By Molly T. Marshall
Our attitudes about new things are radically disparate. Some of us love new cars, new shoes, new books, new technology, but get really fearful when we consider new expressions of worship, gathered community, organizational structure and, God forbid, theological perspective. Some things just need to stay put! Newness, however, is the medium of God’s handiwork in this dying and rising creation.
Often when a church or ministry embarks on a discernment process, it drags along years of routine, which can cloud our eyes to the possibilities before us. We know that the mixing of the old and new is risky business, but necessary. Life is a continuum, grounded in the past but radically open to the future, with the help of the Spirit.
Jesus spoke to this issue. The text about new wine and new wineskins comes at the end of a long series of teaching about discipleship (Matthew 9:17). There is a bit of a contest between the disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus, and issues of old and new practices are at the fore. Jesus’ table manners are under scrutiny — he eats with sinners — and he is more given to feasting than fasting.
Actually, Matthew tweaks Mark’s version of this saying. In Mark 2:22, the call is for both new wine and new wineskins. Matthew adds, “so both are preserved.” It seems that this writer wants to preserve a measure of continuity, even though this further word provokes ambiguity. Perhaps he is saying that the old can be preserved only by means of the new.
Usually, we focus on the new wineskin, a metaphor for what contains the gospel, and we spend a great deal of time talking about the forms our churches and ministries will take. I wonder whether reflection on new wine might be more profitable for us at this time of inflection for schools, churches and denominations? We expect the wineskin to flex, but does not wine also elude rigidity?
People are thirsty for the new wine of experiential practice rather than theoretical abstractions. A man in my Sunday school class recently asked, “Why don’t we get more help with our spirituality at church?” He was interested in deepening the practice of his faith.
There is also thirst for the new wine of ethical impact. Younger adults want to know what difference faith communities are making in the world. What are the concrete outcomes of mission giving? Better yet, how might they get involved in transformative action? In the urgent humanitarian crisis assembling on America’s southern border, some church groups are investing resources and personnel to alleviate suffering. What if every congregation would take in one family unit? We could say: “We will take care of these children; you, the government, find a way to make it legal.” I imagine if the church were to take such a stand, new credibility would emerge!
I sense also the yearning for the new wine of improvisational faith. Such an approach has a long hermeneutical history. The New Testament writers needed to find new ways to speak of God’s great redemptive project in a groaning world, and they mined not only the Hebrew Bible but also the cultural forms of their epoch.
In a time that begs for a new theology of sexuality, a new theology of creation and a new theology of religious pluralism, the Spirit is prompting improvisation. We revere Holy Scripture; however, might it provide patterns for adaptation more than dogma for all time? James McClendon, arguably the most creative Baptist theologian of the 20th century, wrote: “Doctrine is what the church needs to teach now in order to be the church.” He understood teaching as dynamic, suffused with the improvisatory power of the Spirit.
Improv speaks about an “offer” more than a request. Key questions for Christian institutions are: “What is the coherent set of offerings you are making?” “Does our offering match the real thirst of contemporary folk?”
Finally, a pervasive thirst for the new wine of playful joy characterizes our epoch. Wine and joy are often associated in Scripture, and Jesus is the giver of joy — along with very good wine, according to the Fourth Gospel. It is gift, offered not grasped. As Mary Oliver writes: “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. Joy is not made to be a crumb.” No, joy is bread, to be enjoyed with the new wine.
God is making all things new by gathering up all that has gone before into God’s eschatological future. Wine and wineskins have temporal uses; and God re-creates them for eternal significance. Discerning how the old and new are being transformed together is our challenge, and God has granted us the Spirit and one another for this task.