Water into wine: what’s going on?!

Marriage at CanaYesterday at church the theme was ‘Jesus turns water into wine’, from John 2:1-11. It’s a well-known story – if you’ve ever been to a wedding in an Anglican church, for example, you will have heard it mentioned in the introduction – but the story is nonetheless quite puzzling. To be honest with you, I’ve never really understood it properly: does Mary force Jesus into doing something he didn’t want to do? Did Jesus basically provide people with a load of decent plonk for free, for no reason other than the fact that he was asked to by his Mum? What was the point? Does that really sound like something Jesus would do?

I don’t know about you, but these kind of questions have always plagued my mind – even when I was studying John at college a couple of years ago, it was still difficult. However, as I was listening to the passage and sermon I had a few thoughts, and I thought I’d write them up in case they’re useful for anyone else. Obviously there are many things you could say about this passage, and I will only be able to pick up a few of them, but hopefully this will help to shed some light.

Jesus’ mother and the disciples

Notice in the first couple of verses, John writes “Jesus’ mother” – twice – as if he wants to stress the fact that Mary is here acting as Jesus’ mother. In contrast, Jesus “and his disciples” were invited to the wedding – note that Mary is specified separately to the disciples. Mary is not included as a disciple here.

And I think this leads on to Jesus’ reply to Mary: “Woman, why do you involve me?” Why doesn’t Jesus call Mary his mother? Even if, as the NIV footnote points out, ‘woman’ was not a disrespectful term – in the normal way, wouldn’t Jesus have said ‘Mother’? I think this is significant: Jesus is highlighting the fact that Mary does not have maternal authority over him. In a sense, Mary is not Jesus’ mother in the same way that the Father is Jesus’ father. In John 19:25-27, Jesus essentially hands over the mother/son relationship to the beloved disciple – I wonder if that is him providing for his mother in the way he was unable to as an ordinary son would. (In this place, too, Jesus calls Mary ‘Woman’).

Either way, it seems that the point of this is that if Mary is to have a relationship with Jesus, it should be the relationship of a disciple. At this point in Jesus’ life, the need for Mary was to believe in Jesus along with the rest of his disciples – not to be a mother to him. Throughout the whole gospel John gives us little pictures of what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, and here – as in many other places – he is showing us that what we all need to do is put our faith in Jesus.

My hour has not yet come

Another puzzling aspect of this story: does Mary force Jesus into doing something which he didn’t want to do? When Jesus says, “my hour has not yet come” – why does he then go ahead and perform the miracle? If you read through John, Jesus talks a lot about his ‘hour’ of glorification coming. This culminates in 12:23, where Jesus says “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” – referring to his own death. In other words, the hour of Jesus’ glorification is the cross: for John, the cross is the place where Jesus’ glory is revealed.

In 2:11, we see that “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory”. So this sign, the turning of the water into wine, should say something about Jesus’ glory – it should say something about the cross. It’s not just a simple miracle, it is a sign. But what sign is it?

The miracle

I think here, as with what we have already seen, the clue is in the details: Jesus doesn’t just turn water into wine in an unspecified container. He turns water into wine, John tells us, in “six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing”. The kind used for ceremonial washing, i.e. the kind of jars that were used in the context of ritual purification and worship. And Jesus doesn’t just turn the water into any old cheap plonk – he turns it into the finest wine, wine which causes the master of the banquet to exclaim “you have saved the best till now”.

What’s the significance of wine? We know from Matthew 26:28 and elsewhere that wine is used in communion as a representative of Jesus’ blood. Although John in his gospel doesn’t include the last supper per se, Jesus does say in John 6, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” So I think it’s quite likely that the wine in this story here is symbolic of Jesus’ blood – the blood which will bring ultimate purification, the blood of the new covenant which cleanses from sin once for all.

Hebrews talks about Jesus’ blood:

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, so obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:11-14)


So what can we say about this passage? As with many things in John, I think there is an element of misunderstanding and irony going on: Mary thinks that she is doing one thing – compelling Jesus to provide wine for a wedding feast – whereas Jesus is actually showing a sign which illustrates what he has come to do. We see that Mary attempts to assert her authority as Jesus’ mother, but in actuality what she needs to do – as we all do – is turn to Jesus as a disciple. And we see that Jesus came to turn the imperfect nature of purifying with water into the blood that cleanses from every stain of sin.

This is my fourth post on John’s gospel – if you enjoyed it, you might like previous thoughts I’ve had on John: the woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus, and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.

The Church’s Mission: What’s the point?

Is this how most people imagine missionaries?
Is this how most people imagine missionaries?

I was recently asked to contribute a piece to the “Mission Matters” magazine in our church, a magazine looking at mission in the local area as well as the wider world. This is what I came up with.

One of the privileges and joys of training at Oak Hill was training alongside those who were leaving for the mission field in other countries. I have friends from college who are now in, or shortly to move to, countries which span the globe. They are ministering amongst a whole variety of cultures and religious beliefs – Islam, Buddhism, the Orthodox Church – all sorts of different contexts. So I thought this time for Mission Matters it might be worth going back to basics and asking: what is it that really motivates them to give up their lives here, leave friends and family, journey hundreds or thousands of miles, and invest many years into learning a different language and culture? What could motivate someone to plough years of their lives into a country with little return, even under active persecution? In most of the countries I mentioned, for example, even in countries which are not actively hostile to the gospel the number of Bible-believing Christians is a tiny fraction of the population. Why would anyone do such a thing?

The book of Acts is a great place to go to when thinking about the mission of the church. Let’s first turn to the story of how the early church got going after Jesus’ ascension.

In Acts 1, just before Jesus ascended, he said to his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This is one of the most significant verses in Acts: Jesus said when the Holy Spirit came, the disciples would “receive power”. What would they receive power to do? “be my witnesses” – to proclaim boldly the message of salvation in Christ. And this message was not just for a small group of people in a small corner of the world, this is a message which was to go “to the ends of the earth.”

This is exactly what we see happening in the rest of Acts – the Word of God, the gospel, goes out into Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 10, we see the gospel being brought even to the Gentiles. The message spreads further and further from Jerusalem, further and further away from the Jewish context where it originated. This same process, of reaching those who have never heard of Jesus, continues today. It is the mission of the church, as received from Christ: to reach even to the ends of the earth with the good news of salvation.

Let’s look at one more passage from Acts, where the apostle Paul goes to one of the major cities of the time – Athens. In Acts 17:16, we read: “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” In those days, the Greeks liked to have a god for every occasion – as Paul walked down the streets he would have seen statues of many different gods. The worship of idols there was pretty obvious! But have we changed all that much today? In Romans 1, Paul talks humanity in general and says that all of us have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” Paul here is not saying that all of us explicitly worship images – but rather, every single one of us has exchanged worshipping the Living God for worshipping a lie. The natural state of humanity is to worship the created rather than the Creator. Every single culture, every single person on the planet, is an idolater in some way. How that looks in practice will naturally vary in different times and places – in the ancient city of Athens the idolatry was obvious. In our modern Western culture, people are perhaps tempted to worship money, sex, or power – anything which is a substitute for God.

So how does Paul deal with this situation in Acts 17? Does Paul say, with much of our current culture, “let’s celebrate diversity! Let’s rejoice that these people are worshipping God in their own way!”? Absolutely not! He is “greatly distressed” that the city is full of idols and he says to them:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

The almighty and living God, the only God of heaven and earth, who does not dwell in temples made by human hands but gives each one of us life and breath, commands us to repent and believe in the good news. Each of us must turn from the idols we worship to worship Him, so we will receive a good verdict on the day when he will judge the world with justice by his risen Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This message of good news is not limited to a small group of people – it is for everyone, whatever their culture, creed, language or nation. It is a message for us here in the West, it is a message for all those countries my friends have gone to, it is a message for all those countries we support and remember in prayer. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1 ESV)

This is the message that motivates us as we look around the world. The same message that gets my friends out of bed in the morning also fires us: our God has good news for all people. Let’s pray that God would send workers out into his harvest field, both at home and abroad, and let’s pray that God would keep bringing people to him in repentance and faith.

Our loving heavenly Father, we thank you for your message of good news for all people. We thank you that your light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We thank you that you send out workers into your harvest field, and we pray that through them you may bear much fruit. Please bless all those we support at St John’s and St Mark’s, give them confidence in your glorious gospel, and may they always fix their eyes on you. Amen.


Top Gear Patagonia Special: The dark side of social media?

Social MediaI’ve just finished watching the Top Gear Patagonia Special (and, not that it really matters with Top Gear, but if you’re still planning to watch it this will discuss the episode content and should come with a spoiler warning). The end of the second part is pretty intense – a nationalist gang in Argentina essentially forced the Top Gear film crew out of the country, and attacked them on the way out – throwing rocks at the cars and breaking windows. At one point there was apparently a gang of 300 people waiting to assault the TG crew as they came through the town.

As I thought about this, it did strike me that all of this is a pretty good illustration of the power of social media: getting a mob together like that requires a degree of organisation which I don’t think was really possible (at such short notice) before the rise of the internet.

I can imagine how easily social media / the internet allows this kind of thing to happen:

  1. Word gets out that Top Gear are coming to the country. If you’re on social media, chances are you’ll see the news – or one of your friends will. This includes members of the nationalist gang.
  2. News camera crews film the cars while they’re in the country. Someone spots that the number plate of Jeremy’s car looks like a reference to the Falklands war. Word gets out on Twitter.
  3. Members of the Argentinian nationalist gang – who connect via a group on Facebook – start discussing how they’re going to respond.
  4. On the day itself, some of the gang find the Top Gear crew and broadcast that information online. They are able to give updates in pretty much real time as events unfold.
  5. As the Top Gear crew leave, some of the gang follow on and update with the route.
  6. Meanwhile, back on Facebook, the rest of the gang are organising themselves. They come up with a plan, quickly, and share it widely to bring in as many people as possible.

The key thing seems to be the power of communication via social media: it allows a group to organise itself amazingly quickly given the latest information, and then distribute the plan widely. Although I think such a lynch mob would have been just about within the bounds of possibility in pre-internet days, it would have taken massive pre-organisation and I think would have been highly unlikely.

It's a fake.
It’s a fake.

But there is another side to this, other than simply practical. This highlights one of the biggest dangers of social media: outrage spreads like wildfire. There is very little more powerful than outrage, especially on social media. One of the most shared photos over the last few months on social media purports to show MPs debating their pay rise (a full house) and debating welfare (an empty house) – the message clearly being “MPs don’t care about the poor or anyone else, they’re just in it for what they can get out of us.” There’s only one tiny problem with the picture: it’s a fake.

And therein lies the problem: on social media you don’t know whether something is true or false. It’s so easy for misinformation to propagate, especially when it plays into the hands of prejudice. In the case of Top Gear, when someone made the connection between Jeremy’s number plate and the Falklands war, it would have spread rapidly – most probably riding on the back of some anti-British sentiment. The MPs image probably spread so fast because many people do not trust politicians. So social media makes our prejudices easily reinforcable. We can share without fact checking. The voices which disagree don’t get a hearing – or we can simply switch off or ignore them. And, in the case of the Top Gear incident, it leads to a mob of 300 people itching to get their pound of flesh.

I wondered a little while ago whether Twitter makes us angry and dumb. I still think that there is a big problem here, which is only going to get worse as people use social media more: if we only listen to the voices which we want to listen to, we don’t hear any disagreement – does that render us incapable of intelligent thought about the subject? If we all know what the ‘right’ answer is, how do we treat someone who gives the ‘wrong’ answer? Social media makes it easy for something to become a ‘right’ answer – the dynamics of a group. There probably were those who doubted that Jeremy Clarkson’s registration plate was a reference to the war, but I doubt they were listened to and quickly came into line with the opinion of the group. And witness what happens on social media if you express the ‘wrong’ opinion about gay marriage, UKIP, or climate change (to name but three examples). Instead of intelligent debate, those with the ‘wrong’ opinions get hounded.

It seems to me there is a connection between what happened to Top Gear and the way the recent abortion debate at Oxford University was shut down.

Social Media is a tool, and – as with all tools – it can be used for good or ill. What’s the solution? I can’t think of any easy options. The problem is not with the tools themselves, but more with the people who use them. The problem lies not in social media but in the human heart. As such, the only solution I can offer is the one which we have just celebrated at Christmas: the coming of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

The only solution to the problems with social media, ultimately, is the solution to the problem of the human heart. Unless we can do anything about that problem, any technological solution will fall short.

Postscript: The Telegraph has an article about what actually happened… count the number of social media references. Seems like my imaginary scenario isn’t too far off the mark.

Happy Christmas

I’d just like to wish all my blog readers a very Happy Christmas.

Happy Christmas

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

… to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(From John 1)

Atheism, Values and Sociopaths

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles over the last week or so, and both of them deal with atheism and values (as in the sense of morality). The first article was entitled “Famous atheists… reveal where they get their values from“. I found this absolutely fascinating: too often, atheists criticise religion without offering an alternative. As I’ve said before, atheism is not a replacement for religion – and so most of the atheists quoted in that article came out with humanism (which I’ve critiqued recently).

To my mind, one of the weakest points of atheism or humanism is the idea of values and morality: Bob may look at his fellow humans and decide that they are wonderful and that kindness and compassion are values he wants to live his life by. All well and good. On the other hand, John may look at his fellow humans, decide that they’re all worthless and reason that the best way to go about life is to lie, steal and cheat his way to the top. Which one is ‘right’? Well now, herein lies the problem. There is no ‘right’. As Dostoevsky wrote, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.”

This problem is not simply an academic one,  as the other post I’ve read demonstrates: “What sociopaths reveal to us about the existence of God“. The post is based on the video testimony of a former sociopath called David Wood. It highlights the problem atheism or humanism gets itself into when someone disagrees when it comes to morality: what do you do when someone dissents from morality as our culture tends to understand it? What do you do when someone takes atheism and concludes that we’re all a bunch of atoms, and that you might as well have a bit of fun while you’re on this earth – fun which includes killing other people?

If you read the article and scroll past the video, you’ll see three arguments presented by different people (Elton Trueblood, Immanuel Kant and C.S. Lewis) about the existence of morality. They argue that morality has to exist in an objective sense, otherwise – essentially – life as we know it would not make sense.

I think most people would say what David Wood thought was wrong – but is that a logical conclusion for those who believe there is no better standard to appeal to, i.e. that there is no objective morality? I think you could argue (to my mind, correctly) that he was simply being a consistent atheist. I’m curious to know if there was an atheist or humanist argument which could have changed his mind. I suspect not.

Sexuality and Friendship: Good news after all?

FriendshipI recently added a morning conference entitled Human Sexuality: Discerning a Biblical Vision, hosted by the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association. It was a good morning with three different speakers talking about various issues – theological, pastoral, and practical. One speaker was Lis Goddard, talking about the pastoral issues involved. Of the three sessions, I probably found hers the most practically helpful and thought-provoking.

One of the complaints I often hear from the LGBT community when discussing this issue is that the church’s traditional position is nothing but ‘bad news’ for gay people. Why would you turn a gospel of good news into a gospel of bad news – forcing people who are attracted to those of the same sex to a life of celibacy? How could God ask anyone to do that, surely it’s impossible for anyone to actually manage?

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently. What I’ve been beginning to see more clearly is that you can’t simply articulate the traditional, Biblical vision of sexuality without saying anything positive. Let me try and explain.

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Thoughts on the Church from 2 Timothy

A BibleIn our evening services at church, we’ve been preaching through 2 Timothy. It’s an absolutely wonderful book and I do commend it to you – especially if, like me, you are involved in Christian ministry in some way. As we’ve been going through it, I’ve been reminded time and again how Paul predicts pretty much the exact state of the church in this age – and, really, in every age. I’ve come to believe that 2 Timothy is actually one of the most prophetic books of the Bible, to my mind Paul absolutely nails it.

As I’ve prepared to preach on various passages I’ve picked up a few insights which I thought might be worth sharing with you today.

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