The Wonder of the Church: Part 5 – Starting from Scratch
29. A New Creation
Mk 2:21,22 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
The Problem to be faced: Did you notice in the previous study, I had at the top of it the above verses but never got around to citing them. But I don’t want to spend much time expounding them now either, but they just hang there in the background acting as a reminder: this church thing, this Christianity thing, was something utterly new for the Jews of Jesus’ day. What Jesus had on his heart was completely different from the structured institutional Judaism that they knew, described by the apostle Paul, “the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah.” (Rom 9:4,5)
An Uncomfortable Past: Yes, they had their past, made a special people of God at Sinai, they had the Law, the Temple, the covenants, their origins in the patriarchs. They had history that Stephen spelled out in some detail before he was stoned (see Acts 7), but that was where it got embarrassing because as he said, speaking of Moses, “But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” (Acts 7:39) and went on, “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:52,53) And that got him stoned! The truth hurts, and the truth of history for Israel is in many ways embarrassing. This is not to put them down for they simply demonstrate what the rest of the world is like left to themselves. But it showed the inadequacy of simply trying to have a relationship with God based on rules, on the Law. It had to happen – it wasn’t a failure on God’s part, a thought that Paul shied away from in the early verses of Rom 3. It revealed the sinfulness of mankind and the need for something better to save us.
Jesus’ Warnings: The trouble with the two illustrations that Jesus gave in our starter verses, is that they are slightly quaint and therefore we smile at them but so often fail to try to apply them to life today. He points out to us an old garment lying around and there on the shelves some old wineskins. Both familiar, both comfortable. But then he puts forward the idea of someone trying to mend the old garment by piecing in a brand-new piece of material, and then of putting new wine into the old wineskins. Yes, right. Not a smart thing to do if you are a homemaker and know about these sorts of things. The first time you wash the patched garment, the new material will shrink (the old has done all the shrinking its going to do) and pull away from the garment or pull it out of shape. Not a good idea. But then comes winemaking time of the year and running out of new wineskins, you pick up and fill the old wineskin with the new – probably still fermenting wine. Not what smart winemakers do because they know the wine is likely to effervesce and seek to expand the wine skin, but being old it is rigid and will simply split. Two instances where mixing old and new just don’t go.
Context? So what is the context of this little bit of homespun wisdom? Well it is sandwiched in between people complaining that Jesus’ disciples weren’t fasting like John’s were (Mk 2:18) and the Pharisees complaining that Jesus’ disciples were picking grain of wheat to eat – on the Sabbath! Working on the holy day!!!! In both cases Jesus brought corrective teaching (v.19,20 about a bridegroom, and v.25-28 on David’s use of the holy bread). In between there is this telling and very pointed double-illustration answering their complaints that might have been summed up as, “Your religion isn’t up to what we’ve had for centuries! What are you doing?” But of course we noted earlier that that religion wasn’t worth trying to keep up with – it constantly failed!
Comparisons: Now I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said many times before and so I’m not trying to be insulting or hostile, but just simply point out something about so much modern religion. Let’s compare three different things. First, consider Judaism. Based on a building, the temple, expressed by rites and ritual laid down for centuries, teaching the same old material laid down for centuries, an altar and a priesthood who wore unusual clothing to distinguish them. Fixed, static, unchanging. Second, consider Jesus. One man, anointed of God (he was and is God), constantly on the move, bringing new teaching, expressing the power of God so changing people’s lives dramatically, delivering from demons, raising some from the dead, performing signs and wonders, teaching others to do exactly the same as he was doing, so creating an army of active ministers bringing in the kingdom of God. Third, now consider so much of the modern church, especially the denominations: buildings (often big, Rome is the classic overstatement), clergy wearing strange clothing to distinguish them, services that often is made up of ritual, pre-stated words and services where movement of God is prohibited, and an altar, remarkably similar in character to Old Testament Judaism but with ‘Jesus-words’ added. Fixed, static and rarely changing.
Do we need to paint an even bigger picture of the life of the church that is characterized by new ‘garments’ and new ‘wine’? But those of us in freer evangelical or charismatic or even Pentecostal circles should not feel comfortable because so often our ‘services’ are just as predictable. Even in the new ‘streams’ so often we slide into the same pattern – chairs in rows, predictable service, even though we may tack on a ‘Holy Spirit ministry time’ at the end. Look again at the second one above – Jesus – and ask whether those four or fives lines of description are true of our church experience?
But why? So why do we do it like we do? I think there are a number of answers. First, we’ve always done it like this, and because we have never taught our people to embrace change, some of the voices upraised against change would make it too difficult to change. Second, we’ve perhaps never taught systematically the things I’m trying to pick up in this series and so we don’t see how far we have strayed from the New Testament guidelines, and so we see no need to change. Third, an underlying and uncomfortable factor in much of what I have been saying is the Holy Spirit, and we would have to confess our inability to recognize Him, know Him and be led by Him, and in fact have a completely new Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered perspective on ‘church’. Fourth, it is easier to stay the same and not think about change which will require thinking about, teaching and then (scarily) applying. Fifth, the other side of that coin, it requires effort to consciously structure church to be unstructured or able to accommodate a move of the Spirit in our gatherings. Sixth, having perhaps done it once, there is always a great temptation to try to replicate that and then we slide back into man-planned meeting. Seventh, we so enjoy the good elements of what we do – some of our preachers are excellent and sometimes our worship band leads us into the heavenly realms – that we dare not lose these things or release them in a different context that might include the unknown. Eighth, for there to be a true flow of the Spirit that flows through the whole congregation rather than just three or four leaders, it requires careful, patient and graceful teaching, encouraging and empowering of the whole congregation or as many as possible of it, to bring this about. Is it possible? I don’t know, I haven’t come across a church of any size where this happens – and that raises another question that we will pick up in the days ahead, that of size of congregation.
But: Buildings are not bad. Big congregations are not bad. Small congregations are not bad. That’s not what is being said. Jesus’ teaching of wineskins and garments highlights the differences that he came to bring, summarized by one word – ‘life’. Perhaps we need to ponder that next, but don’t lose the heart of this study, so when Paul wrote “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” as I’ve said before, I’m sure that means the individual, but in the light of Jesus’ broader teaching, I’m equally sure it must apply to the whole church as well. So, have we gone back and resurrected the old? Perhaps we need to think about that.