Just recently I was reminded of a verse in the context of doing new things in the life of the church. It is present in the gospels of Matthew (9:16-17), Mark (2:21-22) and Luke (5:36-38), what we call the synoptic gospels.
The passage according to Luke’s memory of what Jesus said, goes like this,
No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. (Luke 5:36-38)
I have been doing some thinking about how this verse is often used, that is to say, you cannot do anything new within an established congregation. In other words, if you want to do something new, you need to start something new, separate from that which is already functioning.
My initial problem with this was this does not match up with my experience here at St Stephens. Indeed, we have been able to do something new with something that was already established. In case you have forgotten, the work we have done in transforming the 10 am Sunday service and, even more, the development of our Messy Church.
I am not saying that it was not easy, it was not without pain and grief, but we did it, and we are seeing the fruit of that in the increased involvement of young families.
My second problem with it is that we are making the mistake thinking that Jesus is talking about those who are his disciples. In Matthew’s memory, Jesus is addressing a question of the disciples of John the Baptiser. In Mark’s memory it was people outside of Jesus’ followers. In Luke’s memory, it was the disciples who were asking, but in all the synoptic gospel accounts the question was concerned with why Jesus’s disciples were not fasting while John’s disciples and the Pharisees were.
It is in Luke that there is an additional memory that neither Matthew or Mark contain, which is telling,
And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.” (v 39)
Jesus is not addressing his disciples inability, or warning them not to try and do anything new in what was old, he is addressing that others have added new things to what was original that have damaged that which was good.
I have maintained that Jesus’ intention was not to start up a new religion, but to call back God’s people to the religion as it began and was intended to be. The biblical story begins in Genesis with God walking in the garden with Adam. The call of Abraham was simply a call into covenantal relationship. Judaism was meant to simply be a relationship between God and his people, but they had continued to place laws and burdens over that, and this is what was ripping it apart.
So Malachi speaks of a messenger God is going to send to prepare the way before him. It seems that God’s people speak of the importance of the covenantal relationship with God, for this is a ‘messenger of the covenant in who you delight’, but when God comes, he will purify them of all the things that are getting in the way of that covenantal relationship:
- obvious things like sorcerers, but also
- those who swear falsely
- those who oppress the hired workers through their wages
- those who oppress the widows and orphans
- those who thrust aside the strangers in the land
- those who do not hold God in awe
Despite this, because it is a covenantal and not a contractual relationship between God and humans, God cannot turn aside from them; they have not perished.
John the Baptiser is presented to us today firstly as a model of prophet, that is, one who examines the action of God’s people and determines whether they are consistent with character and nature of God, secondly, he is fulfilment of the hope of this messenger who comes to prepare the way of God. So he is the one saying,
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:4-6)
As we come to this season of Advent, this time of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the coming of God in human flesh, we are being invited to reflect on our own lives. Where are we allowing things, which may be OK in themselves, to get in the way of a religion that is concerned with good and healthy relationships with God and others; and where we may be causing others to think that Christian religion is concerned with rules and morality rather than relationship with God.
Anything else will rip us apart. What God intended in the beginning, what is old, is good, and anyone who has experienced relationship with God, made possible in Jesus, would want to go back to a religion of rules.