For the common good

Sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and John 2:1-11

I received an email from Gord Johnson this past Wednesday with a question about tonight’s readings. I know that as he plans the music for Sunday nights Gord pays close attention to the appointed readings, and it is not unusual for him to send a message with an idea, observation, or question. Wednesday’s email, though, was unusually brief and pointed: “What’s the significance of the Corinthians passage during Epiphany?” he wrote. “I’m not getting it.”

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I replied fairly quickly, with an answer that may or may not have been entirely helpful. “I’m going to assume that it has to do with the nature of the church,” I responded. “Many gifts and one Spirit. The church is the community that is made possible by the manifestation of the light, and this is what it looks like… that sort of angle.” Consider this sermon a more reflected response to Gord’s very fair question.

These Sundays between the end of Christmastide and the beginning of Lent are counted as weeks in Epiphany. Beginning with the telling of the experience of the Gentile magi being led to the place where the Christ child was, the dominant themes of Epiphany are manifestation and revelation. The dominant image is light—the light of the star, the light of candles, the light of new understanding—and over these long, cold, dark January nights that is a powerful sort of image.

So what better Gospel reading than the story of the wedding feast at Cana? A story unique to John, it is set near the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Its basic shape is probably quite familiar to most people here; Jesus and his disciples are at a wedding party at which the wine runs out, and so he has the servants take the big containers set aside for the Jewish purification rites and fill them with water. He then has them draw some of the water and take it to the wedding steward—think of him as being part best man, and part master of ceremonies—and what do you know? It is now wine! Not just any wine, either, but the best wine.

Embedded in this story is a somewhat odd exchange between Jesus and his mother, in which she urges him to get on with the work of saving the couple from embarrassment and he replies by saying, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come,” and then right away goes into action. There is also the observation that aside from the disciples and the servants, no one actually realized what had happened; that for all that “water into wine” might be an extraordinary image, it was a rather private and understated one. Still, as John presents things, it is “the first of his signs,” and it “revealed his glory”; foremost to his disciples who, John says, “believed in him.”

John structures much of his gospel around a series of “signs,” all of which build toward the final “sign,” which is the resurrection. The most poetic of the gospel writers, John tucks hints of that culminating sign right into this story of the wedding miracle. It is set “on the third day” (2:1), and it involves taking empty water jars from the old covenant and filling them with rich wine. As N.T. Wright notes, in the cross and resurrection, Jesus “takes the Jewish Passover festival and transforms it into the great revelation-in-action of God’s glory and love. God has kept the best wine until now: Israel and the world look on as the true Bridegroom confounds custom and expectation, redeeming Israel and the world in a way neither would have imagined possible.” Now that’s a reading for the Epiphany season.

Now, on to Gord’s question about the reading from 1st Corinthians… In this letter, Paul is really trying to help a church community work out the implications and dynamics of this new reality—this glorious new wine— as it pertains to their day-to-day life. What does it look like to be a people who have been so redeemed? What does it look like to be a people called to live within the light of that glory?

Of all of Paul’s epistles I think 1 Corinthians is my favourite, mostly because it gives a glimpse of real personalities—and real issues and conflicts—in a very real church community. Corinth was a port city with a bit of a reputation as a rugged place, and the church Paul planted there was a mixture of Jewish believers and gentile converts. It is pretty clear from his letter that the experience of drawing this community together had been a powerful one, marked by an extraordinary sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul is not fearful of what we call charismatic experiences or gifts, and in fact a bit further into the letter he will write “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;” (14:18) a statement that may sound a little prideful until you read what follows. “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (14:18-19)

And that more or less drives home what concerns him in our passage tonight. He’s planted this church, appointed leaders to guide the community, and gone on with his mission travels. Apparently, though, things have not gone all that well, and so the leaders have written him a letter outlining their various worries. Some of those concerns were born of the way in which people had responded to Paul’s message of radical grace—basically dismissing all concerns for ethics and constraint and doing pretty much whatever they wanted—and some had to do with the way in which these spiritual gifts had come to be understood and practiced.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters,” he writes, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” That’s a nice piece of understatement… had he pulled out all the stops, he might have written something more like “I don’t want you to go totally off the rails, here… you’re clearly at risk of establishing a cult of experience, with a pecking order that is privileging the experience of ecstatic speech.” Again, he’s not shy about his own experience of tongues, but he can see how intoxicating it can become for a people narrowly drawn to the experience.

So what does he write to them? “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Notice that phrase, “for the common good.” It is ultimately worth nothing if it isn’t for the common good. And then he lists the things he believes the Spirit gifts to us: “the utterance of wisdom,” “the utterance of knowledge,” faith, gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation. And all of these, he emphasizes, “are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

And as the New Testament scholar James Boyce notes,

When considering God’s gifts, Paul says, we always need to begin by getting one thing straight. The central ‘gift’ of the Spirit is our common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. This confession, empowered by the event of the cross and resurrection, binds this community and all Christian communities together in a unity that overarches all our differences.

That is the central manifestation or “epiphany” of this section of Paul’s letter to his somewhat beleaguered little church in Corinth. Jesus Christ is Lord, and the gifts received in light of that proclamation are not meant to privilege one above the other; they are to be used in service for the common good. Jesus Christ is Lord, and so the ordinary water of our old lives is become the best, the richest, and the most potent of wines. And that wine is only worth having if it shared, as at a wedding feast or at the breaking of bread in community.

We are meant to stand together in this Epiphany light; meant to receive what we’ve been given so that we can turn around and share it, one with another, “for the common good.”

And that, Gord, is my longer and rather more reflected answer to your email…

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