Jesus didn’t come to make us Christians
Evert year the Citadel Theatre here in Edmonton puts on Charles Dickens, a Christmas Carol.
Most of us are familiar with the story of how miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and then the Spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come and how wakes up on Christmas day and is a changed man.
It was published on the 19 December 1843 and instantly became a big hit with the novelist Margaret Oliphant saying that it “moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel.”
A Christmas Carol became so well-known and so popular that there are the terms “Scrooge” and “Bah! Humbug” and known to most people even if they have never seen the film or tv show or theatre adaptation.
Most of us who are somewhat familiar with Dickens know that he was concerned with the appalling poverty in Britain and his he highlighting this to his readers, in effect encouraging them to charity and generosity.
And the story has taken on mythical qualities as a story of human transformation, an archetypal story about the value of helping someone in need.
I wish it were that easy. That all the people in this world who need personal transformation would go to bed one night, see a bunch of apparitions, and be changed into milk of human kindness, and into a representation of Jesus Christ, and thus become a servant to humanity and a servant to those in need and want.
It is a great story in many ways and Dickens has it right that what this world needs, is for people to be transformed, and in some way that the gospel is about transformation.
In fact, as we enter the new year, a lot of people often think about New year’s resolutions and think about changes they need to make in their lives, maybe to be happier, or physically healthier, or to deal with their own mental health, or to be better in relationships etc.
Personally, I am watching my blood sugars better and trying to be on a low carbohydrate diet, and trying not to eat so many cookies, and French fries and toast etc.
And to today we get to our gospel. It too is a story of transformation. It is a story of water changed into wine at a wedding.
I think it is a key story in John’s gospel.
And of course the question that is in most people’s minds as they come to scripture is “what does it mean?”
What is the significance of water changing into wine? And maybe even: What does it mean for me? Am I supposed to be some kind of water that Jesus is changing into wine?
What is the nature of that transformation?
And we are going to try to explore that a bit, but before we do, we are going to set a bit of context.
The gospel writers did not take the stories of Jesus and put them in chronological order. The cleansing of the temple for instance happens at the beginning of John’s gospel but after Palm Sunday in the other gospels.
The gospel writers did not just randomly put the little stories of Jesus together, but each writer put them together in an order that helps tell their own story of Jesus. By the way, for you gospel or scholarly nerds, each little story of Jesus is called a pericope which is basically a Greek word meaning “a cutting out.”
So, John starts his gospel not with something to do with the infancy of Jesus, nor with beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but with the creation. “in the beginning…” John does this because he wants to connect Jesus with creation to show that Jesus is the new creation.
The prologue in John’s gospel is the creation and then for the first few chapters he marks the beginning of each new day with a phrase like: the next day, reminding us of the seven days of creation.
On the first “next day,” John the Baptist introduces Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” On the second “next day” John the Baptist again calls him, “Lamb of God.” And Jesus invites his first disciples to “Come and see.” On the third “next day” (which is now the fourth day from the beginning), Jesus calls more disciples to follow him.
Chapter 2, where our story is, the miracle at Cana, begins with “on the third day.”
Two things are happening here. John has connected this Water into Wine miracle with the resurrection. The resurrection happened on the third day.
And if you add the third day to the other previous days we are now on the seventh day or the Sabbath day, and the Sabbath is not a day of celebration.
And this particular day in John’s gospel there is a marriage, which in Jewish culture was not an hour or a couple of hours, or even a one-day event. It was several days of joy and celebration of feasting and fun and friends and family and community blessed the new couple and celebrated with them.
So, this Water into Wine miracle has already been set up as a new creation and as a resurrection story. Both of these are stories of transformation. And it is in the context of two people being married and new family being created. Another transformation.
Indeed, one might even read the whole of John’s gospel as a story of transformation.
The next story is Jesus cleansing the temple and replacing the place of worship with a new place of worship… is own body.
The story after that is Nicodemus and about the need to be born again or born from above.
Then there is the Samaritan women, an enemy, a woman, a person with a bad reputation, who drinks the water of acceptance and life that Jesus gives her, and is a new person.
The miracles themselves are not called miracles in John’s gospel but signs, and are not only signs of God, but of transformation.
Like the official whose son is healed, we too can have faith in Jesus.
Like the paralyzed man, we can be raised to walk in faith and love.
Like the crowds fed in the wilderness we can feed on the love and grace of Jesus and be made new.
Like the disciples who are in the storm on the water Jesus can come to us and still the storms of life.
Like the man born blind we can be given new sight to see as God sees the word, and see to be compassionate.
As Lazarus is raised from death, we too can die and be born again to a new way of living.
The water into wine is the initial miracle or sign. It is the sign that is the clue to the other signs or to the Gospel of John. It is the sign that interprets all the other signs. It is all about transformation.
And that is why I entitled the sermon: Jesus did not come to make us Christians.
Jesus did not come to set up a new and different religion called Christianity, with a new bunch of rules about who is in and who is out, with a new bunch of religious leaders who will take advantage of the system; and will control the narrative of the religion, and who will definitely try to keep out the riff-raff, the morally impure, the different, the criminal, the ones they think have no value; and the sick, and poor, and the enemies.
Jesus didn’t come to set up a bunch of doctrines and theologies you have to believe and pass in order to be loved, accepted, forgiven and included.
Jesus didn’t come to send you to hell and to a place of eternal torment, which is the threat the church has used for centuries to keep you under their power and control.
Jesus came that people would be transformed. That people like good old Scrooge would be transformed into loving, kind, caring people, who forgive one another, and practice grace, which is the ability to be love and be kind to those who don’t even deserve love and kindness.
So, while those who follow Jesus are called Christians and I myself call myself a Christian, the point is that what Jesus about is not just calling yourself Christian, or even believing the right doctrine, but letting Christ change you and transform your heart to love.
And just as a marriage creates a new family between two people and a new larger extended family between two families, so the water into wine transformation is not only about your individual transformation, it is also about us all becoming one human family where we love one another, care for one another, include one another, forgive one another, and be a peace with one another.
The whole human family.
Jesus just didn’t come to create new Christians, but to show everyone how to live and love.
In John’s gospel the transformation is called dying and being born again. It is about finding the way the truth and the life. It is called abundant life or new life.
This transformation or new life is also talked about in terms of abiding or living or staying in Jesus.
There are many abiding places in the Father’s house.
Jesus said, I will live or abide in you if you live in me.
Jesus is the true vine and we need to live in him to bear the fruit of love.
The new life is also characterized by love. I give you a new commandment that you love one another.
That is how people will know that you have been transformed. Not by being a Presbyterian or by believing in the virgin birth or the bible, but by love for one another.
One interesting feature of the miracle at Cana is, “who knows it is a miracle?”
The bride and groom don’t know. The Master of Ceremonies did not know.
The family of the bride and groom do not know. The guests to the wedding do not know. It is the servants who know.
Two aspects to this…
The first is that in John’s gospel Jesus will take a towel and wash his disciple’s feet to show another aspect of transformation. To be transformed is to be a servant towards others, even those we consider dirty, in whatever way we consider them dirty.
And the other aspect is that the servants are not invited to the party. They don’t get to eat or drink at the tables with the guests. The servants in some ways are outsiders to the wedding. They work it but don’t participate. But, the servants are not only included by Jesus, they are part of the miracle.
These servants, these nobodies, these slaves, these people who have no real worth, who are thought of by others as no better than stone jars, are filled by Jesus himself with the new wine of love and community and acceptance and grace.
The nobodies become the bearers of grace to others.
I started with a Christmas story so I will end with one of my all-time favourite Christmas stories.
It is a movie called Home Alone written and produced by John Hughes who was one of my all-time favourite movie writers and producers, producing classics like Pretty in Pink, the Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes Trains and Automobiles.
Many of you will be familiar with the story of Kevin McAllister who is the youngest son in the McAllister family who gets in a scrap with his older brother Buzz. And because he won’t apologize, he is banished to the attic for the night.
Kevin goes to bed mad at his family.
In fact, as Kevin is going to the attic, he is mad and says to his mom: I hope that I never see any of you jerks again.
And then Kevin thinks to himself in bed. “I wish they would all disappear.
When he wakes up he has slept in and missed the flight to Paris.
He gets missed because there are 4 adults and nine kids in two families and someone does a head count and makes a mistake. And the parents think that their son is in the other van going to the airport
At first Kevin thinks this is all right that he doesn’t need his family. His wish has come true. They disappeared. Then later he is scared of old man Murphy next door, who is rumoured to be a serial killer. And then he has to take on two bandits who plan to come and rob the place because he is alone.
The whole scene where Kevin booby traps the place and the bandits get into all kind of scrapes was one of the funniest set of scenes I ever saw in the movie theatre and I laughed so loud that my children didn’t want to sit with me in the theatre any more.
But really it is a transformation story, a modern day Pilgrim’s progress, where the little boy who is tired of being teased and mistreated by his siblings, who fights with Buzz and basically says good riddance to his family, encounters the forces of evil, and deals with temptation, and his fears, and his ego, and his enemies, and realizes in the end that what is really important is his family.
He grows and matures and is a new person.
And not only that, he ends up sitting with old Marley at church and his advice helps Marley be reconciled to his son and his granddaughter.
So, in the end all Kevin really wants for Christmas is his family.
I quote Kevin. “Will you please tell Santa that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back.”
The message of the movie is of the importance of family, of love for one another, and being reconciled.
For Kevin this happens in a few days.
For Scrooge in happened in one night. For most of us transformation is a life-long process.
It takes a long time to realize that God loves everyone and wants us all to be reconciled and one family; and that the transformation God wants is not only for us to be kind and loving, but to create a beloved community where people are included, nurtured, loved, forgiven, accepted; and where we all share.
Tomorrow in the United States it is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day. In a speech at a victory rally, after a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, King said,
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].”
Jesus didn’t come to make you a Christian, but to make you like Christ. Amen.