My father Sam was the youngest of thirteen children. The Owensbys lived in a tiny house typical of their Depression-era mill village. Jammed into tight quarters, the older sisters doted on their baby brother like a little prince.
His older brothers took a dimmer view of my dad. In their book, he was a pest. He tagged along wherever they went. Try as they might to discourage him with teasing and by running ahead, he doggedly trailed after them.
So one day, my uncle Basil and my uncle Ralph decided to teach him a lesson once and for all.
“Hey, Sam!” they said, “We’re going down the river to go fishin’. You want to come along?”
Of course he did.
The three of them walked a few miles through the woods and down the riverbank. Once they were far enough from listening ears, the two older boys grabbed my dad, took off all his clothes, and tied him to a tree.
They tied him with weak enough knots for him to slip out after a little while. Their thought was that he would get loose in an hour or so. Then he’d make his way through the woods and, at the edge of the village, wait in the brush until he could slip back home under cover of darkness.
They obviously had no idea who they were dealing with.
It did take a while for my dad to free himself from the rope. But instead of walking back home through the woods, he walked toward town. Then, around high noon, my father strolled, head held high, right down the middle of Main Street.
I can still hear my elderly aunt Cornelia laughing about it decades later. She’d say, “There he was in all his glory!”
Jesus is God in all his glory. God in the flesh. My dad bared his naked body. In Jesus, God bares the divine heart for all to see.
My dad walked down that street to get my uncles in trouble with my grandfather. It worked like a charm.
Jesus walked the streets of Galilee and Jerusalem to reveal God’s transforming presence and to draw everyone to their Maker.
Commentators routinely call the first eleven chapters of John’s Gospel the Book of Signs. In those pages John recounts seven signs, all of which reveal God’s glory.
Jesus heals a royal official’s son and gets a paralytic to his feet. Five thousand people feast on a few loaves and fish, Jesus strolls across the sea, and a blind man’s eyes are opened. Finally, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
The first sign famously happens at a Wedding in Cana. Jesus turns water into wine. His purpose was neither to obey his mother’s urging to do something about a wine shortage nor to save the hosts the embarrassment of running out of drink. Jesus was revealing the glory of God.
Setting the pattern for all the signs that follow, this first sign reveals God’s person by showing what God does. God saves by transforming. God’s redeeming love makes a new creation.
Forgiving sins is one dimension of God’s saving work in Jesus. But if we think that redemption is only forgiveness we won’t really even fully understand the power of God’s forgiveness.
Let me explain what I mean by providing a parallel example. All whales are mammals. But if we defined mammal only by studying whales, we would fail to recognize lots of mammals and miss some important features of whales themselves. We might say, “All mammals are aquatic,” for instance. And we would never realize that a few mammals lay eggs.
Similarly, narrowing our understanding of salvation to forgiveness might lead us to think of God’s redeeming work as a block and delete operation. As if Jesus merely highlights our sins and hits the delete button.
And while God does forgive our misdeeds, this involves much more than erasing them from the divine memory. Think about it. If God merely expunged the record of our sins but left us in the same state we were in when we hurt others and debased ourselves, we would simply repeat the pattern.
God’s forgiveness is more like a transformation button. In Jesus, God makes us more than we could have made ourselves. God does not just blot out what we did. God changes who we are.
Moreover, God does more than make bad things into good things. After all, water is a good thing. Jesus did not obliterate it or toss it aside. He enhanced it. Jesus took something good and made it more.
God saves us not only by opening blind eyes, but also by helping us to look more deeply into things and by broadening our vision.
God saves us not only by restoring fractured relationships, but by weaving us into deeper bonds of affection, by granting us ever more compassionate understanding, and by surprising us with new depths in old friends.
God saves us by replacing our fear of strangers with the courage to seek friendship among people who are not like us.
Jesus’s first sign—like all the others—prefigures what Jesus calls his hour. All the signs culminate in the Passion and the Resurrection. In his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us God in all his glory.
As St. Paul would put it, the risen Jesus is a new creation. The risen Jesus does not replace the man who walked the streets of Galilee. He is the same and infinitely and eternally more. Just as we will be in him.
The Passion shows us an important element of Jesus’s work not revealed in Cana. God’s self-revelation is risky and even painful.
When my father walked naked down Main Street, he was probably embarrassed. In retrospect he always told that story with bravado and humor. As a little boy, he probably endured shame. Being naked before others makes us vulnerable and brings us into an intimacy to which we are unaccustomed. This is not something he chose.
I’ve never walked down a street naked, but I know what it’s like to bare my soul. To share my heart. Opening myself to others makes me vulnerable. It’s risky business. It takes courage, and sometimes it brings pain and betrayal.
In Jesus, God chose to stand spiritually naked before us. God revealed the very heart of perfect love. Jesus is God’s love and God’s vulnerability. God’s openness to us.