Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bursting the Wineskins

Luke 5:33-39

Heraclitus supposedly said: "All things are in a state of flux." In other words, change is part of life. Whether we like it or not, nothing ever stays the same. And to prove his point, that old Greek philosopher pointed to a river and said, you can’t step into the same river twice. Why? Because the water that runs down the river is ever changing. And so it is with life.

You might say that change defines modern life. Fashion and music tastes change from day to day. The same is true of hair styles. We look back at old photos and laugh at the big hair or the big glasses. And as for technology, as soon as you get that computer out of the box, it’s already obsolete. I don’t know if you ‘ve noticed it, but politicians have been talking a lot about change – where they differ is in the kind of change they propose. But this is the year of change!

The church is nearly 2000 years old, so you’d think it might be immune to change, but even in the church change has become the topic of the day. That shouldn’t surprise us, since there’s so much change going on around us. As the world changes in its musical tastes and social attitudes, the church has always had to adapt. Remember that there was a time when Gregorian Chant was considered new.

Change has come to Central Woodward as well. Anytime a new pastor shows up, things begin to change. It’s only natural. After all, I’m not John or Shirley, I’m me – for good or bad! And remember – I come from California. Some of those changes have already taken place, and more are on the horizon.


Sometimes we don’t think about Jesus being a change agent, but he was. He challenged the political, social, and religious status quo. He spoke up for the marginalized and the despised. He wasn’t a traditionalist, and so when the topic of fasting came up – he said: when the bridegroom is here, it’s time to celebrate not fast.

To make his point, Jesus told a couple of parables. One parable spoke of putting patches made from new cloth on old garments. The other one had to do with putting new wine into old wine skins. The point he was trying to make was that putting new stuff in or on old stuff doesn’t always work.
When it comes to wine, most wine today comes in bottles or maybe boxes, but rarely in wineskins. In this story, Jesus points to the danger of taking new wine, which is in the process of fermenting, and placing it in an older wineskin. Fermenting wine is expanding, but the old wine skins are brittle and inflexible. If you put that new wine into inappropriate containers, they’ll break open and the wine will be lost.

Now, I don’t think Jesus was concerned about bringing wine to the market. He was concerned about our receptivity to God’s Spirit. Jesus wants us to know that when God’s Spirit begins to move in our midst, if our structures and practices aren’t flexible they may break under the stress. As you know, there’s a tendency within the church to resist change. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing – not all change is good – but if we’re resisting God’s Spirit, that’s not good. When it comes to resistance, the objections often sound like this: "We haven't done that before"; That’s not the way we do things here; or "This is the way we have always done it." Or, maybe someone will say: "That's the Pastor's job." Statements like these are old wineskins that block creativity, imagination, and ministry.

Because I believe that Jesus is calling us to live and work together in relationship with the living God as a missional people, we must be open to new things.


I know that change is scary. And besides that, when life around us becomes chaotic or difficult, we like knowing that there’s at least one thing that stays the same. For many of us, we expect the church to be that bastion of stability. Besides, as Jesus pointed out, once you’ve tasted the old wine, you’re not likely to appreciate the new wine.

But if we read Scripture and Christian history we’ll discover that even if the character of God is unchanging, the way in which God works does change. When we read the stories about Saul of Tarsus, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Alexander Campbell, we find God working in new ways to reach the world with the gospel of love.

If an ever-changing world is to hear the gospel, then the church must learn to communicate that message in the language of the day. Missionaries had to learn this lesson, and so do we. No matter how wonderful things might have been back then, we can’t go back and do things the way they did them in the 30s or the 50s or even the 60s. Just think for a moment about how we communicate today. It’s hard to believe, but email is old fashioned. If you want to connect with a young person, you might have to take up texting or do Facebook.


I believe that God is pouring out the wine of the Spirit upon the church around the world – including this congregation. The question we face is this: How will we respond to God’s call? If God is pouring out new wine, then our first task will be to create new wineskins.

I recently read that before we can change structures, we have to change values. So, over the next few months I’d like to invite you to join me in prayerfully discerning God’s core values for this congregation. If God is calling us to be a missional people, what does that mean for how we do things? That discernment process will help us respond to questions about music, worship styles, outreach ministries, the way we use the building, and even how we interpret the Bible. And as we do this, I believe God will bring new people into our midst. They’ll bring new gifts, new ideas, and new energy – all of which will expand the way we see the things of God. Some of them might be young and others not so young. They’ll come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of this newness will make us uncomfortable, but that’s okay – it’s natural to feel that way. It’s simply a reminder that we need to listen to each other and to God. And, even in the midst of all this change, some things will stay the same. We remain the Body of Christ. God’s love remains steadfast. We will remain committed to the principles of liberty, unity, and a commitment to hear God’s voice in Scripture.

Jesus invites us to share in the new things of God. And when we get nervous about what that means, Paul encourages us not to quench the Spirit. Instead, he tells us to examine everything and hold to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Having heard this call of God, may we join together in discerning the path forward as God’s people.

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