1 John 5:1–8 (NRSV)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.
Have you read a children’s Bible recently? It’s likely that some of you have, whether its to read a story to your children or to your grandchildren. Some of those Bibles are more comprehensive than others. They all try to hit the major points, especially those that will appeal to children—the creation story, the animals on Noah’s ark, and something about the life of Jesus. In each of these stories, the authors have to make tough choices about how to adapt these stories into language young children will understand. Some of the more difficult elements of Scripture are glossed over, while the love of Jesus and the power of God are emphasized.
But sometimes the changes made in these children’s stories are just plain funny. One in particular caught my eye this week: the story of the wedding at Cana. The authors of this particular story Bible titled the story “Jesus Turns Water into Juice.” The story goes like this: “Jesus and his friends went to a party. They had good grape juice to drink. And then the juice was all gone. Jesus told his helpers what to do. ‘Put water in those big jars,’ he said. The helpers did, and then—Jesus changed the water to juice! How could he do that? He is God’s son.”
I suppose children don’t need to be burdened with the knowledge that non-alcoholic grape juice was not invented as a shelf-stable product until 1869. But, if you google “water into juice,” you’ll find Christian apologetic sites that actually address the question of what it was that happened in this party trick of Jesus.
For most of Christian history, the sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated with bread and wine in a common cup, as it was at the last supper. This practice continued through the 18th century, even as many evangelistic preachers decried the way alcohol could be abused. The use of Communion wine continued because Christians like John Wesley saw wine, cider, and beer as being in a different category than distilled spirits. The former was a normal part of life, while the latter was seen as a vile distortion of God’s gifts. In the 19th century, attitudes changed because of an emerging understanding of the poisonous nature of alcohol. The idea of temperance as self-restraint and moderation gave way to teetotalism and total abstinence as people tried to understand and faithfully respond to the challenges of their age.
Wherever there’s a will, there’s a way. And wherever there’s a way, there’s a marketing campaign. Welch’s grape juice became a popular beverage in the growing abstinence movement, not only because of what it was, but because of what it represented. It represented purity and the Christian conviction that nothing harmful should enter the body. And because of our more recent forebearers, we too partake of juice with our bread. (At the Wesleyan college Mallory and I attended, the music department would always joke that the closest we really got to Jesus’s real blood was the iron-laden water in the music building’s water fountains.) We might say that the great “miracle” of Jesus in the past couple centuries was turning the wine into juice.
The same development occurred with the communion cup. Rather than sharing from one cup as Jesus did, developing understandings of disease led to the use of individual communion cups. But, in doing so, we missed some of the power of the act. Like a shot of remembrance, we lift up our individual cups and remember Jesus. But our individual cups also separate ourselves from those in the church we may be uncomfortable with. Some have argued that the practice developed, not only because of germ theory, but because people were uncomfortable with sharing a common cup with African Americans and immigrants.
Whatever the motivations, it is in many ways unfortunate that our contemporary practice no longer reflects the meaning of the sign as well as the common cup of wine did for Jesus’s disciples. In serving grape juice rather than wine especially, I think our motivations are pure and holy. We serve Welch’s (or variously named off-brands) because we want to share a common cup that is indeed open to all. We don’t want to throw any additional stumbling blocks on the road in front of those who struggle with alcohol dependency. But, since we use unfermented wine, the sweet unadulterated juice of the vine, we need to think even more deeply about what the cup we share means.
On one level, the cup we share at Christ’s table is a fulfillment and anticipation of what the prophet Isaiah tells us in chapter 25: on the mountain of restoration, in the culmination of God’s kingdom, the “Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” So, on one level, the cup we share is an indulgence! It’s a taste of the future kingdom of God, where we will all gather together and feast. Because of Christ’s resurrection, we anticipate this final fulfillment after the resurrection of all the dead. With expectant hope, we drink of this cup knowing that we will drink it with Jesus, with those we love, and even with those who are now estranged from us. Our hope for life after death is not that we will sit on the clouds playing harps, but that we will fully commune with God and with our neighbor.
As we read from 1 John in this season where we find ourselves both under the shadow of the cross and in the joy of Jesus’s resurrection, we also must emphasize the way in which the cup we share is “the blood of Christ, poured out for us.” What does this mean? The words seem strange to our ears. After all, none of us want to be part of a cult which consumes blood. Instead, we believe that the living and resurrected Jesus Christ is present with us in the elements of our communion meal. The wine in the chalice, fermented or not, is a sign, symbol, and seal of Christ’s offering for us of his very self. It is a reminder to us that the grace of forgiveness we receive is costly—that Jesus was willing to go all the way for us, even to death on a cross. The cup of the vine is a reminder that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is, yes, sweet! The cup of salvation is a sweet taste to all who have been subjected to the bitter herbs of sin and suffering.
But the cup of salvation is not just sweet like Juicy Juice. It’s cleansing like vinegar, sour like the effects of sin. It’s good news, but it’s not pain-free and easy. It is the blood of Jesus after all, the source of life but also that which was shed in Jesus’s death.
The problem is, sometimes we just want the juice. We want the sweetness without the corrupting tart aftertaste. We want love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, but we don’t want to have to give anything up for it. It’s a natural, human thing that we should want things to be easier than they are. Undergraduates want the grades without the late hours of studying or the long papers. New language learners wish they could just upload the information to their brain, rather than agonizing over declension tables and vocabulary sheets. Gardeners might get so tired of the weeds that they resort to buying produce from the store. Workers want the wages without agonizing hours in the sun or the late nights in an empty office in front of a computer screen.
One of my favorite shows recently has been “Mozart in the Jungle,” which imaginatively follows the story of a prestigious symphony trying to reinvent itself for contemporary audiences. Within that story are the stories of their conductors, administrators, and musicians who are trying to juggle the weight of musical excellence with their passion for the art, their own personal struggles, and a desire to transform their city through music.
One of the sub-plots of the show is a youth orchestra that the principal conductor, Rodrigo, starts in order to give the same opportunity to city kids that he was given by his own mentor. Unfortunately, things don’t go so well. The playing ability of this group of kids doesn’t improve as quickly as Rodrigo expects. Everything he tries to teach them goes over their heads, because they don’t yet speak the language of music. They need time, inspiration, and patience.
In one of the scenes in the last season, Rodrigo walks into a youth symphony rehearsal, frustrated and impassioned, desperately searching for a way to get his message across to these kids. He tries to explain to them what music means to him. All the while, he’s exclaiming to this group of dazed and confused young musicians, “Play with the blood!” He’s not the only one who doesn’t know how to teach children. When one of the members of the orchestra starts teaching a young violinist, the girl starts to cry. Warren tells her, “violinists don’t cry! Violists cry, do you want to be like one of those? You have to learn how to take criticism,” he says pointedly.
“Play with the blood,” Rodrigo tells them.
Rodrigo, a bit overbearing and insensitive, has been chanting this phrase everywhere he goes, to everyone who needs a bit of inspiration and motivation. But he doesn’t explain what he means. Of course, we play, we have life because of our life-blood. But what does it mean to “play with the blood?”
He finally tells the story. As a young musician, he was told by his mentor, “play every single instrument but the violin.” But he didn’t listen. Young Rodrigo picked up the violin and practiced day and night, until the skin on his left hand was pierced by the repetitive stress of the strings.
The kids, as you would expect, start wrenching their lips and murmuring “ew” under their breath. In response, Rodrigo says, “Yes, of course, yes! ‘Ew!’ But that is the blood of the sublimity of the hand! Next time, I want to see the blood on your hands!”
The rest of the instructors quickly get up and whisk Rodrigo away, knowing that he’s gone too far. They know it’s not healthy to play until their hands bleed. One of them, a cellist, knows from personal experience the permanent damage repetitive stress injuries and carpel tunnel can do to the hand and wrist.
But Rodrigo is right about one thing. Without the pain of practice, calluses can never form to allow for the hand to make beautiful music from the violin. Without giving up time and energy to their art, these kids will never know the joy of music that Rodrigo himself had experienced. He’s trying, unsuccessfully, to inspire these kids to embrace the difficulties of the journey and work through them as they rise to new heights of ability.
Like all musicians at a certain stage of life, we all want to take shortcuts in our faith. We want to play with love and passion, sure, but not with the blood. We want to keep drinking from the sippy cup of sweet nectar, hyped up on the sugar of passion for Jesus, rather than graduating to the formal glassware and a complex palate. Karl Marx argued that religion is the “opiate of the people,” in the same way that juice boxes bring comfort to toddlers. But the life of Jesus flies in the face of such fantasies.
1 John gives us the sweet, satisfying news that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” Thus, we are loved by God. The sweetness of salvation is poured out upon us. But, John reminds his community that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” Though they are not burdensome, he reminds them that the victory that conquers the darkness was the scandalous cross on which Jesus died.
John uses the metaphor of birth to explain the pain and the joy. “Jesus is the one who came by water and blood.” Jesus entered into the messiness, pain, and joy of human life as we all did—through the self giving of a mother for her child. Likewise, Jesus’s death is not only death—you remember the water and the blood that pours out from Jesus’s side as they confirm his death—but it is also new life. Through blood, sweat, and tears Jesus becomes the first fruits of those who will be raised from death to life.
Jesus shows his disciples that following him means, in some manner, literally following him, being willing to go out on a limb for one’s friends, neighbors, and enemies.
Do we have a juice box faith, a sippy cup theology, whose purpose is to appease us and make us feel good for a moment. Or, do we “play with the blood?” Do we play the life-music of our faith with passion and conviction, knowing that it has the power to transform the world? That’s the distinction Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 3 — he tells the church there that he has given them “milk, not solid food” because they “were not yet ready for solid food.” He’s given them the essence of the faith, but once they are weaned off the milk, they will begin to engage with the meat and potatoes of their faith, the tougher to digest meal that satisfies all the more.
Church, at some point, we have to graduate from our sippy cups and drink from the chalice (even if the juice in the actual chalice is still sickly sweet).
I need to be clear, we should not idolize suffering. We should not imagine that what Jesus wants from us are bloodied knees and perpetually empty stomachs. Rather, what we do know is that the way of Jesus is difficult. Jesus tells those who follow him to “take up your cross and follow me!” We always have to give something up. For many, alcohol is a thing which God has called them to give up. Others may give up material blessings and private comforts in order to ensure that the needs of their neighbors are met. Many of us give up significant amounts of time and resources to ensure that Christ’s body, the church, is being well cared for.
But the good news that comes from the bitter sweet fruit of the vine in our common cup is that the power of the resurrection is on our side too! Even as we struggle, make difficult decisions, wrestle with opinions, discern God’s will, care for loved ones, and in other ways do God’s work… the resurrection power of God is with us in the water and in the blood.
For this, we give thanks to God. Amen.