Jesus: Rule-giver or Life-giver?
July 10, 2011 John 2:1-11
I sat down this past week with my Bible, and decided to read the Gospel of John – I planned to read the whole thing and see if I noticed any of our popular conceptions about Jesus being dumped on their heads by the actual, real Jesus of the Bible. I got as far as chapter 2… where the popular conception of Jesus as a straight-laced, boring, serious, religious, rule-follower is dumped on its head. It is a familiar story, let me lead into it with a bit of extra-Biblical imagination, and then I’ll read the story from Scripture.
Introducing the Story:
Cana, where I’m from, is a small town. We are humble people, and close-knit as many small towns are. To be honest, it was kind of a boring place to grow up – the real action is in the cities by the lake – Tiberias, or Capernaum. But around here, the only excitement is when a baby is born or one of the locals gets married.
And that’s what’s got me worried… See, I’m one of the locals, and I’m getting married. In my culture, a wedding lasts a week and boy, what a week! There is feasting, and dancing, and drinking, family and friends all come together to party. This is a once-in-a-lifetime party! I said we are humble people, and as the bridegroom it is up to me and my family to throw this party, and it is serious business. Did you know that if I run out of wine, my guests will not only be insulted, but I will have shown that I don’t have enough resources to marry, and can even be sued by the wedding guests!
I think I have enough wine, but I’m not sure; that’s why I’m worried. At the last wedding in Cana, several years ago, people drank an awful lot. I’ve done my best, but I am a simple man from a simple family, without much money. I hope the wine lasts…
John 2 (NLT)
The next day there was a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus’ mother told him They have no more wine.
Dear woman, that’s not our problem, Jesus replied. My time has not yet come.
But his mother told the servants, Do whatever he tells you.
Standing nearby were six stone water jars, used for ceremonial washing. Each could hold twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, Fill the jars with water. When the jars had been filled, he said, Now dip some out, and take it to the master of ceremonies. So the servants followed his instructions.
When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. A host always serves the best wine first, he said. Then, when everyone has had a lot to drink, he brings out the less expensive wine. But you have kept the best until now!
This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was the first time Jesus revealed his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
Misconception: Jesus the Boring…
Of all the misconceptions about Jesus and about being a follower of Jesus, there is one that perhaps bothers me most. It is the idea that being a follower of Jesus is boring, dull, lifeless, and not fun. I understand where the misconception comes from (and by the way, it is not from Jesus). It comes from a half-truth, which sits on a lie most people believe, which sits on another lie most people don’t even know exists.
The half-truth is this: being a follower of Jesus means there are some things we do not do (the half that is true…), because we shouldn’t do them and we are bad if we do (the half that is mostly a lie). This half-truth causes Christians to be characterized by the list of things we don’t do (or claim not to do…) – we don’t get drunk, we don’t have sex with someone we aren’t married to, we don’t lie and cheat to get ahead, we don’t swear, we don’t sleep in late on Sunday morning, etc… It is true that we don’t do those things, but that is nowhere near the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Furthermore, our reasons for not doing those things are absolutely NOT because we have to and are bad if we do and thus are afraid of rejection and so behave ourselves. That is not even close to the Gospel message, which says God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. (Rom 5:8). We have a much, much different; much, much better reason for choosing not to do the things we don’t do.
Now, because there are some things we don’t do as followers of Jesus, this leads some to see Christianity as all about following a set of rules, and boy is that ever boring, dull, lifeless, and not fun. So the half-truth is that being a Christian is all about following a bunch of rules.
The Surface Lie:
I said this half-truth sits on a lie most people believe, which sits on another lie most people don’t even know exists. The first lie, the surface lie, is that all those things we don’t do as Christians are actually good, fun things for us to do. Thus being a Christian is about living a boring, dull, lifeless, not-fun life, because we don’t get to do all the good fun stuff. But let’s take a step back for a moment and ask where our idea of good fun stuff comes from – I submit it is entirely culturally defined, and that in this area the dominant message has come from advertisers who sell us a lifestyle (a model of what the best, most fun life would look like). So we see a beer ad, it is full of adventure and beautiful people and humor, and we buy into that image of what a good life looks like, even if we don’t buy their product. And the really ironic thing to me, is that no matter how many times we have a really significant conversation, or we do something significant to help someone, or we discover the joy that comes from giving, or we meet God in worship, the ironic thing to me is that we walk away from those things still thinking that the good life would be about having tons of wealth, being surrounded by beautiful people, having no problems, and nothing but leisure time. And so even though we experience a deep joy in something else, we still maintain this image of the good life that is fed to us by marketers, who really have no interest in our lives being full of joy, they are only interested in parting us from whatever money we have as we spend it to purchase the product they are pushing. The first lie, the surface lie, is that all those things we don’t do as Christians are actually good, fun things for us to do.
The Deeper Lie:
But underneath that surface lie is one that is deeper, more powerful, and more prevalent. Though less recognized. It is the lie that we know best for ourselves – that we should be able to make our own choices, determine our own paths, be masters of our own destinies, be in control of our lives. This is the deeper lie, the one that says we should get to choose what to do and if anyone (including God) is telling us we can’t or shouldn’t do something, they are imposing on our autonomy. See the progression? – half-truth says Christianity is all about following rules; the first lie says the things we don’t do are actually good and fun; but the deeper lie says no one should be able to tell us how to live our lives and so even if we see something isn’t good or fun for us, we still get to choose to do it if we want to because we are in control.
Jesus: Rule-giver or Life-giver?
So two lies and a half-truth lead to a perception of followers of Jesus as boring, dull, lifeless people. And unfortunately, too many Christians reinforce that misconception by allowing non-Christians to live more full lives than they do. We buy into that initial half-truth, that being a follower of Jesus is about following a bunch of rules (and doing our best to make sure that everyone else follows those rules also), and that leads NOT to a life of joy and fullness that is attractive to those around, that makes them wonder what we have that they are missing, that makes them eager to hear why we are different and so much more vibrant and alive than they are; but rather leads to reinforce the misconception.
So here comes the key question: was Jesus like that? Did Jesus live a boring, dull, lifeless, rule-bound life? Was Jesus a rule-giver or a life-giver? Did Jesus fit the misconception I’ve been taking about? Nope…
It should be rather striking to us that the first of the 7 miraculous signs that John records in his gospel is a miracle performed to keep a party going. The wine had run out – this is a serious problem. The party is about to crash and burn, resulting in embarrassment, hurt feelings, conflict, and possibly even legal recriminations against the bridegroom. This really is a big deal – there is really nothing in our culture I can compare this with, so you’re just going to have to accept and trust that this really is a huge deal.
And Jesus makes it quite clear that doing something about this problem wasn’t part of his initial plan: 4 Dear woman, that’s not our problem, Jesus replied. My time has not yet come. Now, I’ve read various theories and ideas about how to reconcile Jesus’ statement here with his actions that follow, but it seems pretty simple to me: Jesus wasn’t planning to reveal his miraculous powers just yet, but he changes his mind and does so anyway. Perhaps it was a response to the faith of his mother, perhaps his compassion for the newlyweds, perhaps there is another reason, but the fact remains that Jesus solves the very problem that he first was prepared to let slide and not intervene.
And the result is that the party goes on, and people have more wine to drink even though (according to the master of ceremonies), everyone has had a lot to drink.
Notice three additional details in the story before we apply this to our lives. First, the jars. These were used for Jewish ceremonial washing. So they were important, precious, set apart for religious use. Not simple extra pots, these had a particular important function in the religion of the day. Doubtless the community had come together and brought them all for this big party. They were part of the religious infrastructure, and certainly an important symbol here of Jewish religious observance. Jesus re-purposes them, and in so doing makes a strong statement. It would be similar to someone coming and turning our baptismal tank into their own private hot tub. Jesus is making a statement here.
Next, notice there were 6 of these jars, each 20-30 gallons. Now this big water jug, that we use for picnics and Day Camp, holds 10 gallons. So each one of these 6 jars was at least twice, if not three times, as large. Let’s split the difference, call it 25, and conclude that Jesus made 150 gallons of wine. Now a normal bottle of wine today is 1/5th of a gallon, so if we translate that into an amount we are familiar with, Jesus made 750 bottles of wine. So there is an obvious point here about abundance – Jesus did not simply make enough to keep the party going, he made enough so that this bride and groom would have a substantial amount to carry them through their lives, which they could use or sell for whatever they needed.
Finally, note the quality. The host very clearly tells us, in his address to the bridegroom, you have kept the best until now! Let’s put a dollar amount on that today, noting that the host called this the best. If I pick an arbitrary $50/bottle price for a really good wine, Jesus made $37 500 worth of wine. So Jesus doesn’t make 750 bottles of ok, or even pretty good wine, Jesus makes the best.
Do we follow that Jesus?
So back to the misconception we have been considering: according to the story we have looked at today, does Jesus lead a life that is boring, dull, lifeless, and devoid of fun? It is pretty evident to me that no, he does not. And it isn’t like this is the only time we see Jesus at a party, celebrating with people, enjoying and living it up. In fact, Jesus gets labeled a glutton and drunkard by the Pharisees in Matt 11:19.
So, then, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, do our lives reflect the kind of liveliness, the exuberance, the joy with which we see Jesus living? Are we the kind of people who will go out of our way to keep a party going? Are we demonstrating to the world around us that our lives are more full of life even then the so-called good life they see in advertising?
I think I have a way for us to defeat the misconception that being a follower of Jesus is all about following a bunch of rules that make us miserable: let’s follow the Jesus we see in John 2, who doesn’t sin (of course not!), but instead brings joy to a potentially embarrassing and devastating situation. Let’s live to the full, and let’s invite others into the life we have in Jesus. Let’s do meaningful, fun, good things together and with others, let’s stop worrying and moaning and living a half-dead life defined by rules and controlled by some advertisers mirage of the good life; instead let us show that we have something real, something deep, something meaningful – we have been set free by the Lord Jesus and been filled with the Spirit of Life, of course there are a whole bunch of things we don’t do but we don’t do them because we see how they make us miserable and rob us of life, and we are too full of life and joy to let anything (specifically, sin) take that life away from us.
Jesus did not say, I have come to give you a whole new set of rules to live by; Jesus said I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full. I invite you into that life, and I challenge you to open up that life and welcome others around you into it. Start today.