Sunday 17th January 2010
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
St John The Baptist, Clayton
John 2:1-11

This sermon was not eventually preached; instead, a sermon on the Haiti Earthquake was given.

One of the sad ironies of our worship is that we quite frequently do not hear a sermon on marriage at a Marriage Service.

This is because, almost since its birth at the Resurrection, Christianity has been persistently and virulently attacked by a heresy which ranks our spiritual over our physical properties as God's creatures.

So persistent has this heresy been, that what I have said will come as a shock to some. Particularly since the Reformation, many Christians have believed that our bodies are fundamentally corrupt, wicked and dirty, and this general view has received heightened intensity in sexual matters. It does not count, somehow, that we have all been born as the result of sexual intercourse, it is still regarded as sinful at worst and giving way to weakness at best.

The reformers of the 16th Century were deeply influenced by two very different forces: first, they looked back to and badly misunderstood Saint Paul's views on the body in general and sex in particular; and, secondly, the Reformation began at precisely the same time as sexually transmitted diseases were introduced, with devastating effect, from the Americas into Europe (although, I should say in passing, that the effect of European measles and influenza on the Americas was immeasurably worse, killing far more people than military engagements).

We have to accept that Paul was developing Christian theology on an almost daily basis and that his own personal inclinations occasionally got in the way of his broader picture. Paul was diametrically opposed to the intellectual climate of the time, exemplified in sects called the Gnostics, which definitely ranked the spiritual over the physical. He might personally have found physical relations distasteful but he preached the implications of the incarnation of Jesus.

And there is the crux. When God 'decided' to intervene in human history 'he' did not simply send an angel or cause a succession of compelling visions. There are angels and visions associated with the birth of Jesus (in Matthew and Luke) but the central figure is a baby, conceived in a womb and born into an earthly life of toil and ultimate death. That birth, that life and that death are incontrovertible confirmation that God wanted to express solidarity with his creatures. Looked at from a slightly more philosophical angle, how could parts of God's creation be superior to other parts? How could parts of us be superior to other parts, bearing in mind Paul's repeated use of the body and its members as a metaphor?

Part of this terrible heresy, which we call "dualism", was the invention of the soul, as distinct from the body and superior to it. This aspect of the heresy is so persistent that it completely infects huge swathes of our theological thinking, from the "cure of souls" to prayers for the "souls of the faithful, departed".

This soul/body split has led us to think of love in two quite distinct ways. I will use the technical shorthand terms for these: first, we have Eros, or the erotic, which relates to human, primarily sexual, love; then we have Agape, which relates to divine love. And the reason why we often do not have sermons on marriage at weddings is that the reading that is chosen is frequently Paul's hymn to divine love, to Agape, in 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, the worst possible occasion for using it.

So let us recall two of the events of the wedding day: first, at the service, there is a sermon on divine love; and, secondly, at the reception, there is a clutch of ill-assorted speeches full of sexual innuendo. At no point during the day is sexuality explicitly the cause for celebration and rejoicing. We all know what the day is celebrating but we're not allowed to talk about it.

In today's reading from John's Gospel, we have a wedding; and I want to suggest that this wedding celebrates Eros and Agape equally and, indeed fuses them.

What these two kinds of love have in common, a feature which characterises all love, is the necessity of leaving ourselves open, of making ourselves vulnerable. There is no real love in comfort, in contract, in propositional logic, in sorting everything out, in making rules. Love is about being totally open, unconditionally open, to the beloved. That is why Christians, bent on divine love, need the church; and that is why married couples need the support of their families, friends and acquaintances; that is why marriage is public. Making oneself totally open and vulnerable is taking a potential risk, mitigated by the trust we have in our partner; but newlyweds may trust more in hope than experience. In former days when hope of that trust died, couples were held together in an economic vice. The period before the emancipation of women and the invention of the contraceptive pill was not a golden age for marriage, it was an age when countless heroic but hapless marriages were made tolerable by low life expectancy. There never was a golden age.

Today, with economic resources available to women, marriage has been shown for what it really is: difficult, fragile and risky, as well as being the most satisfying human relationship.

It is not insignificant that on this wedding occasion at Cana the central topic of discussion, after jokes about the couple, was the wine. In our culture there are almost as many jokes about booze as there are about sex. It's the same kind of phenomenon: just as sexual relations leave us open to all manner of vulnerabilities, and just as love can lead to excesses of passion, jealousy and perversion, so the consumption of alcohol can open up our defences, leaving us vulnerable, but it can also lead to excess, cruelty, violence and self destruction.

Marriage is risky, booze is risky and God is risky. That is why today's story of a wedding is so wonderful. It puts all the elements together, the divine love, the human love and the wine crisis, and fuses them altogether into one, compelling picture.

What I would like us all to take away from today's Gospel reading are three points: first, we must rid ourselves of the dualist heresy and learn to celebrate the physical joy of God's creation; secondly, we need to recognise that the quintessential qualities of love are vulnerability, openness to the other in trust and, of course, the ability to forgive; and, thirdly, we would be much better off sorting out our own ways of loving than talking about or, much worse, passing judgment on the way of love expressed by other people.

Perhaps we are all too engaged with the solidity of Eucharist bread; and not joyful enough about the vulnerability of Eucharistic wine.