Sunday, September 19, 2004

Two Brides

Asbury First Methodist Church

Text: John 2:1-11

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

I look out at the back hill which rises out from our summer home. The hillside once offered pasture to Holsteins and Guernseys, but now simply watches over valley and lake. To climb it, though, low as it is, does require energy and strength.

This year we will scale a far greater promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination. More personally, this Gospel helps those who struggle with dislocation and disappointment. The Bride in Cana experienced dislocation, and so have you. The Bride of Christ experiences disappointment, and so have you.

John features Jesus in mortal combat over all of these. Jesus demarcates the limits of individualism during a wedding in Cana. Jesus pillories pride by night with Nicodemus. Jesus unwraps the touching self-presentations of hypocrisy in conversation at the well. Jesus heals a broken spirit. Jesus feeds the throng with two fish and five barley loaves. Jesus gives sight and insight, bifocal and stereoptic, to a man born blind. Jesus comes upon dead Lazarus and brings resurrection and life. He brings the introvert out of the closet of loneliness. He brings the literalist out of the closet of materialism. He brings the passionate out of the closet of guilt. He brings the dim-witted out of the closet of myopia. He brings the church out of the closet of hunger. He brings the dead to life.


The two basic historical problems of the New Testament are ancient cousins, first cousins to our two fundamental issues, the two existential battles in your salvation today.

The first historical problem behind our 27 books, and pre- eminently embedded in John, is the movement away from Judaism. How did a religious movement, founded by a Jew, born in Judea, embraced by 12 and 500 within Judaism, expanded by a Jewish Christian missionary become, within 100 years, entirely Greek? The books of the New Testament record in excruciating detail the development of this second identity, this coming of age, that came with the separation from mother religion.

The second historical problem underneath the Newer Testament is disappointment, the despair that gradually accompanied the delay, finally the cancellation, of Christ’s return, the delay of the parousia. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Paul expected to be alive to see the advent of Christ. Gradually, though, the church confessed disappointment in its greatest immediate hope, the sudden cataclysm of the end.

Two problems, historical and fascinating, create our New Testament: the separation from Judaism and the delay of the parousia. In the fourth Gospel the two come together with great ferocity. What makes this matter so urgent for us is that these very two existential dilemmas—one of identity and one of imagination—are before every generation, including and especially our own.

How do I become a real person? How do we weather lasting disappointment? How do I grow up? How do we become mature? What insight do I need, amid the truly harrowing struggles over identity, to become the woman or man I was meant to become? What imagination—what hope molded by courage—do we need to face down the profound despair of nuclear twilight and break free into a loving global future? More than any other document in ancient Christianity, John explored the first. More than any other document in Christianity, John faced the second.

The Bride in Cana: the Battle with Dislocation

Every wedding includes two brides.

Some years ago after a particularly warm July wedding, we had the opportunity to join newlyweds, families and friends at an evening reception. A wedding folds two worlds into one new creation, and does so with alarming speed. It is quite amazing what can happen in forty minutes. During dinner a round, large man accosted me to say: “Nice service Reverend. But I have two words for you: ‘air conditioning’.” We then enjoyed the round of food and drink, of dance and music, none of which really has changed very much since Jesus went up to Cana in the north country of Galilee. Roles have changed. Power shifts have occurred. The age of betrothal, the economics of the household, the rhythms of procreation, the status of women, the frequency of divorce—all these have changed. The wedding banquet is about the same. It was in this sort of universal spirit that my new, large and round friend offered his second wisdom saying. Like most epigrams, its context has long been forgotten. In fact I may not have been listening closely enough, given band and dance and cake and all, to have grasped the context in its origin. I just remember my head snapping back when he stated, in the flat, easy sense in which someone remarks about a universally held belief: “of course, all men hate all weddings”.

I took some offense to this, as a man who has spent a good percentage of summer weekend life at weddings, and not hated, at least not all of them. Whatever was he thinking? What did the wedding represent for him that was so recognizably hateful? Perhaps it is the inherent element of falsehood as several people publicly put forward their best feet, Perhaps it is the flummery. Perhaps the very time, tedious and full, that such an event requires. Perhaps the recognition of mortality, the sense of ending and the ending or at least the limits of personal freedoms.

The genius of John is to have used the words and images of his culture, and the language and imagery of his religious setting, to reframe the lasting good of news of Jesus the Christ.

I have struggled some to find a way to convey just how radical a linguistic shift this was. Let me see if I can transpose the music to a contemporary key. The religious language of the second century Greco-Roman world was Gnosticism. Hence the fourth gospel is linguistically, at least, Gnostic. “Gnostically and emphatically anti-gnostic”, said one. Our language is electronic. Had John written today in North America, he might have, might have, written like this:

In the beginning was the Web, and the Web was with God and the Web was God. He was in the beginning with God.. All things were developed through him, and without him was not anything developed that was developed. In him was light, and the light was the light of all people.

I am the network, you are the work stations. He who is connected to me, and I to him, produces much bandwidth, for disconnected from me, you have no power. If a man is not connected to me, he is shut down and discontinued, and these old work stations are gathered and destroyed.

I am the password. Those who enter by me will go in and come out and find bandwidth.

Yet a little while and I will send you another webmaster to be with you forever, even the spirit of truth.

The Bride of Christ: The Battle with Disappointment

Life, faith, truth, the Fourth Gospel and our experience over time tend not to favor grand schemes, universal structures, elaborated entities. They fall away. In their place? The strange and messy beauty of the morning. The odd surprise of the noonday. The experience of God at eventide. Every Hegel finally falls before some stubborn Kierkegaard. It is the particular that saves. Every Hegel finally falls before some stubborn Kierkegaard. It is the particular that saves.

The second great battle of salvation is with disappointment. One of our current disappointments, as a people, is with the general lack of simplicity in life. Try as we might, we just cannot escape the Bible, and the Bible’s nuanced, historic, balanced, realistic, proven assessment of our condition. Things just are not that simple. We wish they would be. We wish all information would come in just the right way at just the right time. It doesn’t. We wish that we did not have to deal with two thoughts at once. Yet, so often, there is more than one truth on the table at a time. We wish that things could just be settled, clear, simple, as they once were, somewhere, on that mythic home on the range, where the deer and antelope play. Not so. We wish that we did not have continually to return to our own mixed and mixed up experience, to learn again what the Bible says.

This is what makes weddings, in Cana and elsewhere, so interesting. Things are just not ever simple. I do not believe that there is much of anything that might happen in the course of a wedding that would at all surprise me. Not any more. I have had bomb threats, no shows, late shows, sickness, faintings, forgotten rings, electrical problems, plumbing problems, family fights, and neglected fees. Once a groom paid me four dollars for a wedding Jan and I hosted in our living room. My own daughter’s wedding, according to a close friend, hit several records: longest, hottest, most music, most attendees, most faintings, and most memories. It is hard to imagine a setting more apt to disappoint the hope of simplicity with the reality of life. Maybe that is why the first recorded sign in John occurs at a wedding. One in which the simple task of buying the right amount of wine apparently was too much for somebody to do right. I Corinthians 13, so often read at weddings, should give us a clue.

I expect many of you could recite portions of this chapter. Speak with tongues…men and angels…noisy gong….bears, believes, hopes, endures….faith, hope and love abide…the greatest of these is love…But as a speaker at Riverside Church said in late August, we may too often miss the most important verses in the whole chapter, the next to last. Faith, hope and love abide…yes, wonderful. But do you remember what comes before them? Words to live by in the complexity of life. Words to live by in the confusion of marriage. Words to live by in the strange, twilight condition that is ours. Now we see in a glass darkly, then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know in full. Along with the tide of fear that we spoke of last week, there is an undertow of simplicity around us. We want things simple. They are not. We are disappointed.

Discretion is the better part of valor. Measure twice, cut once.

Do not fire until you see the whites of the eyes. Look before you leap.

Remember the Christian virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, wisdom.

In 1989, three days before Christmas, our son Ben suddenly proclaimed a hankering for a train set. We had already bartered for the season’s gifts, and Christmas being what Christmas is in a parsonage, we made a mental note for next year. Next year, a train, for Ben.

I remember that at our staff Christmas party on December 23 I had mentioned this desire of Ben’s, as some sort of illustration of some now fully forgotten interpretation of the Incarnation. So it goes.

At 1 A. M. on Christmas Eve, or rather morning, we return down the slope of Acorn path and entered our garage, walking toward the backdoor. There on the steps we found a big box, wrapped in a red bow, “for Ben, from Santa”. Ben loved his simple, new train. In January I spent many hours coaxing, cajoling, thanking, pressing my staff about who had given Ben the train. Our organist, former supervisor of music in Onondaga County, G Frank Lapham: he loved kids, surely he had brought the train. My friend and student minister, now Bruce Lee-Clark, whose own train set covered his basement in full: he loved trains, surely he was the one. My dearest colleague, Al Childs, now 85 and four years from death: he was just the kind of guy to do such a thing. My sweet secretary Jo Stewart, then 80 and looking 55, she loved Ben liked the son she always wanted: it was she.

But they all denied it. To a man. Vociferously, they denied it. They seemed puzzled that I was sure it was they. I hate secrets and surprises, so I would not let it go. I was still at it the next Christmas. Finally, Al took me out to lunch and said, “Bob, drop it.” So I did.

Until this summer. At a June graduation party in the old neighborhood, something marvelous happened. Marvelous like Spirit, full of surprise. Marvelous like real church, beyond any naming or denomination. Marvelous like life, true and good and present. Marvelous like love. I ran into Sue, who asked about Ben, and then said that Stan, her husband, a lawyer, a sometime Catholic, a quiet, quizzical guy, the last person on earth you would call religious, she said that Stan would like to know about Ben, for a host of reasons, and, as she ended, “well, all the way back, you know, to the train that Christmas…” Stan was really angry with Sue for spilling the beans. I, though, I was grateful.

This is what we are hoping for, what we imagine at our best: an experience of being alive, an experience of love, an experience of God.

We have much to do. Jane Addams said it of our nation, but her insight now fits our world: “The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, floating in midair, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life”. How prophetic her words do sound this week.

The Gospel of John is not focused on ethics. There is only minimal ethical teaching here. One looks in vain for a sermon on the mount or plain. One searches without result for a parable with a point. One hungers without satisfaction for a wisdom saying, an epigram, a teaching on virtue. In John we have the teleological suspension of the ethical. Only the command to love remains.


These things are spoken that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can fight through dislocation, like that known by the Bride of Cana, and discover your own courage to be. This week you can fight through disappointment that things aren’t simpler, like that known by the Bride of Christ, and learn to simply live.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

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