Exodus 3:1-6 & Mark 2:18-22 Old & new wineskins

Reflection by Mart the Rev

I wonder what you think Jesus meant when he talked of the new wineskins. The parable/metaphor comes very early in the Jesus stories.  Just a little later Jesus and his disciples are criticised by the Pharisees for plucking grains on the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was made for humankind, says Jesus, and not humankind for the Sabbath.  There’s the clue here.  I believe that the old wineskin is the system for conveying the message of God’s loving life-giving presence.  It has contained the old wine for its season but now there is a new wine among them – a new expression of God’s loving life-giving presence, in Jesus himself, and the old system cannot contain it – it is too vibrant and expansive… if you put it in the old wineskin it will burst and waste the new wine.

We know how it went down with the powers that be. Not very well at all.  It eventually led to the cross – but even that catastrophic event could not contain the outpouring of God’s loving life-giving presence.  It swept into the world with all the energy and power of rushing wind and tongues of fire.  The cup keeps overflowing… the lid has been lifted off the well of God’s love and no one can stop the flow, and why would anyone want to!  And we have found ourselves all caught up in it.  However… systems get stale.  The leather in the wineskin wears thin.

The motto of the reformed churches was Ecclesia semper reformanda est, the reformed church must always be reforming.  Systems grow stale and society changes and the church that doesn’t find a way to continue to be fresh and vital is the church that fades into oblivion.

I think we all know that the way we do and be church has to keep changing if we are going to find our way with future generations. Most of us have to admit that our children and our children’s children have little or nothing to do with the church that has been so much a part of our lives.  We don’t have to be all that smart at maths to note that thirty or forty years of minus signs eventually makes for a very small sum at the end.  Our capacity to maintain and sustain the old wineskin has diminished.  Despite our faithful and sacrificial service it isn’t getting any easier!  We either give up, huddle, and deny reality (and put another patch on the old skin so that it lasts to see us out) or we do what we can to enable a new wineskin in our midst.

I hope you see that we are trying the latter here at The Village. Whether you like all that we are trying, or not, I hope you see that we are trying, and I hope you value that we are trying.  Who wants to belong to something dead?  But doing and being church in this tough season isn’t easy!  It all needs encouragement, and I don’t know anyone in The Village who isn’t inconvenienced in some way by the challenges that are before us.  Anne, Dan, and I look at our diaries and we keep seeing add-ons in our busy weeks and not many ‘taking offs.’  It is what is needed and we are not complaining – we know that we are by no means the only ones who have more being asked of them.  We are not the only ones being inconvenienced.

I remember Rev Neil Churcher, one of my significant mentors in ministry stating just before my ordination that he thought that he and his generation had had the best years in ministry. He had been ordained into a season of expansion and stability.  But he could see the writing was on the wall: that the same-old would not continue to work.  He constantly encouraged me to make something of the challenges, but he did not envy me!  Part of what keeps me going is that I happen to believe that the good old days are these days.  Every day can be a good old day.  Today, meeting here, and also opening our new Papanui building, is a good old day that I will look back on with great fondness.

I will look back with fondness even though I am admitting that at the time we having this particular ‘good old day’ the world is not in good shape, our earth is warming dangerously, some of our leaders are behaving like spoilt children, our children don’t seem to have a faith they want to nurture, and all of us are aging and struggling with one thing or another.

If you are one who thinks that all the good old days are far behind us I invite you to think about some of the associated limitations, calamities, and challenges of those times that you hold up as the good ones. There might have been a degree or two more simplicity back then, and your small bubble might have been floating along sweetly, and back then the global temperature was indeed a degree or two less, but they were not necessarily better days. Almost all of the most significant challenging human events of the last 100 years happened before I was born – two world wars, the Jewish holocaust, the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the great depression, the Cold War, and the start of the arms race with the frightful capacity to blow up the whole planet…all of that had taken place or been put in place before I was born, and I am 56 years old!  Tell me about these good old days!  I do not believe they were better.  I would much rather grow old with the capacity our current health system has than grow old with what it was like fifty or even twenty years ago.  Ok, not everything is good – the toaster that looks so pretty on the shelf decides to pack it in after only two years; the stuff on our televisions seems to have become a celebration of the inane and I wonder if there is a conspiracy to kill us with dullness; and the price of butter is an offence given the number of bloated, belching, methane gas-releasing cows on our land.  Not everything is good, and we can be and should be better, but all the good old days have had more than their share of bad old days, just like these ones – just like these ones.  So maybe the good old days are happening right now and it is up to us to note them, be open to them, and enjoy them.

Anne and I are planning some study leave. In 2014 we booked a stay at Cambridge University – there’s a trust who kindly put people up in some accommodation at Westminster College and make it possible for two- month long sabbaticals.  We are going over in March 2019 – and having a wee stroll in Spain on the way.  We have had to wait five years in order to secure the accommodation for the UK spring-term which works for us because at that times of year we don’t have to mow lawns at our place at Totara Valley.  Anyway, you’ll hear more about that in due course, but we have been working on our study topics in preparation for getting all the approvals for our time of leave.

I’m wanting to explore how to do and be church in what I believe is this particularly challenging season of ours.

You and I can see that the same-old isn’t cutting it. If we keep on doing and being church as we have been we will continue to diminish, because our capacity to make new connections with the community in order to pass the gospel forwards will also shrink.  It’s a big problem and bigger than anything I can come up with on my sabbatical.  But I have noticed a couple of things and I wonder whether exploring them might be of some help. Here’s what I have noticed.

The main teachings of Jesus seem to be two-fold. He talks a lot about the kingdom of God – I think it is the key platform of his message.  The kingdom is coming, has come, is near, is within us… In the gospels, the phrase ‘the kingdom of God’ or ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is used fifty-three times, and it is used a further six times in the Acts of the Apostles which was written by Luke.   But I have noticed that it is only mentioned eight times in the rest of the New Testament.  Why is that?  If it was so key to the good news that Jesus was bringing to the world, how come it is almost entirely absent from the letters of the New Testament church?  Did they think it had already come and therefore didn’t need to be talked about?  Maybe.  Or, maybe they didn’t really understand it.  Maybe, the best they could manage was to store the new wine in the kind of wine skin they were already familiar with.  I wonder, in this season of ours, if there needs to be some recovery of the bigness and imagination of Jesus’ kingdom of God vision.  So I want to play that out a bit because so often I see churches clinging to the old and the familiar and often hostile about change – be these churches traditional or modern in their expression there seems to be a kind of smallness about their view of how God is at work in the world, and the bigness of Jesus’ kingdom vision is missed when we limit ourselves in our fear of the unknown.

The second part of what I want to reflect on is to do with how Jesus taught. I think that the main form of his teaching about what the kingdom of God was like was through parables.  Most of these parables are actual stories, there are forty four of these, and some of them are ‘acted-out parables’ as in his encounters with people like Zacchaeus, Blind Bartimaeus, and the woman at the well, as well as the feeding the 5000, walking on water, and even his call to the disciples to put their nets out on the other side of the boat.

These stories are foundational to Jesus’ teachings – the main platform for his message of the good news. But what stands out for me is the absence of any of these parables in the rest of the New Testament.  If the teachings of Jesus are the platform for building his church, how come so few of his actual words are ever quoted in the letters to the new church, and how come none of the parables are ever mentioned?  It baffles me.

What I have observed over nearly 30 years of ministry is that almost all of the material written about how to do and be church references the early church experiences and teachings in the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul, Peter and John, but hardly ever reference the parables of Jesus. Are they saying that what Jesus taught is secondary or even irrelevant?

I wonder if the church has ever really been willing to explore how to do church through a deep engagement with Jesus’ parables.  And I wonder if one of the ways to rethink how to do and be church in this season needs to be through a re-engagement with what the church seems to have long neglected.

I don’t pretend that I will be able to offer much into this, but I do think something crazy might pop up – you know, a Samaritan who makes the old religious one look foolish inviting the church to seek the person on the margins who might be able to help it through its problems, or a mad father giving his younger son his share of the property who welcomes the boy back who might be able to help us develop a posture of generosity when many of our instincts are to cling tightly… that sort of thing.

Why I am telling you all this is that I think I need your help. Thinking into this and preparing for the study leave would be helped enormously if a community of people were pondering the same question as me… what is the parable saying about how do we do and be church?

So, with Anne and Dan’s consent, I have drawn up calendar of themes for exploration in our Sunday reflections this year using most of the 44 parables of Jesus, and that question in each of these explorations – what is the parable saying about how do we do and be church?

Along the way I would really value receiving feedback and ideas from you. What are you hearing?  What are you seeing?  What are you thinking?  Today has begun with what I suspect is an overarching parable for the exploration I want to make – ‘No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins…’

How does the freshness and vitality of Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God find the appropriate form to continue its life? What could church look like as we transition towards a new way of connecting with the people around us who do not wish to relate with the church as many once did?  What is Jesus wanting to open up to us?  Keep that in mind as we explore the parables week by week through this year!