New Wine, Old Wineskins

I used to work in ecommerce marketing, and I was often part of launching new platforms — new websites, new shipping software, new inventory software, etc. When these things happen, there’s always a point where you have to just go for it. There’s no transition when you’re changing to a new website platform or a new shipping platform. You just have to make the switch and troubleshoot as you go.

Take a website, for example. The website URL or the website’s domain points to a specific “place.” When I first started Breaking Bread Theology, my custom domain pointed to a Blogger site. In order to keep the site up and running while I built this WordPress site, I had to work on the WordPress one separately. Once it was ready to go live, I had to flip the switch, so to speak, and point the domain to the new site. It’s not instantaneous, but it is all or nothing. While I did my best to make sure the switch went smoothly, I couldn’t really know for sure that everything was good until I took the leap.

That’s the reality of many things in life, that we have to take what we had and, at some point, switch to something new. That shift is often a “leap of faith.”

In my previous work, every time we made a shift from one platform to another, something always went wrong. There’s no such thing, in my experience, as a perfect switch. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business, a life change, a career, an intellectual or paradigm shift, or a change of habit. There’s no such thing as a seamless transition. When we have to make that leap, we have to make the leap, and if something goes wrong, we have to troubleshoot it on the new end, not on the old end. We can’t roll things back and troubleshoot them, because we can’t see the problem until we get into the new thing.

New Wine, Old Wineskins

Somebody recently pointed this out to me about ministry, and I’ve been mulling it over and over in my head. They pointed out that Jesus actually makes this analogy for us.

He also told them a parable: “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. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.'”

Luke 5:36-39, NRSV

This tension exists as a reality of being human, faith in community, ministry, and experiences of church. We can’t just take new things and insert them into old things. Otherwise, the old things burst, and both the new things and the old things are ruined. We often have to take that leap of faith and try the new thing — new wine in new wineskins.

There’s a lot of consideration right now about why people are leaving the Church or why younger people are leaving their congregations, and I think it’s related to this idea. They’re not necessarily leaving because they don’t love God or because they have anything against God. That is, although some people have decided that their beliefs are different or that they no longer believe in Christianity or no longer believe in God, that’s not the main issue. It wouldn’t matter if they believed in the God of Christianity or if they believe in Christ or any other specifics about their faith. They would leave regardless; they are leaving regardless, and it’s because the old doesn’t fit the new. We can’t pour new wine into old wineskins.

That’s a big part of why it’s hard for me, as a minister who grew up in Churches of Christ, to do something that’s not like Churches of Christ — because this is who I am, and this is what I know. This is my old wineskin, or, rather, I am the old wineskin. I’ve essentially been trying to figure out how we pour new wine into old wineskins, and the answer that Jesus gives is we don’t. First, we need a new wineskin. What that means is that sometimes we need to be transformed into new wineskins in order to have new wine in us, whether that’s us as individuals or us as communities/congregations.

Preferences for the Old and the New

If we take the analogy seriously, we see that sometimes we can’t just transform old congregations into new congregations. As we just read, “No one, after drinking old wine, wants the new, for they say the old is better.”

Religion does something for us. Worship does something for us. Community does something for us. It’s hard to go from what we know, especially if we feel it’s been beneficial for us, to something that’s new, that’s uncertain, and that doesn’t resonate with us as strongly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that older Christians should just do things the way they’ve always done them or that new Christians should go do something different, but it does mean we need to be aware of the way new things and old things interact with each other.

We need to be aware of the reality that not all things are for all people, whether old things or new things. As Jesus said in another place, we need to be able to bring out of the storeroom new treasures and old treasures. What I find interesting is that as averse to that idea as conservative Christianity has been, it’s actually the example and the precedent in scripture: a continual reimagining of everything that God is doing.

It’s one of the reasons why some passages don’t agree with previous passages — why some New Testament teachings don’t agree with some Old Testament teachings, why some New Testament perceptions of God don’t agree with some Old Testament perceptions of God. What we get from Paul, for example, is a complete reimagining of the Old Testament story in a way that fits a new creation, a new thing coming to life. Paul’s theology isn’t just a clarification of misunderstandings. God isn’t just “explaining things better.” Something new is happening, and it requires a new wineskin. The Gentiles are being grafted into the Israelites, but they’re not Israelites. The Gentiles are being welcomed into the ancestry and family of Abraham, but they’re not of Abraham. Etc. Paul’s new reimagining of what it means to be children of God and people of God extends beyond the old imagining.

Towers of Babel

Jesus does this same thing in Luke 6.

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Luke 6:1-11, NRSV

Jesus contended with the leadership, but he didn’t do it just to be rebellious. Jesus presented a way of being a Jew in a Jewish culture that was different than what they already had. This way of being isn’t merely challenging or contrary; it’s new. To use New Testament language, Jesus was introducing them to a new creation — a new way of thinking and being that opens up new possibilities, even at the expense of traditions and regulations.

Through the reception of the Gospel, reception of the Holy Spirit, and participation in God’s kingdom in the present, we, too, have been invited to be transformed into something new, but somehow, we get so comfortable during this transformative process that many have decided stop changing.

It’s the Tower of Babel all over again. They became comfortable and decided to hunker down and build a great tower, but God pushed them out into the world, because remaining in one place wasn’t the goal. Likewise, this is not the place. We haven’t arrived at our destination. Too many of us have stopped mid-journey in order to do our own thing and have lost the goal of pursuing God. We’re like Peter at the transfiguration wanting to build some booths and just stay there forever; too many Christians are willing to forego participation in God’s kingdom in order to stay where they are.

People understand this from the way that Christianity engages American culture, today. It’s not hard to see for everybody except the people who have stagnated. Somehow, we look at ourselves and think, “We’ve arrived. We’re exactly who and where we need to be, and we don’t need to be transformed or to go any further.” Meanwhile, everyone else looks at us and says, “If you’ve arrived, then I’m not interested.” While others acknowledge the journey, too many Christians say that nothing about Christianity needs to change. Like those building the Tower of Babel, they’ve decided that where they are is good enough.

The problem is that staying put doesn’t work. Over the centuries, Christianity has struggled to stay relevant while also resisting change. We’ve built our own Towers of Babel, but we struggle to keep them from crumbling as the world around us moves on, and when we try to reinforce our towers with “relevance,” all we’re really doing is attempting to patch an old garment with a new piece of cloth. All we’re doing is attempting to pour new wine into old wineskins. We need a new wineskin for a new wine, and we need new wine in order to create better wine.

Creating Better Wine

This one probably goes without saying, because anyone who knows anything about wine understands that wine has to be aged. That means new wine eventually becomes old wine, and our new wineskins become an old wineskins, and then we need more new wine. The assumption that there’s never going to be new wine (or that “new wine” was a one-time metaphor that only refers to whatever Jesus was doing at the time) is counter to the precedent we find all throughout scripture.

God is a God of creation and creates continually. God creates moment to moment. God creates out of love moment to moment, and I would argue that love is a creative process in itself, because people change. We change and others change, and as people change, we need to be creative in how we express our love through those changes. As I wrote recently, love is adaptive. We adapt to the changes around us and within us in order to love in appropriate ways, and if God is love, then God, too, is an adaptive God who incarnates in creative ways and creates out of love moment to moment in response to what’s happening.

New wine is the mode through which God operates, continually pouring new wine into the world. In a sense, God’s love is continually creating better wine. When we stagnate and cling to our old wineskins and our old garments at the expense of new wine, it becomes idolatrous. We create for ourselves an idol out of the old thing, and we call it God. We fail to realize that God’s adaptive nature is constantly new in creation. That’s why even when we have good intentions about the ways we worship and the ways we live, they don’t often help people, because we’re so focused on clinging to the old wineskin.

What About the Old Treasures?

I mentioned that Jesus says we take old treasures and new treasures out of the storeroom, so the analogy isn’t perfect, obviously. In the same way that we don’t reject everything new in favor of what’s old, we also don’t throw out everything old in favor of something new. The precedent in scripture, again, is that we reimagine what already exists. We imagine what it might mean for something to enter into new creation. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is the way that Christianity evolves within cultures.

I know that there’s a fear of syncretism, here, but there’s a difference between adapting and syncretizing. When I say that Christianity evolves, I mean that just as God creates space within God’s kingdom for humanity and all of creation (which is fundamentally different from God), Christianity as a religion should also be in the business of creating space for new expressions of faith. To reimagine faith and Gospel as an expression of a specific people is the work of new creation.

Consider, for example, the way that Christianity was adopted by black slaves in white cultures and the way they made their faith their own so that it could mean something to them even as they were being oppressed by people who claimed to be their brothers and sisters. That’s new wine in new wineskins. That’s the Gospel being alive in the work of new creation without having to force itself into an old wineskin, so when we see people, today, walking away from what some are calling White Evangelicalism in order to pursue something purer as an expression of their faith in God, that’s new wine in new wineskins. They’re not abandoning scripture. They’re not abandoning God. They are abandoning certain traditions in favor of new traditions that express their faith, their understanding of scripture, and their pursuit of God in more honest and healthier ways.

By making space for this kind of diversity of Christian expressions, we participate in the same Holy Spirit work that we find in the New Testament: the grafting together of new stories and old stories — of new peoples and old peoples. This is part of how we bring new treasures and old treasures out of the storeroom.

New Wine, New Wineskins

We need new wine for new wineskins, and we need new wineskins for new wine. We need new garments instead of patched up old garments. Sometimes, there’re going to be people who hang back and attend to the old things — to the old wine and the old garments. Jesus doesn’t say there’s anything wrong with that, but the precedent we find in scripture is that there is something wrong when those of us who guard the old ways hinder the innovators from pouring new wine into new wineskins. When we turn ourselves from pilgrims into gatekeepers, we feed into a stagnant, idolatrous form of Christianity that doesn’t help people and doesn’t participate in the work of Love.

If you find yourself trying to pour new wine into old wineskins, take a step back and consider carefully whether it’s time to find a new wineskin. If you find yourself guarding old wine in old wineskins, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s time to empower those coming after you to make new wine and new wineskins.

Maybe that comes with a fear of death — a fear of the old things passing away — but the new thing that comes is still part of the work of love that God does in creation. We don’t have to stay where we are. We can pursue God in loving and creative ways, and we should, and we should empower the people around us to do the same.

If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.

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