"When the Wine Gave Out"
Rev. Ryan Slifka
If you were listening to CBC’s the Current last week, you likely heard a story that ran with the headline “Atheist Minister Fights to Keep Her Place in the United Church.” Many of us gathered here already have heard this story before. But if you haven’t, Gretta Vosper is a minister in the United Church of Canada—the Christian denomination that our community of faith belongs to. She leads a church in Toronto and openly uses the label “atheist.” She no longer believes in God in any way the Christian tradition talks about God any more. At the same time she wishes to remain an ordained minister in the United Church. And so the governing structure of the United Church has ordered a review. This is what the short CBC documentary was all about.
As someone who found his way into a church building for the first time at age twenty and who stands before you as a minister of this church, clearly I don’t think the same way that she does. But even then, I also think that it’s our critics often have things to say about the church that we need to hear. In order for us to clarify things about ourselves. To better understand who we are. Especially when it comes to understanding mistakes that we have made when it comes to God. And the nature of faith.
And one mistake has been this. Part way through the interview when she’s been chronicling this shift in her own beliefs she says that God “always seemed more like an idea than a being.” God always seemed more like an idea than a being. She continues saying that “religion has been a helpful part of human development, but it’s not helpful anymore.” Maybe a necessary part of human evolution at some point. But for her, God is an idea that is no longer necessary in a modern, scientific world such as ours. It’s obsolete.
And the truth is we often reduce God to an idea. Or a set of ideas. Or a list of “yes or no” questions. That the sum of faith is about believing certain things about the nature of God, the nature of the bible, the identity of Jesus as if they were facts that you can measure and quantify in the same way that you might solve a mathematical equation. Or in the same way you might agree whether ham is pink or not. In some ways, we’ve made it sound like this is all there is to it. This is what Gretta says that in this way faith traditions no longer speak to people. God as a concept. God as an explanation. God as an idea. And I think she’s right.
But, you know, as right as she is about that particular thing, there really is so much more to faith than just an idea. Our passage this morning from the good news according to John provides us with an alternative. Because in the wedding at Cana, our passage shows us faith as a trusting response to an experience. Rather than just an idea we agree to.
In John’s story of Jesus, Jesus has just called his first disciples. “Come, follow me,” he tells them. And they do. But what’s interesting is that the first place he invites them is not to a classroom, where they get their theories about God right. But he invites them to a wedding feast.
Now, wedding feasts in the world of the Bible are a big deal. They are not only a celebration of the new relationship between two people. They are meant to be a taste of God’s abundance. They are a big party. Weddings would last seven days. Songs are sung, people dance, and generally have a good old time. And the wine just flows and flows and flows.
And just as things are getting ramped up (the deejay has just arrived), the story tells us that “the wine gave out.” I love that. This might not seem like a big deal to us, but it’s a huge deal for the couple and their family. You’ve got an obligations to hospitality. Wine is the fuel for the party. And if you run out of fuel, the party isn’t going anywhere. I feel like that’s something we would have said back in university when we ran out of beer “the keg gave out.” That mixture of disappointment, and sense that the party is just about over. Here the party is over even before it actually begins. It’s a huge embarrassment.
And the cool thing about John is that there are so many layers to interpretation. It’s just so rich. That interpreters in the history of the Christian tradition have read this wedding party as painting a picture of the faith of Jesus’ time. The wedding represents the faith of Jesus’ own people. That God’s own people, Israel, had run out of fuel, had lost the energy that have their faith tradition life. So it turned in to a stale, rigid list of do’s and don’ts. The wine gave out. And when I read this I can’t help but think about Gretta’s comments about God. That faith, religion in our own time has somehow run out of the fuel that gives it life. It’s become an idea. The party is over. The wine has given out. And has left many thirsty for something else.
The feast has run out of wine. “They’re out of wine,” Mary, Jesus’ mother tells him. And Jesus sort of brushes it off at first. But Mary, who is persistent, goes to his disciples anyway. “Do what Jesus tells you to.” Here Mary invites the disciples into their first apprenticeship task, to follow in Jesus’ way. Still, not invited into an idea, but invited to do something. To experience something.
And so Jesus points out these huge stone jars. It’s interesting because these jars are used for the Jewish rites of purification. They are used for ritual washing. But at the party they are empty, too. In the symbolic reading the faith tradition has gone dry just like the wedding feast. That even the tradition we have gathered for to celebrate here today has gone dry. Has run out of juice.
And you know Jesus could have just left the party at this point. Throw away the jars. Throw away the ancient symbols. Maybe we should just call it a day. Because they just don’t mean much to anyone any more. But no. Instead, Jesus says “fill em up.” And they do. And Jesus says hey, scoop some out and give the steward a taste. And they do. And he’s blown away. Out of the old jars comes the best wine he’s ever tasted in his entire life. And when the steward takes a sip he’s blown away. “They usually give you the good stuff first,” he says, “then when you’re good and drunk they give you the cheap stuff so you won’t notice. But you’ve kept the best til now!” Because that ordinary stuff that was poured into those old barrels that were empty at first were filled to the brim and have now become extraordinary wine. That old wedding party that had died, lost its life now finds the place full of it, overflowing with it.
And you know, it’s interesting because this is the moment when the story says that the disciples “believe.” After they have experienced this newness. After they have tasted this new wine. Only after we taste it do the ideas make sense.
According to this wonderful passage in our sacred book, according to our tradition, God is not just a concept, but a living, powerful, intoxicating presence. And faith is not just an idea. But a life with Christ that we are invited into, a path we walk. One that will lead us right into the wedding of heaven and earth.
So Reverend Vosper is right. God as an idea, a concept, a bundle of theories, has lost its juice. That wedding party has come to an end, for sure. But today, as any other day, Christ stands before us offering us the same invitation he did to his disciples. An invitation not to an idea, but to a life-giving relationship with the living God. Something we can see, something we can touch, something we can taste. Something we can drink right in like good wine. And be filled to the brim, intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. Out of this old tradition we thought has dried out entirely, comes not only new wine, but the best wine. The kind of life where you taste it, you just can’t go back to the cheap stuff ever again.
This is what faith is all about, friends. And this wine hasn’t given out, because the wine will never give out. You who yearn for days of fullness, all around us is our food. Taste and see the grace eternal. Taste and see that God is good. AMEN.