followers, thereby bringing God’s righteous condemnation on themselves that will not be reversed.

Not so for the bride of the Lamb, his Church, you and me. We have been invited to the ultimate party of the cosmos, a party that will last forever and celebrates the utter defeat of all things evil that ruin God’s good creation and his image-bearing creatures. We are invited to the wedding feast, not because we are better or more deserving than those who have brought judgment on themselves. We are invited because as John reminds us, we have been clothed with fine linen, bright and pure. And what makes the linen bright and pure? The righteous deeds of the saints. Uh-oh. I guess I’ve been lying to you about the blood of Christ. Busted. Apparently we really do have to earn our invitation to the Lamb’s wedding feast. NOT. Let me explain.

Elsewhere in Revelation (e.g., 1.5, 5.9, 7.14), John has reminded us again and again that we are made pure and righteous in God’s sight by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. This is what makes the linen we wear pure in the first place (cf. Romans 6.3-5, 13.14; Matthew 25.1-13). When we put on Jesus, i.e., when we believe with our whole mind and heart that in Jesus we find forgiveness and rescue and richness and wholeness of life, it changes us so that by the power of the Spirit (symbolized by water in our gospel lesson; think of Jesus’ baptism) who makes our risen Lord present and available to us 24/7, we begin to think and act like him. We begin to become like him. This is a gradual process and if we have lived in the power of the Spirit long enough, we might not even realize that we are being transformed because we have been living the new life for so long. But transformed we are when we give ourselves to Jesus and obey him. We see this illustrated in our gospel lesson. When did the water get turned into wine? Only when someone took Mary’s word’s seriously: Do whatever he tells you. Anytime we do likewise we can expect to be transformed in some way, and for the good.

This is why John tells us the linen we will wear in God’s new world are righteous acts. We received our invitation to the party because we have put our faith and trust in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. Now we have to act accordingly, like we actually believe it, not to earn our way to the Table but to celebrate the fact that we were invited in the first place because of the mind-boggling love of God shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord! Let the Church say, Amen!

So why am I spending so much time on this? Because I am persuaded that many of us simply do not believe we will be invited to the ultimate party of the Lamb’s wedding feast. Oh, I think that on one level many of us believe that Christ died for us so that we are forgiven by God, at least we believe this in our heads. But in our hearts? Not so much. Consequently I think many of us are busy trying to turn the wine of salvation back into water of self-help and as a result, we limp through life anxious about our eternal destiny and our present standing with the Lord. It goes something like this. We say to ourselves, “Yes, I believe Jesus died for me and I try to be a good person. But I also know all the bad things I’ve done. Jesus surely can’t (or won’t) forgive that affair I had or my addiction to porn or alcohol. He won’t forgive me for all the times I’ve lost my temper or cussed or was selfish or inconsiderate. This forgiveness stuff, this being washed clean by the blood of the Lamb so that I am in good standing before God now and in the future is just too good to be true! That’s not how the real world works!” Well, yes it is and no it doesn’t.

So here is my appeal to you this morning. If you are one who tries to consistently turn the wine of God’s gift of salvation offered to you in the blood of Christ back into the water of good works that is needed in your mind for you to gain an invitation to the party, then this week engage the texts we’ve read this morning. Also read Romans 6.3-5, 8.1-4 and Colossians 1.11-14, 19-23 slowly and carefully (or better yet memorize parts of them and repeat them to yourself regularly) and then take to heart their plain meaning. There are other passages but these are a good place to start.

Ask the Lord to pour out his Spirit on you in a fresh way to affirm and/or reassure you that you are his beloved in Christ. Tell yourself you are loved and forgiven until you actually believe it. And by all means, when you come to the Table every Sunday to receive the body and blood of Christ, remind yourself and/or the person ahead of you that this is a real and tangible foretaste of that great wedding banquet at which you will party for all eternity. If the eucharist is a foretaste of the banquet and you are invited to partake in it right now, why would you not be invited to the great end-time party? They don’t call it thanksgiving (or eucharist) for nothing!

Or if you are weighed down by some past sin that you cannot seem to forgive or rid yourself of, come see one of the priests and participate in the sacrament of the reconciliation of a penitent. There have literally been millions of people who have found healing and forgiveness when they confess their sins in this manner. Perhaps you might join their ranks. Or come to our intercessory stations during communion and ask for healing prayers for forgiveness. Chances are it is you who have not forgiven yourself, not God, so ask to be released from this terrible bondage that is definitely not God’s will for you.

Don’t do any of this for me. Do it for you. Do it so that you stop worrying about having a rightful place at the wedding banquet. Do it so you can start to really enjoy the rich life God always intended you to have as you serve the Lord and embody his love to others, thereby proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. Do it because the Lord loves you too much for you to rob yourself of the Good News that is yours in Jesus Christ. You needn’t doubt he wants you at his party because he has given his very life for you so that your place at Table is assured now and for all eternity, thanks be to God! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.