science

What does John’s account of turning water into wine mean for us today?

A sermon based on the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11).

As I was sitting in church last week my eye was caught on one of the slides shown before the service. It was publicising the topic for today’s service: “What does John’s account of turning water into wine mean for us today?” I was intrigued and looked forward to that service. Unfortunately the following morning I had a phone call from Mandy to say that she wasn’t going to be able to take the service and asking if I could stand in for her. I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to hear her answer, but decided I’d keep her theme and have a go at answering the question myself.

This quesion relates, of course, to the set lectionary reading for today, the very familiar story of Jesus at a wedding in Cana. The wine runs out at the party and, reluctant but urged on by his mother, Jesus rescues the situation by turning water into wine. It is fundamentally, of course, a miracle story. A miracle story that marked the start of Jesus’ ministry (according to John’s Gospel). The final verse of the reading makes it clear that this is why the author considers it important, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” For almost all of Christian history this is how Christians have found meaning in the story. Jesus performed a miracle and by doing so revealed who he was.

The question Mandy posed though isn’t “What has this story meant for generations of Christians in the past?” It is “What does it mean for us today?” How do we, in the modern world, respond to miracle stories? How do we respond to this story?

We can try and respond scientifically. I’ve managed to find a scientific paper that looks at the physical chemistry behind turning water into wine. The fundamental difference is that wine contains alcohol (let’s assume about 12% of the total 20 gallons). This alcohol could have come through a chemical reaction between water and carbon dioxide in the air in the room. When you do the sums, you find out that this takes energy, which is why it doesn’t happen spontaneously and why you can’t just leave a glass of water out and wait for it turn into Shiraz (or Prosecco depending on your preference). When you calculate how much energy it turns out to be equivalent to boiling a standard kettle about 500 times. Where did all that energy come from?

Alternatively, assuming that the carbon dioxide has come from the air but knowing that it is only present in the atmosphere in very small quantities, you can ask how much air would have been needed? It turns out you’d need all the carbon dioxide from a room about 25 times the size of this church. Where did it come from?

When we mix modern science with ancient miracle stories, we conclude that those stories are even more mind-blowing than our ancestors have ever appreciated. The ancients would certainly have seen this miracle as an amazing feat but one amongst so many other things they didn’t understand about how the world functions. We see it as something that is simply not possible, even non-sensical, given our current understanding of how the physical and chemical worlds behave. Some people will say, “Well of course, this just shows how God is more marvellous, more powerful, more awe-inspiring than previous generations could possibly have imagined”. If you are one of them, then that is fine. Others will want to ask, “Are there other ways of reading this story which might bring out a different meaning?

The story is one about how Jesus fulfils a need. People are at a party, they are having a good time. They’re eating and drinking, they are singing and dancing, they are catching up and sharing news and jokes. They feel good about themselves and the lives they are leading. All the world seems rosy and then … the wine runs out. Let’s put aside Methodist concerns that alcohol shouldn’t be a pre-requisite for having a good time, and accept the host’s concerns that this is a disaster. The bubble risks being burst – the party will be over.

Jesus doesn’t want to act, but he does. He turns the water into wine. Not any old wine, not the wine that had been served earlier in the evening but a wine that the guests recognise as the best wine they have ever drunk, and in huge quantities, (20 gallons is about 120 bottles). The need has not only been fulfilled but it has been fulfilled completely and extravagantly. Later in John’s gospel (John 10:10) Jesus says he has come so that other people may have life, life in all its fulness. In John’s gospel this is the first story of Jesus’ ministry, and it is a story of Jesus bringing life in all its fulness.

This story speaks to the modern world. For the last hundred years at least, those of us in the affluent west have partied. We’ve seen wonderful scientific and economic advances. Our standard of living has improved generation upon generation, decade upon decade. In the last twenty years we’ve even seen these advances spill over to the Global South. There also standards of life have been increasing, maternal and child health has been improving, education, particularly for girls and young women has become more widely available. We’ve felt good about ourselves and the lives we were leading And the world has seemed rosy and then … the wine has run out.

The biggest issue that confronts us is climate change and the simple realisation that we cannot continue living on a finite planet as if we had infinite resources. More immediately we are confronted with a pandemic. Early on this seemed to be something we could all face together united, but we now watch fearfully as that robust coalition dissolves and we feel left to fend for ourselves. There is political instablility in the Middle East and between Russia and the west. Within our own country and throughout the world there is a growing division between those who have much and those who have little. The growing power of amoral multinational corporations leave us feeling we have little control. We recognise our deteriorating mental health not as an illness of individuals but as the inevitable response to the society in which we are all living. It feels to me at least as if the bubble is going to burst – that the party is coming to an end.

Maybe what this story means for us today is that we need to look for new wine The current wine, the wine that leaves a sour aftertaste and an awful hangover, is running out. We need to replace it with something altogether different that satisfies deeply and permanently. Jesus came to bring life in all its fulness, and we need to drink from that cup of life. The good news for us is that that choice is open to us today. All we need do is love our God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The even better news is that whatever experiences confront us in life, however our lives are transformed by factors beyond our control, there will always be opportunities to love God and love each other – to live life in all its fulness in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

It’s a simple choice but not necessarily an easy one. Each of us will feel confronted by different barriers. As I write this, I reflect on myself living in a large house which seems empty now the children have left but venturing out of it less and less. I’m spending even more time in it now I’m trying to concentrate on writing a book. I find myself having invested a lot in earlier career choices and having quite a limited pool of friends who I want to spend time with now. I feel myself shrivelling up and maybe even having lost the skills to engage with and love others.

One thing is clear as I reflect upon this story, new wine, however wonderful, will satisfy very little if it is not shared. You cannot party alone. In a world in which Christianity has become more and more focussed on individual salvation, this story reminds us of the importance of community. The new wine was not offered to an individual, it was shared by all. Maybe the meaning of this story for me today is that I need to seek out a new, more satisfying wine, to relearn how to engage with others and rediscover what loving my neighbour really means. It’s not magic, but putting it into practice might just work a miracle.

We are all different. The barriers that prevent me drinking this new wine that will be different from those that prevent you drinking from the same cup. So as I finish this sermon I want to offer a few moments of silence in which each of you can reflect on what it is that is holding you back from drinking the new wine.

What is it that is holding you back from loving your God and loving your neighbour?

What is holding you back from living life in all its fulness?

After a few moments of silent reflection we then joined in singing this song:

An aside

In preparing for the sermon I watched a number of clips of filmed versions of the story on YouTube. It interested me that each bought out quite a different aspects of what I thought was quite a simple story:

Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.

Windgather

This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.