GOD’S JOYFUL RULE

Sermon delivered on 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, the 17th January 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Isaiah 62:1-5     1 Corinthians 12:1-11     S. John 2:1-11

S. John 2:11 “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him.”

The season of Epiphany brings to our attention the various ways in which the Son of God was revealed, and on this second Sunday of the Epiphany season we read of Jesus making wine out of ordinary water, thus showing the glory of Jesus as the sovereign Creator and Ruler of the material universe and also as the merciful God who provides abundantly for His people's needs. At the same time St. John shows us that the full glory to be manifested is to be in an hour that had not yet come, an hour that Jesus Himself in a conversation with His Mother calls “My hour.” The sign manifesting His glory therefore pointed forward to a fuller manifestation of His glory.

Jesus’ presence at a marriage and St. John’s characterisation of the event that then took place as Jesus’ first public sign can be taken to elevate marriage from being one sort of human arrangement to an institution that is divinely and uniquely approved. The Scriptural revelation as a whole confirms this, and those who in our time or any other time seek to make marriage out to be just one form of civil arrangement or partnership are out of tune with what has been revealed to be God’s intention. Recalling the Old Testament lesson, we will remember that it used the thought of the rejoicing of a bridegroom over his bride to show us God rejoicing over His people. God promised to change their state of being cast off and forsaken to a state of being delighted in by Him. His delight in them was compared to the union of the returned inhabitants with their beloved homeland. Moreover, the Lord will delight in His people the way that a bridegroom rejoices over His bride.

So God’s gift to us of marriage is to show us something of His own joy. Jesus often taught about God’s Kingdom using the idea of a marriage-feast. This takes forward our thought from the lesson from Isaiah today about God’s delight in the restoration of His people. God’s Kingdom is the way He rules us and we are taught that to be ruled by God is the most joyful thing of all. God’s intention is to rejoice over us and all His people, and for us to submit to His rule is the most joyful thing for us to do. The restoration of the deserted land to its people after their return is described by the prophet as a union between land and people having those qualities of marriage that are always longed for, namely delight and permanence. “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” The wonderful mystery is that it is God Himself who extends a gracious relationship to us not merely of philanthropy, but of the ardent love of a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride.

All this certainly does not necessarily imply that for an unmarried person to know God’s joy, he or she should be married. The New Testament, especially, shows a high regard for celibacy and the unmarried state, which have a very special place in God’s purpose. For all Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God in terms of marriage, and for all St. Paul’s teaching about the relationship between Christ and His Church in terms of a husband and a wife, neither were married, and this was not seen by them, and is not seen by Christians, as something defective or missing in their lives. In connection with this we may apply St. Paul’s words in our second lesson today from 1 Corinthians. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” In a Christian community or society we are not equal, in the sense of being identical or having identical gifts. Our “equality”, such as the equality that exists in Christ between a man and a woman, must not be an equality of identity, but should become formed into an equality of complementarity. This is something that is of the very highest importance in the “quarrel” - the distinction in point of view - that we in Christ are called to maintain with the world today. I suppose that much of the anti-discrimination legislation, with which the western world is entangling itself more and more, starts out with premises that are confused. The truth is that it is as unjust not to discriminate between things that are fundamentally different as it is to discriminate between things that are fundamentally the same. Our Christian sources show that great joy and fulfilment is to be found in relationships that complement one another, as can be found within marriages, or within a secure society, or even between God and His people. Those relationships, however, never show an identity between whatever gifts the various parties bring to the relationship, nor an identity between whatever benefits each party derives from it. As St. Paul says in our second lesson 1 Cor 12, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord. He gives a list of gifts, which I do not believe he means to be exhaustive, starting from the utterance of wisdom and ending with the gift of various types of tongues and their interpretation, and at the end of the chapter, he counsels his hearers earnestly to “desire the higher gifts”. The gifts are not of identical importance, but the different gifts are supposed to complement one another in their exercise, and by complementarity achieve an equality of standing. Pope John Paul II taught that Creation ‘in our likeness and image’ (Gen 1:26) suggests that the communion of human persons literally embodies the dynamic relationships of the Divine Persons within the Blessed Trinity. These considerations will build human communion, while the attempt to enforce identical privileges acts to destroy human communion. What people persecuted by IS are going through now is not the same as what others experience; and what the families are going through who have lost their homes or properties to abnormal flooding is also different from others’ experience; but while there is no possibility of equalising the experiences of the lives of different families and nations, God’s grace enables the bringing about of human communion, the establishment of complementarity between, say, the rescuer and the rescued, and hence a different sort of equality.

At the marriage in Cana of Galilee Jesus made the very best sort of wine out of very ordinary water, and that was called a sign of His glory. When Jesus turned water into wine at this marriage feast some people began to see His glory, and His friends and disciples truly believed that Jesus really was the Provider they were looking for. In the course of this manifestation Jesus saved the bride and bridegroom from the great embarrassment in front of their guests, of having the wine run out. He intended that the joy of the bride and bridegroom should not be spoilt. At the same time He must have given those who believed in Him great joy, because of what He did, revealing His own glory. So the glory that Jesus here reveals is two-fold. He reveals His rule, because He shows His power to effect the material transformation, and He reveals the character of His rule as one of joyful abundance. God’s Kingdom is the way He rules us and we are taught that whatever life hands out to us, to be ruled by God is the most joyful thing of all. Simply put, when the heavenly Groom rejoices over us as a groom rejoices over his bride he rules us joyfully, and for us to submit to His rule is the most joyful thing for us to do. Of course even joyful marriages are not beds of roses so to speak, and neither is the joyful rule of God. It involves the cross and following Christ, to the death if necessary, but even in such a case the wondrous rule of Christ is so great that we know there is a resurrection. One of the greatest signs to the world now of the glory of Christ therefore is the confidence and joy in His rule displayed by His people when they are suffering. In the extreme case of that suffering, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Let us today, therefore, knowing His wondrous rule, maintain our quarrel that is Christ’s quarrel with the world, that is to say, maintain our distinct point of view and manner of life as belonging to Christ, with abundant confidence and great joy.