by Daniel Harrell
Having spent these early weeks of fall exploring, and cooking, food in the Bible, we arrive finally at the third and last member of Biblical cuisine’s Holy Trinity—the spirit, if you will—to olive oil’s divineness and the bread of life. The Psalmist sings the blessings of “oil to make the face shine, bread to strengthen the [body] and wine to gladden the heart.” And the Lord promises through the prophets, “I send you grain, oil and wine enough to satisfy you fully.” It would have been abnormal for an ancient daily meal to be served without wine, and therefore completely disastrous to run out of wine at a banquet. You don’t invite guests bearing gifts to a wedding and shortchange them on the shiraz.
In this morning’s memorable passage, Jesus saves a family’s social standing by changing ordinary agua into vintage pinot noir. Hearing the story read, you get the sense that Jesus didn’t really want to do it. Miracles aren’t so easy to pull off; there are only seven in all of John’s gospel. According to the physics, changing water to wine requires the total rearrangement of the molecular bond between hydrogen and oxygen, which in water is spectacularly stable. The fierce clinginess of water molecules supplies the glue that holds most of the natural world as we know it together. You couldn’t rearrange water’s atoms without emitting an explosion capable of leveling the town of Cana. For Jesus to do so meant he’d absorb quite an atomic blow.
But this wasn’t why he hesitated. As Creator of the world, Jesus could manage molecular rearrangement. He was hesitant, he said, because his “hour had not yet come.” In John’s gospel, Jesus’ “hour” refers to his crucifixion, that moment when he absorbed a blow greater than nuclear fission. The Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world by taking the sin of the world onto himself. Victory was achieved through abject defeat. This was not how Saviors were supposed to save. Satan mocked Jesus for this; tempted him to act like a real Son of God and show some power. “Call out your angelic army and do it right,” Satan hissed. Here at this wedding, Jesus’ own mother pressed him to show some power too, which may explain his abruptness. Once his cover was blown his hour would come fast. Saviors who don’t behave they’re supposed to soon end up crucified.
Still, Mary gets pushy, reminding him, perhaps, like any good Jewish mother, of all the scandal she’d endured on his account only to then have to give birth in a barn. Then again, what with all that transpired at Christmas—wondrous angels and wise men and the rest—maybe Mary, like any proud Jewish mother, just wanted everybody to see what a special boy Jesus was. Turning to the servants, she told them, “do whatever he tells you.” In other words, “watch this.”
Jesus eyed six stone water jars used for Jewish purification rites. Jewish religious ritual insisted everything having to do with eating and drinking be ceremonially cleansed. Jesus’ had an ongoing gripe with this emphasis on externals. Pharisee-types figured they could behave as badly as they pleased as long as they kept their hands clean. Never mind Scripture saying you need a clean heart too.
Jesus ordered the water jars filled to the brim. He then finagled the physics—and blew everybody away. The sommelier took a sniff and a sip and immediately recognized a classic. “You have saved the best for last!” he exclaimed—which was as much a statement about Jesus as it was about the vintage. And not only was it the best, but there was an abundance of it. Six jars each holding thirty or so gallons: enough fine wine to keep a feast flowing forever. The ordinary tap water of ritual cleansing had become the cabernet of new creation.
Then came the punch line: “Jesus did this and revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.” In John’s gospel, “glory” is God’s purview alone. Glory denotes light and power and evokes honor and worship. For Jesus to reveal glory revealed something unbelievable about him: In him God had shown up in his flesh and blood. As hard as this was to believe, the disciples found faith to do it, at least until Jesus was strung up. This was not how Saviors were supposed to save. When the hour finally arrived for the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world on a cross, it would take all the faith in the world to see any glory. But Mary saw it. Like any good Jewish mother, she was there all the way to the end.
Jesus tried to prepare his followers for the blow, but it was difficult to do. Even post-resurrection, the apostle Paul admitted that to talk of the cross was offensive and foolish. For Jesus to take bread and call it his body broken sounded bizarre. But then to be told to eat it? OK, fine, if you were Jewish, you could make the connection to sacrifice―distressing talk of Jesus himself as the sacrifice notwithstanding. To eat bread and meat as part of worship was customary. Sacrificial lamb and flour were cooked as part of Passover and other holidays to symbolize God rescuing his people from slavery. Bread also recalled the grace of God during Israel’s desert times. Morning by morning, despite their disobedience, the Lord fed them manna from heaven that tasted like honey. Last Sunday we heard Jesus refer to himself as the bread of life come down from heaven, like manna, in such abundance that we’d never go hungry again.
Unfortunately, he didn’t leave it at that. Jesus also took wine and called it the “new covenant in my blood.” “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” he said. Again, for those familiar with Jewish sacrifice, everybody knew blood had to be separated from flesh. As the source of life, blood belonged to the Lord. Sacrificial practice, as well as kosher law, prohibited any blood remaining in meat (which is why brisket is brisket) and disallowed any contact whatsoever. Disturbing enough to call wine his blood, all the more horrifying to tell his disciples to drink it. This was as offensive as it gets. By “new covenant” Jesus went beyond sin and forgiveness to a mysterious transfusion of his life coursing through our veins.
I was in San Francisco last week at a faith and science gathering where I heard a colleague speak to the boundaries of both faith and science. He described sitting by his dying brother’s bedside with his preacher and doctor. The cancer’s advance baffled the doctor, he didn’t know what to say. The failed prayers for recovery quieted the preacher, he didn’t know what else to pray. The silence of each made way for that mystery the apostle Paul names as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in us paves the way for eternity. The cup of blessing we bless is our participation in the dying and rising of Jesus. This is our destiny. Christ died on the cross as dead as we all will die, but then he rose from the dead as the first fruit of glory to come. The offending cup of blood ferments into resurrection bordeaux. He saved the best for last.
Therefore “let us keep the feast,” not only at the communion table, but at the dinner table too. Christians have long held that eating together offers a preview of heaven, a foretaste of glory, a sacred encounter where Jesus is present—especially when our hospitality extends to strangers, the needy and our enemies. I’m hoping many of you will participate by hosting or attending an ancient dinner, some already have, whether with your small group or as a special gathering. We have six or so dinners formally scheduled during October and November, and hopefully more. Sign ups and recipe menus are out in the Common as well as online. The idea is to serve each of the dishes with symbolic ingredients I’ve demonstrated this month, along with wine.
Of course, the proper host serving wine never concerns him or herself with getting drunk—that would be sacrilegious. All Mediterranean cultures frowned on drunkenness and Scripture concurs: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the spirit.” As a symbol, drunkenness represents blessings abused and gone bad. We can do nothing to earn God’s blessing, but we can sure screw it up. The prophets point to wine as the fury of God Almighty—the grapes of wrath, if you will—a curse on evil-doers that causes them to stagger. The disastrous tragedies of intemperance and intoxication are well-documented, which is one reason wine was replaced on many communion tables with Welch’s grape juice—that and the fact that Arthur Welch, its namesake and first manufacturer, was a savvy church-going businessman during Prohibition.
But communion is not the problem. Neither is Christian fellowship. The apostle Paul, the early church through the Reformers and even the Puritans and Pilgrims all drank the fermented fruit of the vine as the cup of God’s blessing. With wine we drink in the succulence of creation: its color, its fragrance and flavor. The simple and natural interaction between a grape and the yeast of its skin, when trodden, compliments food and enhances conversation; converts evenings into occasions, and lifts eating beyond nourishment into ethereality. Jesus served wine as his blood of the new covenant—the Nebbiolo of new life, a toast to our destiny, to a hope that cannot disappoint, to the glory of God in our bodies. He made gallons of the very best in abundance so that we never run out. Indeed, “our cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life: and we will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”