I think my first memory of looking more closely at the Gospel reading we heard a few moments ago (John 2.1-11) was being taken through it by a Priest who had myself and others creased up with laughter. He focussed on Mary`s words, “Do whatever he tells you”. Now I can`t hope to recreate the moment but all he did was point out how deliciously absurd those words to those servants. What he did was ask us to imagine the conversation that went on back there in the kitchen once they had been told to fill those jars with water and then (so they thought) serve THAT to the assembled wedding guests.
Yes, they were incredulous…! but the point is that nonetheless THEY DID AS JESUS TOLD THEM and the outcome is what we focus on during this Epiphany Season….. The transformation of that water into wine (180 gallons of it- if you do the maths) was another moment when the `glory` of Jesus is revealed. And John goes on to say that this was but the `first of his signs` and importantly it was the reason why his disciples believed in him…. Which is better translated as `took their stand` on him`…. But it happened, as I say because the servants were obedient.
Now, I won`t attempt to get you laughing this morning but I do want us to hold on to those same words: “Do…. Whatever…. he tells you”. I`d like us to imagine ourselves as the servants and to think about how it feels to hear Mary say to US…. “Do…. Whatever…. he tells you”.
Generally speaking I get the impression that the issue of `obedience to Christ` too easily down-played. For example, many folk are fond of facing life with the mantra “What would Jesus do?” preferring to see Jesus as the purveyor of religious `principles` and `truths to live by` rather than a living Lord. I mean clearly, such an attitude implies that he is absent rather than present and it ignores any notion that we are indwelt by His Spirit and called to follow not “What (by intuition) we think Jesus would do” but Obey “What he is asking of us (by His Spirit) here and now”. But that`s a bit scary. It`s not a very exact science… but it is much closer to the truth of things.
Secondly, Christians have become very fond of talking about the Great Commission (at the end of Matthew`s Gospel) where Jesus says: ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, … but we always seem to downplay the next bit “and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you”. In other words we turn the faith into a matter of `getting people to believe the right things` rather than `obey all that Jesus has commanded us`. It`s a subtle but significant omission.
But it is quite simple really. In John`s Gospel Jesus says: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments`. (John 14.15) Engaging the will and ACTING upon his teaching is the way we worship…. It`s how we express our devotion. And this engaging the will and ACTING upon his teaching is we`re told a secure foundation for life. In Luke`s Gospel Jesus says: ‘Why do you call me “Lord, Lord”, and do not DO what I tell you?”. “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them” he says.
And then somewhat topically he goes on to tell the story of the wise man who built his house on rock, compared to the foolish man who built his house on a flood plain and we know the outcome of that. And interestingly, I get the sense that St. Paul had heard that story too. When he wrote to the Ephesians he told them: “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is”. (Ephesians 5.17)
So what DOES Jesus ask of us? Well, firstly, like the servants at that wedding a lot of the things he asks are `behind the scenes` things… they`re `under the surface` things… On the one hand they`re things to do with attitudes and disposition…. and the way we deal with others. Look it all up: Jesus wants us to stay close to Him (“Abide in me” he says). He calls us to be alert, to be merciful …….and not to judge. He tells us to give in order to please God, not so as to be seen; our prayers are to be to the Father in private and not so as to impress others ….and we are to fast without fanfare. On the other hand we`re talking about simple acts of service unseen by others. I heard someone say recently, “It`s so hard these days to find someone willing to do a small thing faithfully… everybody wants to do the BIG thing”. Quite so.
And then secondly, some of the things he asks of us might (again like the servants in the story) appear rather strange or unusual…. But then Mary understood this…. She told them “Do WHATEVER” he tells you”. And sure enough, as much as we`d like to wriggle out of it Jesus says that the true way of faith is not like following the herd; it`s like going through a “narrow gate”. It consists in not resisting an evil person, going the extra mile and loving enemies. He tells us, “Do not store up treasures on earth”, “Do not worry about your needs or about tomorrow; seek first the kingdom of God”. But if we stay with these words for too long we get cold feet and it troubles us that Jesus can seem as we put it “so other-worldly” but actually it`s WE who are the other-worldly ones. It`s WE who try to live in denial … as if God is not God.
He`s putting before us a totally different way of being a world and a very different way of being a human being… but it`s a `ransomed, healed and restored` way of living. And in answer to our incredulity he says as he did to Nicodemus, “You must be born again”… You must have your whole outlook completely overturned… otherwise you simply won`t get it.
And thirdly it`s also worth noting that some of the things he asks of us are unashamedly to do with life in the Christian community. Jesus speaks of building His Church, his new Community and He expects us to play our part in that. His new Kingdom community has a distinct character…. and this character is formed and revealed for what it is ……by our obedience. Jesus says, “Love one another AS I have loved you”. He insists that it`s BY THIS (by our taking him at his word) that everyone will know that we are His disciples. He says, “wash one another’s feet, do not exalt yourself, settle your disputes quickly, forgive seventy times seven, let your light shine before others, do this in remembrance of me and make disciples of all nations ….(again)… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28.20)
But of course it all boils down to what Jesus called “The Greatest Commandment”. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and the second: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ And we might add what`s sometimes called the `Golden Rule`. Jesus said, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
Now, I`m not a great fan of skimming through so many pieces of Scripture like this but I just think it`s SO important to note how many times Jesus is quite clear that our obedience to what he says is vital. It is, as I say, both a foundation for living and a demonstration of our devotion to him.
So the servants at the wedding in Cana teach us how our obedience has aspects that are to do with our heart and disposition. We learn that obedience is often in the simple `behind the scenes stuff`. But that doesn`t necessarily make it any easier because they also remind us that seeking to obey Christ may also seem strange and even perplexing compared to the ways of the world. But as Carlo Carretto says, “If you want to live like Jesus you have to accept being misunderstood like him”. And then there`s no getting away from the fact that Jesus sees obedience to him and his teaching as a hallmark of life in His new community, the Church.
We are those who have taken on his yoke of obedience and that very obedience both builds up our life together (as we forgive, wash feet, break bread and so on… ) and reveals who we are. But perhaps more importantly, it does one other thing. Go back to that story of the wedding feast… and we learn that our obedience `reveals his glory`. In other words Jesus is made present for all to see when (the servants) the likes of you and I just take him at his word… no matter how daft it may seem.