Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sermon: 2 Epiphany 2010 -- Banquet and Body

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (17 Jan 2010)
(Isaiah 62:1-5/Psalm 36:5-10/1 Corinthians 12:1-11/John 2:1-11)
Banquet and Body

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be His kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

The texts today are a stories of transformation and metaphors of the kingdom of God.

For people who live close to the land, who depend on it for their basic sustenance, food and water are pressing issues, just having enough of each on a daily basis or surviving long-term famine and drought when they come – and they will come. Jesus was of such stock – the am ha-aretz, the people of the earth – as undoubtedly were many of his ancestors throughout their generations. This ancient, persistent concern about daily bread underlies the Hebrew prophets’ imagery and Jesus’ own imagery of the coming messianic banquet. When Messiah comes, Israel will be vindicated before the nations and all will be put to rights – all creation restored. And, at the dawning of this messianic age, as a symbol of its unending blessing and bounty, Israel, and the righteous among the nations, will be invited to the great banquet of choicest fare and finest wine. Isaiah’s words are typical of this hope and imagery.

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken (Is 25:6-8, NRSV).

We find the same image in Jewish folklore, in the Yiddish song A-Sudenyu, for example.

What will happen when the Messiah comes?
When the Messiah comes, we will have a feast.

What will we eat at the feast?
The Wild Ox and the Leviathan,
We will eat the Wild Ox and the Leviathan at the feast!

What will we drink at the feast?
The wine preserved [from Creation],
We will drink the preserved wine,
We will eat the Wild Ox and the Leviathan at the feast!

So, in the second-temple Judaism of Jesus’ day, every earthly banquet was seen as a foretaste of the great messianic banquet to come and assumed a symbolic importance far beyond sustenance. Every banquet brought forward into the present the hope of the future kingdom banquet. Every attendee was taking his present place in the messianic kingdom to come. This is why Jesus so inflamed the Scribes and Pharisees when he dined with tax collectors and sinners; he was welcoming these social and religious outcasts into the kingdom of God by feasting with them at a foretaste of the messianic banquet.

If every banquet assumes this symbolic importance, how much more a wedding banquet, especially given the prophetic imagery of God as a husband and Israel as a sometimes faithful, sometimes unfaithful, bride (cf Is 62:1-5). The wedding banquet is the ultimate earthly metaphor for the messianic banquet in the kingdom of God, hence its centrality in several of Jesus’ parables.

It is fitting then that the first of St. John’s signs – displays of Jesus’ power and authority that point to his divinity – the first of St. John’s signs takes place at a wedding banquet in Cana of Galilee.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:1-4, NRSV).

The wine gave out: four simple words to describe a social disaster with profound spiritual implications. The groom, who was responsible for the wedding banquet, and his entire family would be dishonored in the community for failing to adequately provide. The marriage, itself, would start under the cloud of this shame. What should have been a time of greatest rejoicing threatened to become a tragedy. And this mirrors perfectly the Jewish – and indeed the human – condition. The wine gave out. On this day at Cana in Galilee, at this festive occasion, Israel is still in exile under Roman occupation. Messiah still is not here. This wedding banquet – and every banquet like it – which should be a reminder of the messianic hope reminds instead of the messianic absence: until this day at Cana in Galilee.

5His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him (John 2:5-11, NRSV).

On this day at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus transforms water into wine he proclaims that the true messianic banquet has begun, not on that great and terrible day of the Lord in the future, but right here in the middle of history. On this day at Cana in Galilee, when Jesus transforms water into wine he proclaims that he is the Messiah, and that wherever he is, there too is the messianic banquet: there will spiritual food abound and heavenly wine overflow. This transformation of water into wine is a sign of kingdom come, of the presence of the kingdom of God right here in the middle of history. And his disciples understood, at least some of this “11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11, NRSV).

This is the first of the transformations in our lessons today; there is a second, and it, too, stands as a sign of kingdom come, of the presence of the kingdom of God right here in the middle of history. In Jesus’ messianic banquet parables (e.g. Mt 22:1-14 and Lk 14:15-24) a diverse and ragtag group sits at table together; you can imagine Jew and gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female. And yet, in and through Jesus the Messiah, in and through their invitation to the messianic banquet, these polar opposites are transformed into one holy people, the people of God. This inclusive transformation, this acceptance of one another because each has been accepted by Jesus, is also a sign of kingdom come. St. Paul describes the transformation to the Christians in Galatia.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NKJV).

Unity is the key; through Christ and in Christ, divisions cease, enmity is ended, and all are made one. This transformation is a clear sign of kingdom come.

And what symbols does Paul chose for this transformation? Not water to wine, not a wedding banquet, but the formation of a new body made of individual members bound together by the Spirit and working together in harmony.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:12-13, NRSV).

And what are the implications of this new body-life we share? First this: we are bound together so inextricably by the Spirit that we cannot do without one another, and we have no right to try. Each part, each member – no matter how humble or unimportant that member may appear – is essential to the welfare and function of the body. God alone knows the true value of each member and God himself orders and structures the body as he wills and knows. St. Paul writes:

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it (1 Cor 12, 124-26, NRSV).

There is beautiful and fearful symmetry in this passage. The humble member cannot say to the honorable, “Because I am not as great as you, I am not truly part of the body.” Nor can the honorable member of the body say to the humble, “Because I am greater than you, you are not truly part of the body.” God alone knows the true value of each member and God himself orders and structures the body as he wills and knows, such that we suffer or rejoice, prosper or decline together: one with all, all with one. I know a saint from my childhood and young adult years, not with us any longer: may her memory be eternal! Her’s was the widow’s mite; widowed early with three children to raise, she had little to give to the church monetarily. For a time she cleaned the building until she was physically no longer able. Her’s were humble circumstances and she was, apparently, a humble member of the body. Yet, I learned in the last few years I knew her, that she prayed for me – for all of us in that congregation – daily. How many times her prayers saved me I may never know. But this I do know: the prayers of this humble saint were – and are, I think – of inestimable value, worth far more than all the words I spoke, or money I gave, or work I did on behalf of the body in that place. God placed her in the body at just the right time, in just the right place to be a sign to me and to all of us of kingdom come.

There is a second implication of this new body-life we share: none of us has the spiritual resource – Paul calls them spiritual gifts – to grow and serve apart from the rest of the body. Instead, God quips individuals for the common good. A blended metaphor of banquet and body comes to mind here – the classic, Church potluck meal. Oh, how I remember those of my childhood and how much I would like to eat just one more with those saints who have gone before: chicken and dumplings, green beans, turnip greens, mashed potatoes, corn bread – I’m from the south, after all – deviled eggs, homemade stack cake and pies with real meringue. No one brought enough to feed all of us, but all of us together brought enough to feed everyone. At this banquet the body feasted because each individual member shared the gifts God had given, no matter how grand or humble they might appear. And sometimes, just that simple chocolate cookie that a dear sister brought was the perfect finishing touch to the feast.

So it is in the apparently more spiritual realm of the church, as well.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Cor 12:4-11, NRSV).

To our assembly, to our body, I may bring a bit of knowledge – which God has given me, of course – and you bring your wisdom. Another brother brings his faith – which I need when mine is sorely lacking – and a sister brings her healing touch and words and prayer. Words are spoken and then explained and interpreted. Miracles happen in such a fellowship as together we discern the presence, power, and direction of the Spirit. A church living this way is a spiritual potluck: all are invited and all feast on the choicest fare and drink the finest wine, because each shares as God has provided. Such a fellowship of believers – transformed into one body in Christ – is a clear sign of kingdom come, not somewhere in the distant future, but right here and right now in the middle of history. And when the church begins to live out this unity and abundance not just among ourselves but in our world, then that world will see clearly that the kingdom has come among us and that the messianic banquet has begun.

The texts today are stories of transformation and metaphors of the kingdom of God. Jesus transforms water into wine and proclaims that the true messianic banquet has begun. The Spirit transforms dichotomous individuals into a gifted and unified body and proclaims kingdom come.

There is one final transformation to mention – not a metaphor but a sign, not a symbol but the thing itself. It lies at the intersection of banquet and body; it is, of course, the Eucharist. Around the Table of the Lord the body of Christ – this diverse group of men and women throughout all places in all times baptized into one Spirit – gathers for the messianic wedding banquet and feasts on the body and blood of Christ. And in so doing, week by week, bite by bite, sip by sip this body is transformed into the likeness of Christ, from glory to glory. Amen.

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