January 17, 2016
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It may be no accident that the end of Dr. Keller’s sermon last Sunday resonates with my own reflections during the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. The Dean noted that there are signs all around us of “the realm of unconquerable beauty.” In other words, through the eyes of faith we perceive that what wecansee points to wonderful, eternal realities which we cannot see directly. The obvious world of objects, living things, and actions can provide windows into a much larger realm of unseen reality that surpasses even the greatest earthly beauty.
Of course this seems to go against the grain of modern-day rationalism. To many, anything perceived through the eyes of faith seems imaginary and untrustworthy. But we Christians have long asserted, to the contrary, the reality and absolute reliability of God and God’s kingdom, a spiritual realm we usually don’t see directly but which we believe is powerfully and wonderfully present among us, both now and forevermore.
The wise men perceived this by faith when they followed the star and recognized the Messiah in the unlikely person of the baby Jesus. Faithful Christians throughout the ages have glimpsed unseen yet powerful realities, often expressing the inexpressible by means of art, and poetry, and music. This is essentially mysticism, a connection with the unseen through faith fueled by divine love, and I agree with Evelyn Underhill, an early twentieth-century Anglican, who argued that this sort of mysticism is the province not of a spiritual elite but of all Christians. Weallhave access in the Spirit to the divine presence and power. Wow! That’s pretty heady and amazing when we think about it.
Today’s gospel highlights this connection between the seen and the unseen. On the surface of things, it’s a wonderful story. At the behest of his good Jewish mother, Jesus saves the day at a wedding feast in Cana, which was about to be spoiled by a shortage of wine. Not only does he miraculously provide a huge abundance of additional drink; the new wine is of the finest quality—much better than the old.
But when we look closely, we see that John is not just presenting us with a simple miracle story. He is highlighting how, in the midst of what wecansee, in the midst of everyday experience, unseen divinity is not only present but powerfully active for the good of God’s people. And Jesus is our connection between the two, between the seen and the unseen, between the earthly and the heavenly. I love how, in our Anglican marriage service, we refer to Jesus’s presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and note that Christian marriage is a sign of the mystical union between Christ and his Church. In marriage, as in all our feasts, including the Eucharist, and at other times, outward and visible signs point to powerful inward and spiritual grace.
There’s more here than meets the eye. The great thing to celebrate in today’s gospel is not that there is plenty of excellent wine, although that’s very nice, but that something bigger and deeper is going on. For some at that wedding feast, Jesus’s miracle opens their eyes of faith to see what at first they did not see—that God in Jesus was making possible a whole new day, a day of limitless possibility through grace that is unseen but very real. As one commentator put it, “the text suggests that our three-dimensional understanding of life in this world, with its painful limitations, has been unpredictably invaded by grace.” The gospel writer is also telling us that, unless we are alert, we may not even recognize that this is happening—we may not even recognize that the present world is infused by the divine presence and activity.
In every age since the wedding at Cana, God has given his people signs of amazing realities beyond the surface of things—realities which open up glorious possibilities beyond our wildest dreams. One of those signs occurred here at Trinity Cathedral recently, not obviously and with fanfare, but quietly, as an answer to faithful prayer. As Dr. Keller related earlier, a woman suffering from a tumor in her eye asked the Dean to meet her in the chapel for prayer. They did this, using our liturgy for Holy Unction, which involves anointing with prayers for healing. Afterwards, the woman felt that something had changed. She had a sensation of warmth and believed she had been cured. Sure enough, a specialist in Memphis confirmed that the tumor was gone.
Needless to say, this sort of miraculous result does not occur in every instance. Nevertheless, this recent healing is a marvelous sign of what God has in store for all of us. It points to God’s loving purpose of healing and wholeness for all creation and to the power which makes that possible. It also reminds us that we have access to that power, day by day.
God gives us other types of signs, which are also miraculous when we think about it. Take, for example, June Averyt, a native Arkansan who belongs to the Memphis parish where I recently worked. Last August, June was diagnosed with lung cancer. After much loving, faithful prayer, no obvious physical healing has occurred. In fact, she just went into hospice care and probably has little time left in this life. Nevertheless, the fruits of the Spirit may be more apparent in June’s life now than ever. Through Facebook, I know that she is reaching out in love and prayer for many others who need God’s help. The homeless, whose plight has been the focus of her career, are still dear to her heart, and she is delighted that provision has been made to continue her work into the future. In other words, June is a shining light and a powerful witness to the Love that creates, redeems, and sustains the universe.
Signs of miraculous grace are popping up all around us, and we have so much to celebrate. I hope that in this new day at Trinity Cathedral we will recognize more and more the reality and power of God’s activity among us and joyfully grow together in the life God has in store for us.