Andrew Wilson explains how a fresh understanding of wine in the Bible will make you want to praise God on both the loud cymbals and the loud symbols
The apostle John tells us that in a public ministry that lasted three years Jesus did enough things to fill the world with books (John 21:25). Many of them defied the imagination. But the first sign that manifested his glory and caused his disciples to believe in him was, quite literally, a party piece. He went to a wedding and turned 150 gallons of water into fine wine (John 2:1-11).
Why – having resolved to take on flesh at this particular point in history, having waited for thousands of years to do so – did the Son of God decide that his first sign would be something so apparently unnecessary? This is not a story about the poor being fed, the sick being healed or the oppressed being set free. It doesn’t reveal the compassion of God like an exorcism does, or the power of God in the way walking on water does. If anything, it could look like an endorsement of bad planning, or stinginess or drunkenness. It could prompt subsequent generations of Christians to drink to excess (which many have), or to spend money on luxuries that are surplus to requirements (which many have), or to recognise the dangers of such things and ban alcohol altogether (which many have). Yet Jesus makes this, rather than raising a dead girl or calming a storm, the first ‘sign’ that manifests his glory. It is curious, to say the least.
The witness of wine
Much of our bewilderment stems from the fact that we have lost the rich biblical symbolism of wine. It is not primarily that most Protestant churches now substitute grape juice for Communion wine – which can be defended, whether or not we agree with it – but that, in doing so, we do not recognise that we have lost anything. Wine is just a red drink, right? Grape juice looks just as blood-like as Merlot. What’s the problem?
In the scriptural imagination, however, and particularly in the prophetic tradition, wine represents abundance, shalom, hope and new creation. It embodies blessing: “May God give you of the dew of heaven and of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine” (Genesis 27:28, ESV); and happiness: “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:15). It speaks of love: “we will extol your love more than wine” (Song of Songs 1:4); and bounty: “then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine” (Proverbs 3:10).
In the New Testament, wine is Eucharistic and charismatic
Since grapes take such a long time to grow, their presence is associated with peace and stability. Grapes also suggest the promise of an inheritance: it is not a coincidence that the Israelite spies came back from Canaan with giant bunches of grapes, nor that they named the valley Eshcol, ‘cluster’, after them. To this day, otherwise obscure valleys and villages around the world are known for the grapes they produce – Medoc, Napa Valley, Barolo, Sauternes – and for their evocative power that entices travellers to return. Grapes, more than anything else the earth produces, capture a unique sense of place, such that the French even have their own word, terroir, for the specific piece of land from which a wine comes. The grapes of Pomerol say to us what the grapes of Eshcol said to Israel: come back – soon – to this land of plenty and beauty. Grapes carry promises.
Wine is served at weddings and feasts and other occasions of joy. As such, it points forward to the resurrection, when “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). When the presence of God is withdrawn, on the other hand, wine disappears, along with all traces of music and happiness: “The wine mourns, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh. The mirth of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased” (Isaiah 24:7-8).
Which takes us back to Cana. The transformation of water into wine is far more than a demonstration that Jesus loves weddings, although he does; it is a sign that joy and abundance and restoration, and even glory, are now here, breaking into the world for the first time in the person of Jesus. It is a physical expression of his enigmatic saying in the other Gospels: new wine has arrived, and the old wineskins will not be able to cope with it. The banquet that Isaiah promised is nearly upon us. The bridegroom is here and the champagne corks are being popped. Old creation water is being displaced by new creation wine. “Weeping may tarry for the night. But joy cometh in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, ASV).
Under the influence
Given all this imagery, both in the prophets and the Gospels, we might expect wine to be mentioned throughout Acts and the New Testament letters. In fact, it is hardly mentioned at all. There are a few comments about using the drink wisely (some warnings about drinking too much, or causing others to drink too much, and a reference to using it as a medicine), but, other than that, wine only crops up in two contexts. These two contexts, however, are highly significant for our daily search for joy, and for the Church as a whole.
We find wine mentioned when people talk about the Lord’s Supper, and when they talk about the filling with the Holy Spirit. Wine, in the New Testament, is Eucharistic and charismatic – or Eucharismatic, if you will.
In the Eucharist, in anticipation of the day we will drink once again with our bridegroom in his Father’s kingdom, the Church drinks wine. On the day of Pentecost, the Church looks as if it has been drinking wine, even though it hasn’t. Incidentally, the fact that Paul urges us to “be filled with the Spirit”, as opposed to being “drunk with wine” (Ephesians 5:18), suggests that this association is not random mockery, thrown from the cheap seats for the sake of discrediting the believers, but has some basis in reality.
With all the proper caveats about excess and addiction in place, there is clearly something about being filled with the Spirit that is analogous to being filled with wine. Both experiences prompt people to rejoice, sing and make music. Both experiences take us out of ourselves, so to speak. Both experiences, as Martyn Lloyd-Jones famously put it, can be described as being “under the influence”.
Wine, the prophetic symbol of joy and abundance and new creation, features in the ongoing life of the Church in two ways: as a physical representation of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and as a metaphorical representation of the Spirit’s presence since Pentecost. Like wine, both the sacraments and the Spirit bring joy. Like wine, they lead the Church into anticipation and thankfulness, celebration and song. Like wine, they witness to the new creation that is coming, offering us a glass from the early harvest now while we wait for the full vintage to be bottled in late summer. If wine is a symbol of joy and the two things associated with wine in the New Testament are the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of the sacraments, then it would seem to follow that pursuing both of them would lead to happier, deeper, richer churches. If we are to fully enjoy God’s gifts, then we need all of them – spiritual and sacramental, Eucharistic and charismatic – so that, like the church in Acts, we can break bread together “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46), all the while being “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52).
Deeper and higher
There is an important application for our emotional lives here, which is that going higher requires going deeper, and vice versa.
Many (if not most) Christians today would be inclined to think in terms of a spectrum when it comes to Church practice, with the historical-liturgical-reflective-sacramental at one end, and the charismatic-Pentecostal-expressive-celebratory at the other. For a whole host of historical reasons, these two forms of worship often appear to be in tension with one another; if you want depth, come this way, and if you want bounce, go that way. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. If you want more bounce, you need more depth. Ask any trampolinist. Or tree, for that matter.
Without depth, height is unsustainable. Inspirational messages, emotive music, anaemic liturgy and cathartic experiences can only take us so far; whether or not they produce a short-term emotional response, they cannot build the kind of faith that, like Habakkuk, rejoices in God even when there is no fruit on the vine or herds in the stalls. Rather than attempting standing jumps in the centre of the trampoline, which is exhausting as well as ineffective, we need to plunge ourselves into the depths of our tradition, so as to spring to new heights. Down, into historic prayers. Up, into spontaneous ones. Down, into confession of sin. Up, into celebration of forgiveness. Down, into the creeds. Up, into the choruses. Down, into knowing God’s presence in the sacraments. Up, into feeling God’s presence in song. Call, and response. Friday, then Sunday. Kneel, then jump.
This metaphor cuts both ways. Going deeper also requires going higher. We are embodied and emotional creatures, and a person who dances for joy, as opposed to merely singing about it, is more likely to be a person who falls on their face in worship, as opposed to leaning forwards and putting their head between their knees for a few seconds. This both/and is precisely what we see in Leviticus, when fire comes out from the presence of the Lord as the priesthood is consecrated: “And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down” (Acts 9:24). Those who laugh in church are more likely to cry there. If you are captivated by the presence and gifts of the Spirit in worship, you will probably find the presence and gifts of the Spirit in the sacraments more wonderful, not less. If you go further up, you go further in.
The joy of the whole Church
Not everyone will naturally be drawn to both. Historically, churches have usually centred corporate worship on one of three things – songs, sermons or sacraments – and this presumably reflects the fact that different people, different church traditions and different cultures will experience joy in God in different ways. We are shaped by our contexts, personalities and histories. Our preferences are formed by leaders we have respected, examples we have admired and excesses we have seen. Most of us, for a whole host of reasons, will find some aspects of corporate worship easier to access and to enjoy than others. But this actually strengthens the case for being both Eucharistic and charismatic. If the Church encompasses the whole body of Christ – cerebral and emotional, high and low context, introvert and extrovert, spontaneous and controlled, Asian, African, American, European and so on – then local churches need to worship in ways that help everyone find joy in God, through Christ, by the Spirit. It is tempting for congregations to specialise, to cater exclusively for those who prefer songs, sermons or sacraments. (Though contextualisation is vital and in fact inevitable, it can, especially in Western cultures, become a euphemism for narrowing your focus and tailoring your brand for a specific target audience.) But the unintended consequence of this is the division of God’s people: those who like quiet and routine go this way, those who like noise and spontaneity go that way – and the teenagers are in the room out back with a smoke machine. Specialisation in worship may help gather a crowd in the short term, but in the long-term it kills diversity.
To be Eucharismatic, then, is to seek the joy of the whole Church, even though most of us will find some components of corporate worship more appealing than others. For some, it will mean a call to praise him with the loud symbols, as well as the loud cymbals. For others, it will mean insisting on being happy-clappy rather than humpy-grumpy. In many contexts, it will mean being quiet on some occasions and raucous on others. Yet for all of us, however we prefer to express it, it will mean pointing people to Jesus, crucified and risen, as the fountain of living waters, the Lord of the wine, and the only source of everlasting joy.
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