An Unexpected “Sign” of Unity

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11) This last line of today’s Gospel story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is more important than it seems at first. The Gospel of John never uses the word “miracle” to describe events like this in Jesus’ life. He always uses the code word, “signs.”

There are only seven such “signs” (what we usually call “miracle stories”) in John’s Gospel, beginning with this one and ending with the raising of Lazarus just before Jesus’ own death and resurrection. And the first few signs are actually numbered like this one: this is the first of his signs…this was the second sign that Jesus did…and so on.

This has led scholars to suspect that there was something called “The Book of Signs” which pre-dated John’s Gospel and which he used as a reference to tell his version of the story of Jesus. Whether or not such a book of signs ever existed (it’s never been discovered) it is absolutely the fact that John invariably uses the word “sign” to describe these mighty acts of Jesus.

And the thing about a sign is this: it has two levels of meaning, two levels of importance…one much greater than the other. A sign points to something. Take a stop sign, for example! A stop sign is real, it has substance, it really exists. But the importance of it is not its octagonal shape or its red color. The important thing about a stop sign is what it “signifies,” what it points to – you need to stop!!

It’s the same with this “first of Jesus’ signs, in Cana of Galilee.” The most important thing about it is not that Jesus (as my NT professor used to say) made 180 gallons of wine to keep the party going! The important thing is that the story describes Jesus changing 180 gallons of water intended “for the Jewish rites of purification” (2:6) into something which was described “good wine” (2:10), better than anything the guests had had before!

In other words, Jesus was in the process of transforming the Judaism of his day into something far more than it had ever been. Or, perhaps better said, Jesus was about attempting to renew Israel and call it back to what God had originally intended it to be…a light to the nations! At their best, the Jewish people had always known that they were God’s Chosen People, all right. But that they were chosen not for privilege but for mission!

And that mission was to reveal the One, True God to the whole world! Isaiah says as much in our First Lesson today: “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.” (Isaiah 62:2) Notice: it’s the nations and the kings of earth that are to see Israel’s vindication and Israel’s glory. So that, they too will be called by a new name – God’s Chosen!

I’ve always considered Christianity to be, not so much a new religion, but (as St. Paul once described it) as a branch grafted onto the roots and trunk of Israel. We are, in a sense, a renewal movement of Judaism!

The Roman Catholic Church recognized that 50 years ago in a document from the Second Vatican Council where they said that the call of God to the Jews was “irrevocable,” could not be revoked, and that they would cease any targeted effort to “convert the Jews” to Christianity, but rather consider them as partners. The document also condemned anti-Semitism and the hatred and persecution of Jews.

Just a few weeks ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis responded in kind. In a statement entitled “To Do the Will of Our Father”, they said “We are no longer enemies, but unequivocal partners in articulating the essential moral values, for the sake and survival of humanity.” They even went further in saying that it was now their understanding that Christianity was “neither an accident nor an error…but is a gift to the nations.” Given the sometimes toxic history between Jews and Christians, a friend of mine – Dr. Eugene Korn – said, “this is unprecedented in Orthodoxy.

What all this really says to me is that none of us are chosen by God for privilege, rather we are chosen by God for mission, to serve Him. In this season of Epiphany, let’s remember that we are called to work alongside all people of good will to let the light of God’s love shine into all the world – by our words and actions, by our support of the Church as it seeks to witness to Christ in the world, by loving God and loving our neighbors (all people!) as we love ourselves.

Then, we – like those water jars at Cana – will be transformed into the wine of new life…to reveal God’s glory in all the world!

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