Sudden Epiphanies

A sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sometime towards the end of the third century BC a theoretical physicist in Sicily stepped into the bath. His name was Archimedes of Syracuse. It suddenly dawned on him that when he got into the bath, the water rose. That is to say that his body displaced water of the same volume. Now, I have no doubt that people before Archimedes had noticed that the water level went up when they got into the bath. What made Archimedes bath so special that day was that he suddenly realized that by measuring that level it would enable him to measure the volume of an object with an irregular shape, such as himself, or anything else, using math. It was one of the great scientific discoveries of history, and Archimedes was so excited about it that he apparently forgot to put on his robe and ran down the street shouting ‘eureka’, which is Greek for ‘I have found it’. 

His discovery is known to this day as the ‘Archimedes principle’. 

What Archimedes had experienced was a sudden and dramatic realization that something had been there all along but that he had only just noticed it. The ancient Greeks would have understood this kind of sudden and dramatic realization a bit like being pulled towards the light of dawn. In Greek the preposition for ‘towards or above’ is the word ἐπι. The ancient Greek word for the dawn was φάνεια. Put these words together and you get ἐπιφάνεια. From which we get our word ‘epiphany’. See how educational these sermons are!

We often talk of ‘having an Epiphany’. But what does that mean? In secular usage it refers to a sudden and dramatic realization about something. In Archimedes case, it was the realization that he could calculate the volume of an irregular object, and therefore its density. For another scientific luminary, Sir Isaac Newton, it is said that an apple falling on his head in the quad of Trinity College, Cambridge, suddenly made him realize that any object on earth had, due to the centrifugal force of the earth spinning, an inbuilt propensity to be dragged towards its core. To put it another way, he realized that gravity was a force.

Of course, gravity had always been there, but it was only at that point that he really realized it. Electricity had always been around, before various people, among them Benjamin Franklin, really realized that this was a force.

This season that we are in right now is called ‘Epiphany’ because it describes the process by which Jesus showed himself to be God in human form, and how those that he manifested himself to had a process of ‘epiphany’ themselves.  At Christmas Eve the shepherds had an epiphany: they had the sudden and dramatic realization that God had appeared to them as a baby in a cow’s feeding trough in a dingy cave in Bethlehem. The Wise Men from the East had an epiphany. They had a sudden and dramatic realization, that, through seeing a special star in the night, they were seeking out the Son of God.

Last week we heard the story of Jesus being baptized, and the sudden and dramatic realization to the crowds gathered there with John the Baptist that this young man, Jesus, was indeed the Chosen One sent from God that the prophets of the Old Testament had spoken of for so long.

Today, we heard the story of Jesus at a wedding party at Cana in Galilee, where the rag-tag band of followers that Jesus had collected round him had a sudden and dramatic realization that he was in fact the Messiah. St. John doesn’t really go overboard in the way he describes the disciples’ epiphany – he just says, ‘and his disciples believed in him’ but, actually, if you think about it, the whole of that episode at the wedding party at Cana of Galilee was pretty extraordinary. 

As is the case still in many parts of the world, weddings are extremely lengthy and lavish events. Oftentimes they will last a whole week. In small, traditional communities, they are real community celebrations, and the whole neighborhood is invited. So it would have been in the tiny village of Cana, which is not far from Nazareth in the province of Galilee. I’ve been there, and it’s a beautiful place. The week of celebrations was a carefully planned affair, with many social traditions and unwritten obligations, and running out of wine was a major embarrassment. So when Mary, Jesus’ mother, went to Jesus, one can imagine it in the context of a private aside along the lines of ‘Oh my goodness, what are we going to do? They have run out of wine’. Mary is obviously aware that Jesus was not only her human son, but God’s son, too, and that he was capable of, to put it mildly, making things right, so he was obviously her go-to person for advice in this tricky social situation. Jesus’ reaction was not necessarily what one might have expected. Far from being all gung-ho about the opportunity for some air-time, Jesus was reticent to get involved, because he knew that the only solution to this tricky problem was going to be supernatural. We see in other parts of the Gospels that Jesus does not perform miracles for the sake of performing miracles, but in order to restore in some way something or someone to fullness of life, be that the restoring of sight to a blind person, or the healing of someone with a terrible disease. Party catering doesn’t immediately seem to fall into this category, and would maybe look a bit flash and, for that reason, perhaps it is easy to see Jesus’ reticence. Despite this, Jesus responds to the catering crisis because it was a heartfelt need – that the hosts of this wedding party wanted to extend hospitality to everyone there, without exception, and Jesus, in providing an abundance of fresh wine supplies, enabled them to do that.

The Wedding Feast at Cana from the Codex Egberti

The Wedding Feast at Cana from the Codex Egberti

And so the miracle took place – it was Jesus’ first miracle. And, to emphasize the point I made about Jesus being discreet about this whole thing, it seems that really most people were unaware that there had been any kind of problem with the wine supply. They simply get another cup of wine and say, “Wow, this is fantastic wine, but why are you only serving the good stuff now, normally when we go to parties we start off with the good stuff, and then later everyone will have consumed enough that they won’t really notice that you are serving the stuff that’s $4.99 a bottle.”

Like everything that God provides it is the very best. And if God is turning water into wine, it’s not going to be something that tastes like old socks. Everything about what God does is the very best possible. And so the whole episode at the wedding feast in the little dusty hamlet of Cana, in the rural, multi-culture province of Galilee, turned out to be one of the most important of the epiphany moments. It was where the disciples first really got the measure of the man they were following, and it shows us that what God provides is not only the very absolute best, but that God’s miracles are for everyone, without exception.

Now, this is probably the point at which I would have finished this sermon had I written it earlier in the week, but then the Archbishops of the Anglican Communion went and had a meeting which turned into quite a news story. If the Anglican Communion were a person on Facebook, it would have had to change it relationship status from ‘married’ to ‘it’s complicated’. You may have seen reports in the media that refer to the way in which the Episcopal Church has been censured by the rest of the Anglican Communion for its stance on certain issues, particularly on sexuality and marriage. Some people refer to the Episcopal Church as ‘liberal’. I myself would prefer to call it ‘inclusive’. This is a family row in the Anglican Communion that has been brewing steadily since 2003, when the Episcopal Church took the step of consecrating an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. And last year at our General Convention, we in the Episcopal Church voted to allow same-sex marriage. 

The Episcopal Church is very much the most inclusive of the member provinces in the Anglican Communion. If it puts it into perspective, some members provinces would share the beliefs and stances of the Southern Baptist Convention, that’s how broad and wide the Anglican Communion is. And the Episcopal Church is just too much for many of the other provinces, and so it has been recommended to the Episcopal Church that it stays away from committee meetings and refrains from voting on doctrine for three years. 

Only a group of Anglican bishops could argue that not having to go to a bunch of dull meetings for three years was some kind of punishment.

But, seriously, though. Yes, this is a significant step. The Episcopal Church is viewed by many of its fellow Anglican provinces as simply capitulating to secular social trends and populist politics.

But I am happy to stand here and say that I am with our Presiding Bishop and the whole Episcopal Church in saying, as he did on Thursday, that:

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael B. Curry

Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael B. Curry

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on social theory, or on capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”

I could not think of a better Sunday than this to read those words from our Presiding Bishop: a Sunday on which we have heard of the overflowing abundance of God with the very best wine that there is, so that everyone at the table – without exception – can be offered hospitality.

I believe that God continues to manifest himself day in and day out in our lives and the lives of those around us, and that if something is good, and lovely, and loving, and kind, it is of God. Sometimes we don’t notice that stuff even when it’s right in front of us so, this Epiphany, let’s pray for epiphanies.

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