St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Thursday, 17 January 2013


January 20                              NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Theme:  No overwhelming favourites this time.  I rather like "The First Sign", except that it implies a chronological scheme that really doesn't fit with St John's approach.  Something more liturgical, perhaps, such as "Ritual Water into Gospel Wine" or, in similar vein, "Taste the Difference".

Introduction.  In keeping with the "Epiphany" theme of recent weeks, our central story today is one of those that is more concerned with the truth about Jesus than the facts of what happened.  We sometimes say of someone, "With him what you see is what you get."  With Jesus it would be more accurate to say, "What you see is only a small part of what you get."  The synoptic gospels emphasise what people saw (and heard) when Jesus was present:  St John is concerned with the much larger question of what we get with Jesus.  Our first lesson continues with the theme of identity in, and relationship with, God; and our epistle reading reminds us yet again of our besetting sin of individualism.  The connecting theme between the three readings is not immediately obvious (to me), but here are some guesses.  Isaiah is using the metaphor of marriage to emphasise the close and loving relationship between God and his people, so there's a link with the gospel setting.  St Paul is trying to get the people of Corinth to see through the manifestation of the gifts (in which the recipients were taking boastful delight) to see the donor of the gifts, the Holy Spirit – a sort of revelation in itself, perhaps.  But if this is the intended link, to call it tenuous would be rather generous. 

In desperation, I have departed from my usual practice of ignoring the psalm of the day.  [Yes, I know – I am supposed to love the psalms, but somehow I have never managed that yet.]  Today's psalm is 36:5-10.  Verse 8 (in the Prayer Book version on page 237) is very lovely: They feast on the rich abundance of your house: you give them drink from the stream of your delight.  It provides a reasonable response to the first lesson, and a good link with the gospel.  [But while I am in the mood for a good rant, I suspect that one of the things that prevents me from falling head over heels in love with the psalms is the irritating practice adopted by the thought police behind our Lectionary who seem to cherry pick the psalms to ensure that nothing too negative should be allowed to enter our tender minds.  Today is a classic example of the wielding of the censor's red pencil or steel scissors.  Out of the 12 verses, only 6 are considered fit for our ears.  Read the whole thing: are you damaged by it?]

There is something grimly fascinating about the Corinthian correspondence – it always strikes me as being extraordinarily contemporary.  From time to time I still come across people in the Church who wish we could return to our roots and become more like the infant Church.  For goodness sake!  Read the Corinthian correspondence and lament the sad fact that in 2000 years we do not seem to have made any improvement at all!  We are exactly like the infant Church.

Among the books I am reading at the moment (yet another fruit from the University Bookshop's continuous sale) is Nicholas Wade's The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures.  One of the issues he brings out very well concerns the great bind that social animals have always faced in their evolutionary development: how do we move from extreme to limited individualism?  How do we go from 'every man for himself', to 'every man for our group'?  The fundamental instinct for survival at all costs that operates at the individual level has to be modified somehow when survival of the individual depends more and more on co-operation with certain other individuals.  A careful balancing of competing interests is required, designed to tone down natural aggression and hostility between competing males within a group, while ensuring that they remain aggressive and hostile towards "outsiders", members of other groups.

It's Wade's argument, that the development of religion was the key element in solving this challenge, but I don't want to engage in that argument here.  What fascinates me about this part of his book is the light it sheds on our human nature as it is today, and, in particular, how it operates in the Church today.  In our hunter-gatherer stage of development, groups were very egalitarian.  Foraging for food was labour intensive and a willingness to share both the work and the harvest was essential.  Surprise, surprise!  Not every individual was as well adapted to this way of life as others.  Their mal-adaption took two forms, bludging and bragging.

Almost from the beginning, apparently, certain individuals have been more willing to accept the benefits of group membership and less willing to meet the obligations that go along with it.  The laziest member of a foraging party would suddenly become energised when it was time to share the spoils.  And here is a classic example of what clever people today call moral hazard.  If the group does not deal with such a member, it won't be long before other members think such free-loading is the way to go, and eventually, of course, the group gets to the point where it is not gathering enough food to sustain its members.  Discipline is required.

The other side of all this was the "Superman" syndrome.  A member of the group would throw himself energetically into the work of the group, and make sure all the other members of the group (especially the female ones) realised that he was head and shoulders above the rest of them.  Naturally he would expect to be rewarded, and he didn't just have in mind an extra portion of nuts and berries.  Again, this would cause tension in the group and would need to be dealt with.

Fast-forward several thousand years to around 40-50 A.D and look at the infant Church, or more accurately, the infant churches.  Problems of fair distribution arose immediately in Jerusalem: Acts 6:1.  And a sort of Spiritual Gifts Olympiad was dominating proceedings in the Church at Corinth.  In the first case, wise leadership found a practical solution.  In the second case an outraged apostle tried to bring them to heel.  The essence of St Paul's teaching is found in verse 7: put the group first.

And so to Cana in Galilee.  Notice first that this is one of a pair of stories, the succeeding one being St John's version of the Cleansing of the Temple.  Here immediately we see his complete disregard for the principle of chronology in narrative formation.  The other gospels are clear: the cleansing of the Temple took place in Holy Week, after Jesus' Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.  It makes no sense to suggest that Jesus would have taken such direct action at the beginning of his ministry.  So these two stories are "opening summaries":  St John is setting out his basic position that in Christ God has made all things new, not by scrapping everything and replacing it with new stuff, but by transforming the old stuff and making it new.  The water that sustains life becomes the wine that enriches life: the Temple is not destroyed; it is transformed from being a shoddy business centre to a place of prayer and worship.

Perhaps the real giveaway here is the last sentence of this passage.  He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.  Oh, if it were only that simple!  Much more water had to flow under the bridge before any of the disciples came even close to doing that.  More intriguing is verse 9, contrasting the "innocence" of the master of the banquet with the "inside knowledge of the servants".  St John is surely making a point here, but what is it?  That the truth has been revealed to the lowest of the low but withheld from the people of power?  And what did the servants make of it all?  If in that event "Jesus revealed his glory", did the servants recognise it?  Or do they (for John) represent the spiritually blind, in contrast with the disciples, who, he implies, see with the eyes of faith?

Isaiah.  Here Isaiah seems to be speaking his own message, rather than purporting to speak God's words to his people: he is more teacher than prophet.  Again, the theme is one of renewal, in the sense of transforming something already in existence into a new condition.  First, he makes it clear that his message is for the good of the people: he is not into self-aggrandisement (Corinthians, please note).  The land that has been desolate and abandoned will be restored, rebuilt and renewed, and this is, in part, metaphor for the restoration, rebuilding and renewal of God's relationship with Israel.  After a long and stormy courtship and engagement, that relationship is now to be consummated in marriage.  Like any bridegroom God will delight in and rejoice over his bride, the people; and the land will be renamed to proclaim this new state of affairs.

Taking It Personally.

·        How would you characterise God's relationship with this country?  Does it even exist?

·        If God were choosing a name for this country to describe his relationship with it, what name might he choose?  What name might you choose for it?

·        Focus on verse 2.  What might other nations see when they look at us?  What sort of light might we be shining to the world?

·        Pray for our country in the light of your ponderings.


If you remember the worst excesses of the Charismatic Movement of the seventies and eighties this passage may bring back painful memories for you!  Humility was certainly in short supply: speaking in tongues, healing the sick, and exorcism became the only true marks of a real Christian, andscorn would rain down on anyone who was honest enough to deny being in receipt of any of those particular gifts!  Corinthians were everywhere in those benighted days!  Faith, hope and love hardly featured: what mattered was an ability to speak in words no one (including the speaker) understood.  Perhaps the most damaging part of all that was its emphasis on individualism: more and more "freelance" speakers toured around displaying their wondrous gifts, especially gifts of healing, which seemed to be particularly effective in large stadia but rarely in hospitals and hospices.  This is just the sort of thing St Paul was up against in this correspondence.  These are gifts – not acquired skills – given by the Holy Spirit "for the common good".  [Now there's a quaint term we don't hear much today!]

Taking It Personally.

·        What are some of the gifts you most admire in your fellow church members?  Are they gifts of the Spirit, natural (innate) talents, or acquired skills, do you think?

·        Which of the gifts mentioned in this passage do you have?  Are you thankful for them?  How do you exercise them for the common good?

John.  In addition to the points made above, here are a few more observations for what they are worth.  The relationship between Mary and Jesus in this story is intriguing.  I have often commented in previous Notes about the great delicacy shown in the gospels in dealing with the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  Is it possible that something similar is going on here?  Is it possible that there was a time when Mary was seen to have too much influence, and so she is here shown as "passing her authority" to Jesus?  On safer ground, notice in verse 10 how we have a mini-version of the author's favourite device of talking past each other, so well developed in some of the longer stories such as those involving Nicodemus, the woman at the well, and the man born blind.

Taking It Personally.

·       A perfect story for the prayer of imagination.  Place yourself with the servants.  Watch, listen, even lend a hand.  What do you feel when you realise what has happened?

·       Faced with such a "miracle", how would you react?  Would it scare you witless, intrigue you, or inspire you to seek further understanding?

·       On the spectrum of water to wine, where is your faith at the moment?  Where is your prayer life?  Where is your faith community?

·       Have you seen God's glory?  When and where?


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