A few years back, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of the ordination of a good friend and colleague of mine. It was a glorious celebration that started with an extravagant worship service with golden vestments, soaring choral music, and a sea of participants—parishioners and colleagues new and old who had known him and in some cases, served with him, for decades. After the service, we moved seamlessly into a festive party with lots of food and drink, lots of friends—old and new—lots of stories shared, and lots of laughter. It was an abundant celebration—abundant in worship, abundant in joy, and abundant in community.
Today’s gospel story is set in a similar such celebration. Jesus, his mother, and his disciples are attending a wedding feast, an event the likes of which we would have hard time imagining in our modern culture. This was no evening reception at the hotel ballroom—this was a multiple-day-long celebration for the whole community. Food and drink abounded, and the revelry would have stretched on and on, as much a celebration of the whole community as the newly wed.
But then, something goes wrong! The servants at the feast discover that they have run out of wine—a shortage that spells an early end for the festivities. After a brief and intriguing exchange between Jesus and his mother, Mary cryptically instructs the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. Taking several very large containers of ceremonial water, Jesus has them take a sample to the steward, who discovers that it has become a great quantity of wine.
There is more, though! It is not just wine that the steward tastes, but very good wine. Now, the scripture does not explain why there was a shortage of wine to begin with, so we are left to imagine our own reasons. Perhaps the new couple was stingy and hadn’t wanted to spend a lot of money buying enough wine (or very good wine at that) for a proper celebration. Maybe the new couple was of few means and simply couldn’t afford the quantity or quality of wine that they maybe had desired. It could be that many more people than they had anticipated showed up for the feast, hungry for food and thirsty for drink.
It almost doesn’t matter—whatever the reason for the shortage, Jesus meets it with an abundance of quantity and an abundance of quality. What humans provide falls short of what is necessary, what is provided in Christ is overflowing and very good. In the Gospel of John, this is the first sign that Jesus produces, and seeing it the disciples believe.
I think that it is telling that the first sign of Jesus in the Gospel of John isn’t a healing, isn’t casting out a demon, and isn’t a resurrection—it is a sign of abundance that points to the abundant life that Jesus promises. The first sign of Jesus keeps a community’s celebration alive. There is something deeply important about celebrating as a community, about finding joy in our common life. There is something very important about celebrating the grace we have received from God, the gifts which we all bring to the collective table for our mutual benefit.
It is a celebration in which we participate whenever we gather for shared meals and, with any luck, in our worship. Though these may seem like distant memories in this time of pandemic, we will once again break bread together around the table, whether in our homes or in worship. The first sign of Christ according to John was a celebration, and in our celebrations as the body of Christ, we have the opportunity to participate in the abundant life shown to us in Jesus.
Beyond celebration, the abundant life to which Jesus calls us gives us a new way to address suffering, adversity, and the deep needs of the world that it quantitatively and qualitatively different from before. There is a church that I knew in a small town far away from here. At the time that I knew it, the congregation was very small and located in an economically depressed region. They struggled every month to make their ends meet, hoping that they would be able to pay all their bills on time, and it was uncertain if their congregation would be viable for much longer.
In the midst of this scarcity, the congregation decided that they wanted to do something to support their community and neighbors, so they chose to hold a monthly meal open for anyone in the town who wanted something to eat or the opportunity for fellowship. At the end of every month, they would take whatever money remained in their checking account and use it to prepare a feast in their church hall. According to their priest, no one ever walked away hungry.
When we encounter adversity, scarcity, or great need as individuals and as a community, our instinct seems to be to hunker down and pull our metaphorical coats tightly around us, especially when we feel that great adversity, scarcity, or need within our own community. But Jesus calls us to abundant life and our response to the needs in our community and in our world must come out of a place of abundance, even if we don’t know how we are going to pull it off, trusting in God’s abundance where our own may fall short.
If this seems like a tall order, then let me tell you my friends that I already see it happening in this community. In the hardship of these past few years, this community has responded with an abundance of care, prayer, and companionship. Where there is a need for community, I see this place respond with an abundance of welcome and friendship. Where there is loss, I see this congregation respond with an abundance of love and support. It is a beautiful thing.
This abundant life to which Jesus calls us is more than a celebration of the community with which God has blessed us and it is more than how we respond to the deep hunger of the world, it is an invitation into the kingdom of God—an invitation into an eternal life. The Anglican theologian, Kathryn Tanner, explores this very idea—so often we think of the eternal life promised to us by Jesus as something that is strictly temporal, a quantitative promise of abundant life that stretches off into the never-ending future.
Tanner suggests that this isn’t the only way to think about it, that the eternal life which we anticipate can also be a qualitative promise of abundant life that can happen right here and now. As we live into the abundant grace that God pours out on us and respond with abundance, that our spirit grows outward, expanding towards the infinite that is God. We can, in Tanner’s point of view, enter into eternal life here and now, and find God’s Kingdom on earth.
This is the abundant life to which Jesus calls us in today’s Gospel story. It is a life abundant with the celebration of each other and the worship of the God who gives us these gifts. It is a life abundant with grace as we seek to meet the deep needs of the world. But most of all, Jesus demonstrates to us a life so abundant that it expands eternally to meet the one who created us.
And seeing this sign, the disciples believed in him.