Yesterday’s normal isn’t working today.
A few days before dad’s birthday, the family gathers around him and says, “Tell us what you want!” He tries to brush them off, but finally gives in to their prompting: “Okay, if you really want to know, here’s how I envision my birthday. I invite over a handful of friends, and we order a tub of wings, and a tub of curly fries. Then maybe we’ll sit down and watch a couple of old episodes of Star Trek. Then when it starts to cool off outside, we go to a buddy’s house into his back field, and shoot skeet. Afterwards, we come back, have cake and ice cream, and stay up late. There. That’s my vision of my birthday.”
Dad finds himself getting excited, because it looks like the family might facilitate his idea. For the first time in years he’s looking forward to his birthday, because usually it’s just aftershave and a card. The day arrives, he gets off work, steps in the door, and finds a surprise party. There’s about fifty people in the house, most of whom don’t know him, and kind of don’t want to know him. Instead of wings and curly fries, it’s veggie snacks and Mediterranean wraps. Instead of Star Trek and skeet shooting, it’s board games. Instead of cake and ice cream, it’s Jello squares.
When the “festivities” have ended, the family huddles around dad, and asks, “Did you like it? This place was packed! And all those celery sticks with cottage cheese! Bet you hadn’t played so many rounds of Candyland in a while!” Dad loves them so he says, “Well, that was very nice. Thank you for thinking about me.” But down deep he’s feeling This was something for you, not me.
Are we doing this to Jesus?
We gather around Him, exuberantly pointing out how we’ve begun this thing, built that thing, invented another thing. In response, Jesus says, Yes, I see that. It’s nice you did this for me. But this is 2020. This year we’re going to do something different. For one thing, I’m going to shrink everything down and carve off all the frills. This year is going to be about what I want. Instead of a stadium with fanfare, let’s have a little house full of fellowship.
Most of us hearing this may likely be filled with dread. We wish COVID and all its associated inconveniences would disappear, so we can get back to the church parties we like to throw. Yet, Christ is requiring us to learn something, not just go through it. We’re to learn or relearn something that’s been forgotten, or lost in translation.
There was a time when a group of religious people confronted Jesus with criticisms. Seems they had an ancient practice of fasting that was well-established, and formulated. Much to their chagrin though, the disciples of Jesus weren’t doing it.
Jesus said to them in Matthew 9:17, “You don’t put new wine into old wineskins.” New wine is at the very start of the fermentation process. Gases are created as wine ferments, and it builds up pressure inside the container. If you have an old wineskin which is pre-formed, rigid, and stiff, something is going to happen as that pressure starts increasing in it. Jesus says, “the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed.”
This happens frequently to melons. The fermentation process might have begun inside a watermelon, causing it to turn into alcohol from the inside. It generating gases and pushes against the outside of the melon, the hard and unyielding rind. Often the melon explodes. Jesus says that’s what you get if you put something new into something old. But put new wine into a fresh wineskin, and both are preserved.
In essence, He is saying, I am the new wine! He was about to die, shed His blood, and wash away sins in a new work of salvation. He was going to rise from the dead, and give us new life and a new hope. He would indwell us as a new way of living.
And yet He was saying this in the middle of a world weary with oldness.
“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:4-9).
Still, Jesus says, “I am new.”
Is He contradicting the Bible here? No, remember the Bible says “there is nothing new under the sun,” but the reality Jesus represents originates above and beyond the sun, outside our closed system. We should never try to stuff Him into our things, or make Him fit what we like.
Well, how do we have Him? That’s what we’re trying to learn right now, during COVID. What arrangement, what setting, contains Jesus now that facilities have been locked down, numbers have been reduced? Even when the church regathers, it does so with caution that dampens enthusiastic communal joy. When we ask these things, we’re asking about the wineskin.
That’s a difficult inquiry, and one Christians in the Bible and throughout church history have been learning. The believers of the first century, for instance, had met the new wine of Christ, and it was life-changing for them. In Acts chapter 2, onlookers thought some of the disciples were drunk because of the joy they had in the Holy Spirit.
But what about the wineskin, the arrangement of the church? They were “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46).
The Jerusalem temple was a fabulous, gigantic, physical structure, able to accommodate the thousands of Christian worshipers gathering there. It looked like this might establish a forever pattern for the church—large facilities, large numbers, and homes.
But in 70 A.D., the Roman army, responding to political and social unrest, marched into Jerusalem. It ripped that wonderful temple building to the ground. History tells us Roman soldiers pried its stones apart, searching for the gold mortar between them. The Romans also leveled the city and scattered its citizens, including the believers. The church had become collateral damage, having lost its rallying point, and having been reduced from a massive collective down to little groups.
Jesus allowed this. He didn’t have anything against big buildings and big groups, but there were underlying issues developing. When a group of people gather at a facility of great prestige, size, and beauty, they will begin to identify with it. We see it today, when Christians casually refer to the building on the corner as their church. The truth is, that beautiful, cavernous monstrosity is not their church, and never will be. The church is Christ in them, not Christ in that.
Additionally, the church had been experiencing a runaway growth spurt, which at first seems a good situation. However, rather than growing and spreading, it had been growing and accumulating in a massive pile. And so, a mixture increased as well. Some who believed in Jesus, followed Moses. They had begun by grace, and thought perfection would come through law. There was a danger of losing the new wine, the fresh experience of Christ. Jesus took away the facility, and redistributed the people. The church, however, more than survived. It thrived.
Christianity often comes down to real estate, numbers, and organizational programs. That’s why the first few questions asked about one’s church will have to do with where it meets, how big it is, and what it has to offer. These are not the things that make us the church. That, I believe, is partly why we’re going through a current clarification process—so we can once again understand the difference between wine and wineskin.
Our “wine” is God, His Word, and one another. These are the new realities brought to us in Christ. They make us the Christian Church. Everything else is gravy.
- We worship God the Father, we adore Christ the Son, and we experience the Holy Spirit.
- We feed upon and obey the word.
- We love one another and strive to build each other up.
We can have this reality in any number of structural permutations, including those quite negative.
The wineskin of our small church, used to be house meetings that were wall-to-wall people, and a Sunday meeting all together at a middle school. Now, due to social distancing, we have fewer people in our homes. And since we don’t have access to our Sunday facility anymore, we rent what we can, so the whole church can come together, however irregular that may be.
Our church life used to be completely live. Now, like a lot of places, we’re doing digital as well. Though you can’t live online, we’ve found it makes a great stop-gap tool. We’ve also begun to experiment with Small Sundays, where a few people get together in homes for the video message, and fellowship afterwards.
That is our current wineskin, and no doubt, it will flex again in the near future. So, if you have fallen in love with a facility, or gigantic numbers, your church life will seem to have ended. My observation though, is that if we prioritize the new wine—the things that make us the authentic church—a suitable wine skin always appears.