Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Last week we started our new sermon series, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” It’s a questions Jesus asked his disciples long ago, but a question still relevant to us today. Who is Jesus, and why does he matter?

We began with the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, focusing on what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. Today, we find ourselves at a wedding feast in Cana, thinking about what it means for Jesus to be the Savior of the World.

My roommate during my freshman year of college was as well-intentioned as they come. She was also about as evangelical as they come. She would ask me, often, whether or not I was saved. (The repeated nature of the question suggested she did not trust my answer.) Finally, one day, I asked her what being saved looked like to her.

 “You say a prayer,” she said, “giving your life to Jesus.”  

 “What about after the prayer?” I asked.  

“That’s it,” she said. “That one prayer changes everything.”

 I let her say the prayer with me. She was thrilled. “Now you’re saved,” she said.

Now, it certainly didn’t do me any harm. But I was—and I remain—leery of any understanding of salvation that is utterly dependent upon my actions.

Just like God is the one who creates us, God is the one who saves us. And God, acting through the person of Jesus Christ, is going to be faithful to who God is not matter what I do or fail to do, no matter what I say or fail to say. However, let me be clear about this: my understanding of God as the agent of salvation is a statement about the enormity of God’s grace, not about the meaninglessness of human activity. Nothing could be further from the truth; how we live our lives and what we do matters, deeply. But what God does will always matter even more.

So, God, acting through Jesus, is the one who saves. But from what, exactly, do we need to be saved?

Jesus is at a wedding in Cana. His friends and his mother are there. Presumably they are having a wonderful time. It is early on in Jesus’ ministry. All he has done is invite a few people to follow him. And, no sooner have Peter and Andrew and Phillip and Nathanael fallen in line behind him, he promises, “You will see great things! You will see heaven opened up and angels coming down! There are great things ahead!”

He’s certainly got our attention. What great things are we about to witness? How is he going to change the world and all of us in it? And, then it happens. His first sign.

            It’s worth remind us all that John’s gospel never uses the word “miracle.” It uses the word “sign” to describe the exact same type of event, because the way John understands it, these amazing moments in Jesus’ ministry are never about Jesus at all. They are about God, and what God’s love can do. He calls them signs because they point to the source of Jesus’ miraculous abilities. And so, in what is surely one of the most important moments of his entire ministry, in his first opportunity to point clearly to God, what does Jesus do? He restocks the bar. [1]

Now, I am all in favor of this activity, but it does seem odd as an inaugural event. Think about all the other signs Jesus performs. He walks on water. He heals people, several times over. He feeds more than 5,000 people with a child’s afternoon snack. He raises Lazarus from the dead, for heaven’s sake. That’s the kind of greatness we are expecting, right? But, true to form, Jesus rarely gives us what we are expecting. What we get in this case is six stone water jars.

After his mother tells the servers, “Do whatever he tells you,” Jesus looks around to see what he has to work with and sees little more than those six stone jars, which, by the way, is an odd little detail to slide in into this story. But, biblically speaking, six is a bummer number. Seven? Now, seven would be useful. Seven is perfect.

How many days in the creation story? Seven.

            How many days for Noah to load up the ark? Seven.

            How many times are we to forgive? Seventy times seven.

            How many signs in this gospel? How many churches in Revelation? Seven.

            How many jars would make this story perfect? Seven…Unfortunately, six is all he’s got.

            And, six is one short. Incomplete. Imperfect. Six is close, but not quite. It’s making JV when you had your heart set on varsity. It’s the marriage that is intact but missing something. It’s the job that puts food on the table but doesn’t feed your soul. Six is not what we expect after Jesus says, “You are going to see great things.”

It's not what we expect, but it sure is honest. Life is full of six-jar situations. We are full of six-jar situations. Think about it—We still live in a world where racism runs rampant. We live in a world where guns find their way into schools far too often. Too many people go to bed hungry, or without a roof above their heads. Relationships of all kinds struggle and crumble. We are overworked and exhausted, or underworked and anxious. Our children grow up being accepted or rejected from schools about as soon as they can walk. Healthcare is not a given, and bodies continue to be so very fragile.

So, on days when it all seems like too much—too much of a mess for any to remember the story. Remember what comes next.

Jesus takes those six, stone water jars and floods the party with wine. An absurd amount of wine. If you do the math, it’s about the equivalent of 180 gallons of wine, the finest wine the servers have ever tasted; wine so abundant and so delicious the wedding celebration shows absolutely no sign of slowing down.

Jesus takes what’s available and makes the best of it. Actually, he makes a miracle of it. “This is what you have to offer?” he says. “All right then,” he says. “I can work with this.” And it was then, the gospel tells us, that Jesus reveals his glory. It is in taking our well-intended but incomplete, imperfect offerings of ourselves, and transforming them into overwhelming goodness, that Jesus says definitively: This is what I am all about. This is who I am. This is what I can do. And in saying all that, he also says: This is what salvation looks like.

Because yes, Jesus is the one upon whom salvation depends. But to talk about salvation is not to talk only about what happens after we die; it is also to talk about what is possible while we are alive.

Some forms of Christianity—oftentimes the most visible and vocal forms of Christianity—would disagree with this. They would have us believe salvation is the business of being saved from the wrath of God or eternal damnation. This is a fairly common way of thinking of salvation, but it carries with it carries with a very dangerous undertone. Because it presumes that God is ready and waiting to cast us into the fire, and the only thing standing the way is Jesus. This sort of thinking and teaching is nothing less than fear-mongering and, completely absent from this understanding, is the God of love that scripture bears witness to from beginning to end.

God created us; God is never going to be what destroys us.

The idea that salvation is just some sort of package deal of life insurance and fire insurance now and forevermore…this way of thinking is not life-giving, not in the slightest. It is only misery-avoiding. And, Jesus says—Jesus promises—he has come so that we might have life and have it abundantly.[2]

            This life is not simply a means to an end. We do not muddle through our time on earth only to receive our reward in heaven.

In one of my very favorite passages of scripture, Simeon, old, old Simeon with his eyesight failing, looks upon the baby Jesus in the temple and says, “Lord, you may now dismiss me in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in sight of all people.”

And the story of Zaccheus, the tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus and ends up with Jesus as a lunch guest at his home. Zaccheus is as big an outcast as they come, but while he is still sitting at his table, Jesus looks the man in the eyes and says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Salvation assures us a better way of living is possible, today. It assures us a redeemed world is in progress, even now.

The wedding feast at Cana assures us that we are being saved from hopelessness, from the idea that life is futile, that the way things are is the way things are forevermore, that the despair and hatred in the world will eventually overrun us all.

But, remember the story—remember that Jesus turning water into wine is a sign—a sign that where we are now is not the end of the story, because Jesus is in the business of transformation.

It is no accident that this all takes place at an enormous, celebratory feast, with family and friends all around. I am reminded of the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. I’ve probably shared this with you before; he once said, “I might believe in Jesus Christ as Savior if his followers looked a little more saved.”

I wonder if looking a little more saved these days means remembering and delighting in the truth that salvation is dependent upon God and only God, and therefore we are to assume and accept and act as if God’s saving love is enough to include everyone. Because it is.

We do well to remember this on this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, when we give thanks for the life of a modern-day prophet, who not only dreamed of a better world, but worked endlessly, ultimately giving his life, to help make it so. And, we do well to remember this in the aftermath of teenagers taunting Nathan Phillips, a Vietnam veteran and an elder with the Omaha tribe after Friday’s Indigenous People’s March at the Lincoln Memorial. Because this is just the most recent example of a world so desperately in need of salvation—salvation in the long term, yes, but salvation today, too.

If there is anything I believe about the love of God, it is that the love of God is utterly incapable of sitting back and waiting, watching as the world unfolds—and sometimes implodes—in our hands. Salvation is upon us, even now, if we have eyes like Simeon to see it. If we take the advice of Nietzsche and act like it. If we remember the story of Jesus and the wedding feast, and trust in it. Because the love and grace of Jesus Christ is just like the wine at that party—it will never run out. There is more than we could ever need, and if we ever have reason to doubt that, Jesus will take every opportunity to multiply it again, beyond our wildest imagination.

That is what the Savior of the World came to do.

And, I don’t know about you, but I will raise my glass to that.


[1] This fantastic line comes from the Rev. Mary Ann McKibben Dana.

[2] John 10:10