What does grace look like?
The gospel of John begins with a stunning prologue:
“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it…”
“…the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…and from God’s fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace.”
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Esoteric and poetic and abstract and lovely, it’s one of my favorite passages in scripture. That last verse is the verse I came to when John and I named our daughter.
But what does it mean? What does it look like?
The word “grace” occurs only four times in the whole gospel of John, and all four of those occurrences take place in the prologue, the first seventeen verses in the first chapter. This is the warmup to John’s gospel, with still half a chapter to go before we get to the gospel passage for today. And actually, many scholars have argued that John the Evangelist was not even the author of those verses. Their theory is that they were the words to a hymn written by somebody else around that time and sung by many, which John decided to insert at the beginning of his own story of the good news.
So even if that’s the case, even if John didn’t write the words of that prologue himself, what if we take God’s incarnation in the world as the kind of truth that, “once the Word becomes flesh, the rest of the gospel shows (us) what grace tastes like, looks like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like?” What if the prologue of John’s gospel is the telling about grace, and the rest of the gospel is the showing?
First things matter. We notice and remember those first moments in our lives – seeing someone for the first time, hearing the first notes of a symphony, tasting the first bite of a great meal.
And the one who tells the story and how they reveal those first things says something about what matters most, to the narrator and to the people they tell. In Mark’s gospel, the first act of Jesus’ ministry is to cast out a demon. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus begins by preaching.
And in John’s gospel, the first thing Jesus does in ministering to the people is the story of today’s gospel, the narrative of grace made real:
Jesus and his disciples go to a wedding. Jesus’ mother is there too. The wine runs out in the midst of the party, and Jesus’ mother says to him, “They have no wine.” He responds to her with…reluctance?...at best…”What is that to me? It’s not my time yet,” he says. “Do whatever he says,” Jesus’ mother says to the workers. “Fill the jars with water,” Jesus tells them. And now it’s not water, it’s wine. And the steward’s reaction to tasting it shows us that this is not just regular wine, but better wine than many of those guests would have ever tasted before, the kind people would keep tucked in the back of a cupboard for the most special of all occasions. There are a thousand bottles of that kind of wine – more than all the wedding guests could possibly drink. And the new disciples? Yes. Now they believe in him.
What does grace look like?
It looks like God making it possible for people to continue in the joy of a celebration, blessing people’s lives joined in marriage. It sounds like the delighted surprise of a steward who discovers something greater than he anticipated. It tastes like a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, when what you’re expecting is Two-Buck Chuck.
This first story of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John matters in this particular season of Epiphany. Because if “epiphanies…are embodied revelations, then they (become for us) manifestations of God’s presence that we…(can) sense – with all our senses.”
From God’s fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace relates to “You have kept the good wine until now,” because grace upon grace is not a theory about the divine, it is God’s love made tangible right here in our presence. It is not the concept of God’s love, but the experience of it.
Miracles, in John’s gospel, are never actually called miracles. They are referred to as signs. I’m reminded frequently of my seminary professor, Dr. AKM Adam, who said on regular occasion: “everything signifies.” I think about that often, and my own slightly less sophisticated translation of it, that the thing is never the thing. The thing points to the thing, which is usually behind or inside of it.
And yes, this miracle-called-sign story is about Jesus and his followers and his mom going to a party celebrating the lives of two people joined in marriage, a party that likely would have broken up early and with a little embarrassment and as people went home disappointed and grumbly about an abbreviated feast. It’s about Jesus stepping in with the (ahem) encouragement of his mother on that day at that time among those people to continue the abundant blessing of God’s joy and gladness and hospitality. It’s about a mother-turned-insistent-disciple, and a reluctant son, and six stone jars, and a happily surprised steward, and a pack of now-believing disciples.
And it’s about more than that, too.
If this epiphany is what grace looks like, if this is the embodied revelation of a savior determined not to curtail God’s abundant blessing, then there is a sign here and now for us as well.
So what might that be?
If the thing is never the thing, but points to the thing…if everything signifies…if revelation for its own sake is never the point, then what is it we’re meant to find here?
Could it be that we’re all meant to experience God’s grace, to see it and touch it and taste it and feel it, to immerse ourselves in God’s grace upon grace as fully as we’re able to?
Could it be that God’s abundance is impossible to limit, or quantify, or arbitrate, however hard we might try?
Could it be that God’s grace can only be grace insofar as it is shared with everybody?
And if that’s true, how are we noticing and remembering and sharing the examples of how we have seen and heard and touched and tasted our own experiences of God’s grace in our own lives?
We live in a time when so much of what we see and hear would tell us otherwise, a time when too many would say that we should all be afraid – very afraid – because there’s not enough…whatever…so you’d better hustle in and clutch and claw after your own, before “those people” show up and try to claim what rightfully belongs to you.
We gather on the day before our country celebrates the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an insistent disciple like Jesus’ mother, telling the workers, “Do what Jesus tells you to do.” Among the things we celebrate tomorrow, I hope we remember Dr. King’s refusal to accept that what he saw around him was all there was and all that was possible. I trust we will also celebrate Dr. King’s persistent vision, his demand that God’s abundance cannot be quantified or limited or arbitrated, no matter how hard we might try; that God invites everybody to experience grace upon grace – to touch it and taste it and see it and hear it – to dwell in that grace and know that it is more than we can ask or imagine.
What does grace look like?
My sense is that you have your own answers to that epiphany question. My sense is we’re all called to share our experiences of God’s embodied revelations.
For from God’s fullness have we all received. And grace upon grace.
 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556 Thanks to Karoline Lewis for many of the ideas threaded through this sermon.