What We Were Told

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:20-26

What We Were Told

It sounds like a fairy tale, if you listen to it as though for the first time. A hero comes along, we are told, born like anyone else, but we hear that he is sent by God. More, we hear that he is himself God. It is a classic second birth story, like the duckling becoming a swan, or a girl becoming a princess, or a boy learning that he is a wizard. Then, just as our man becomes the hero we know him to be, he is killed by evil rulers, but as in any good fairy tale, he comes back to life—another second birth narrative.

So why should anyone believe that this particular fairy tale is true? Should we believe Jesus was God incarnate because people told us so?

A fair number of people do believe the gospel story simply because they were told to believe it. From the time they were children, their parents or family or friends told them it was true, and so they came to believe the gospel stories the same way they might have embraced Hindu gods or Muslim teachings had they been born into a different family or culture.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David
Marriage at Cana by Gerard David

Many people do not accept any religious ideas. Some of them grew up being told a religion was true, but they deconstructed their belief system as they grew older and cast it aside, disillusioned either with crude theology or with the hypocrisy of older so-called believers. Some of them were never taught any religion at all, or were taught that it is all just hocus pocus.

To put it another way, if we only believe in God because someone told us we should, is that faith? Does faith require something more than accepting what we’ve been told as though it is, well, gospel?

Of course, there is the opposite problem, recorded by the apostle Paul: “And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14) The entire history of religions is one of passing knowledge, thoughts, understanding from one person and one generation to another. “For I handed on to you…what I in turn had received….” (1 Cor 15:3)

If no one tells us the story, how can we believe it? And yet, just because someone tells us a story, is that any reason to believe it?

And what does it mean if we say we believe this gospel tale? Does it mean we insist on every detail? Do we argue over how to make the story John tells match up with the different one Mark gives us? Where is the truth in knowing what Jesus did, and where, and when?

Or is the truth that sets men free something different than a factual biography of Jesus? There are plenty of things in a gospel—narratives, quotations, prayers—but the gospels are not biographies any more than Genesis is a science text.

Hands Painted on Cave Wall, Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Argentina

The first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel, the sign that marks the beginning of our hero’s quest, is turning water into wine. (This is not part of the other gospels. Mark and the other two synoptic gospels have different truths to tell.) In the story as told in John, the miracle is a simple thing, an act of grace performed at his mother’s request at the wedding of friends of the family. In John’s symbology, the wine that was water is huge, a theological symbol flowing throughout the Gospel.

Changing belief into faith is like changing water into wine. We start with a story as simple and clear as water, but when we take it in, the story changes. Any great story changes those who hear it, and when they pass it on, something of everyone who has heard it and retold it is passed along as well.

We hear about cave people living thousands of years ago, their animal skin clothing and stone tools, and it is an interesting story. Stand in one of their caves, look at the beautiful simplicity of the art they have left behind, and suddenly the story changes. Hearing about it, we believe the truth of what the archaeologists and anthropologists tell us. Standing in a cave, seeing a painted antelope or human handprint made with colorful clay on the cave wall, our belief changes to something like faith in humanity reaching back through the centuries.

We may believe that lions exist, but it took faith to create paintings like the ones on the walls of Chauvet Cave. Whoever left those images for us, we know with certainty that their lives were changed by the lions they encountered. We may believe that God exists, but we begin to have faith when our lives are changed by our encounters, even if all we see of God is like firelight on the walls of a cave.

Cave Painting of Lions - Chauvet
Painting of Lions, Chauvet Cave, France

A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing unexpected at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Of course, nothing is ordinary. And ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God — the God of “Let there be light”— at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling. And none of us is ordinary.

Why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing — believe these things, do these things? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree, or disagree, or perhaps ignore you altogether and forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we hear, whether we believe them or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls of our minds. It’s what we’re hardwired for — ever since the first fires in the first caves, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve retold them over and over, sometimes to other people, sometimes to ourselves.

So for this week, I’m going to cheat. Instead of writing a post, I’m going to tell you a story. In fact, I’m going to tell you the same story, just tell it a little differently from the way it comes out in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, from my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.


I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560