Jesus began his ministry amidst a culture steeped in tradition. For the Jewish leaders and many of their followers, these practices were viewed as essential and unchangeable. They were centuries old and had been tied to their historical identity. No one questioned or challenged them. That is, until Jesus came on the scene.
In his very first appearance in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus quoted a Messianic prophecy of Isaiah,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed meto proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisonersand recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21 NIV)
Soon after, the Jews were taking him to a cliff to throw him down because of his perceived blasphemy. He miraculous escaped, but it was a foreshadowing of how Jesus would challenge the traditions of the Jewish culture and the reactions to him.
Shortly after this story, Jesus is confronted by Jewish leaders about his disciples not fasting as they do. He responds by telling a parable.
“No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’” (Luke 5:36-39 NIV)
With this story, he summed up human tendencies: we like what is familiar because it is comfortable. Humans, on the whole, tend to resist change; thus, our propensity for clinging to traditions and routines. I recall a time many years ago when I was part of a “worship committee” at the church where I was involved. We made the recommendation that Communion be moved from before the sermon to after it. Within hours, literally, the word of the proposed change got out and two longtime church members began calling other members to tell them and criticize our plan. It was never implemented because it created such a stir that the pastor decided it wasn’t worth the trouble to go forward with it.
One thing I have always loved about campus ministry is the freedom to change things up, and often very quickly. Students by and large are more open to changes than older adults. That is not to say, however, that the tendencies toward clinging to the familiar aren’t already beginning to show. Once, I decided our small group Bible studies should incorporate a meal in order to emulate the practice of the New Testament Church, and to give students the experience of a “family meal,” which many increasingly had rarely experienced growing up. I also wanted them to incorporate the discussion of the Scriptures while they were eating to encourage talking about the Scriptures to be viewed more broadly rather than just at specific times, such as Sunday School or in a formal Bible study group. To do so while they were eating, I hoped, would encourage them to feel comfortable doing the same when they were eating with friends on campus or in restaurants. When I presented my plan to our leaders, two of the leaders were less than thrilled, but agreed to do it. Later, however, I learned one was doing basically what she had done before, and the other began pulling away from her overall involvement in the ministry. Both were just too comfortable with the way the groups had been and they found it difficult to adjust. As Jesus pointed out, it is always easier for people to prefer the old wine.
However, to follow Jesus means we must embrace the new wine which so often goes against the religious traditions we’ve embraced as the norm. Jesus summed up the new wine this way,
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
To fulfill these commandments, new traditions, as represented in the parable as “wineskins,” were required. The traditions of old, for example, required nothing of the heart and mind. So much of the traditions were often mindless and heartless rituals, such as offering sacrifices, the rules of doing no healing on the Sabbath or avoiding lepers or tax collectors, as if they were somehow lesser humans. Jesus was calling for a new way of thinking and acting in relationship to God.
What the Jewish leaders struggled with in the time of Jesus has continued down through the centuries. Even in the 1stCentury when the Church was just beginning, many of the Jewish believers were still seeking to hold onto their traditions and force them even upon non-Jews (Gentiles) as a condition for becoming a true Christian. (Acts 15:1-11) All of the reform movements throughout church history have sought to recapture the new wine with new wineskins. Some have come closer than others, but all have the root in the desire to return to the model of the early Christians of the 1stCentury.
The latest example of this is the disciple-making movement. There are numerous variations, but the focus is on returning the Church to a focus on the Great Commission , not merely in the context of missions, but helping people become true disciples of Jesus rather than merely saying a prayer which so often produce little or no fruit in their lives. In the US alone, 75% of the population identifies themselves as Christians, but anyone with any understanding of the transforming power of a relationship with Jesus knows this cannot be true when so many who say this have lives that cannot be distinguished from non-believers in terms of beliefs and lifestyles.
The problem has long been that churches are interested in growth and, increasingly, they have required less and less of their congregants, and instead have catered to their wants and perceived needs. In contrast, Jesus called those who sought to follow him to a life of denial and suffering. This is why he said the path to life is narrow and few find it. If the majority of the population claims to be Christians, we should automatically consider the claim to be dubious based on the words of our Lord.
We have again reached the point where the old wineskins need to be cast aside. The structures we have in place and the way we typically “do church” do not allow for us to keep the two greatest commandments. Like Jesus told the Jewish leaders, our traditions need to be brought under the scrutiny of the Word of God and cast aside if they are not fulfilling the purpose of obeying the Lord.
The harsh reality is our old wineskins are enabling spiritual immaturity at best, and, at worst, are deceiving people into believing they are right with God without any sense of humility or repentance. The current structures are leading to self-centeredness and spiritual shallowness. And, unlike the early Church, few local churches have the reputation of loving each other in a way that astounds the rest of the culture. More base their reputations on their charismatic pastors, their programs, and their worship services. Yet, I think it is fair to question how much transformation is taking place within these congregations and in the lives of those in their communities with whom they have interaction, and to ask if there is a better approach than we now have.
I don’t know about you, but I am hungry for more than what I receive or am able to give on Sunday mornings. I long for deeper community, for more desire of fellow believers to grow spiritually, not only individually but as a community as well. I long for a community that truly wants to follow Jesus and is intentional about it, where individuals are not just spectators but active participants in Kingdom work, cultivating and using their spiritual gifts to advance it. And I long for a community where outsiders coming in will know immediately there is something very different going on—people love another in identifiable ways. The current structures just don’t cultivate this. It may happen, but it would be in spite of the structures rather than as a result of them.
Jesus brought us new wine in the form of the Gospel. I think it’s high time to find new wineskins in which to carry it to those around us. How about you?