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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

New wine (Luke 5:37-39)

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, “The old is better.”

I know nothing about wine. I know some is red and some is white, but I haven’t a clue what the difference is between a Shiraz and a Merlot (even those names sound more like characters from fairytales to me). I have been known to drink the occasional glass of wine, but I’m virtually teetotal most of the time except for the tiny sip of red wine I take once a week when celebrating communion. What I’m saying is that I wouldn’t have a clue what good wine is. I’m not the kind of person Jesus envisages in this brief parable.

In the culture Jesus inhabited, wine was a staple of the diet, partly because water was unsafe and partly because grapes grew abundantly in the climate. Wine wasn’t supplied in glass bottles, but in containers made from animal skins. Over time the skins would become brittle and inflexible. The problem with reusing them once they reached this state was that wine, at least in those days, continued to ferment and some flexibility was needed – a bit of stretch – for it to expand without bursting the skins. To put new wine into old, inflexible skins would be crazy – they would burst and the wine would be wasted!

The new wine is Jesus’ teaching and the new life He brings – the new kind of relationship with God through the Holy Spirit that He made possible. The old wineskins are the patterns of worship among the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Jesus wasn’t necessarily criticising those forms of worship. God had given a system of worship through Moses that guided the people towards faith and obedience and allowed them to discover dependence on God for forgiveness through sacrifice. It forged them into His covenant people. It was good! It was new at one point and perfectly appropriate for the old wine that was kept in it. Of course, later teachers had added to the Law all sorts of excessively burdensome regulations, keeping people away from God instead of helping them towards Him. Undoubtedly that helped the old skins become more brittle and less flexible. But the real problem wasn’t that the old skins were bad, it is just that they couldn’t accommodate the new wine Jesus was bringing. The patterns of worship for Jesus’ disciples, the Church, needed to be different because God was doing something new.

What can we learn today? Jesus’ image is applied by some Christians to other churches – older churches whose forms are inflexible and can’t accommodate what God is doing today by His Spirit. Although I have some sympathy with this – I think we can make church inflexible by elevating our own traditions to a level with God’s Word or by importing ideas about worship that really belong in the Old Testament – I can’t help but be troubled. Do those who use the image this way really mean that the churches they are criticising don’t have Jesus or the Spirit at all? I don’t think Jesus was saying that every new generation needs new wineskins, in a never-ending cycle of change. I do think He was saying that His coming was a radical break with what went before. Not a complete break, by any means – He fulfilled the Old Testament and (remember the previous post) the old treasures are still ours – but a genuine beginning of something radically new.

The image of the new wine shouldn’t lead us to judge other Christians, who share our faith in Jesus, as deficient. We need a little more humility and openness to test whether our experiences are really the work of the Spirit and, if they are, how He wants us to respond to them. What the story of the new wine does remind us is how thankful we should be for Jesus and how we need to reform our own practices to keep Him, His gospel and the essence of what it means to be His people at the centre of our lives individually and together in the Church. The New Testament does give us some important guidance if we want to do that. It may not provide a pattern for everything your church wants to do, but it does tell us what are the most important things that churches should do so that we can keep them at the centre – baptising, breaking bread, sharing life together in mutual care, taking sin seriously, teaching the Word, sharing the gospel, gathering together to use our varied gifts as the Spirit leads to build one another up for life and mission.

There is, however, a tragic ending to this parable. Jesus continues to say that people who have drunk the old wine will reject the new wine. Notice He doesn’t say they will do this through a process of careful consideration – swirling in the mouth, spitting out and comparing bouquets (whatever those are!) They don’t even bother to taste the new wine because they assume the old must be better. Vintage wine is best, surely. In any case, their system of worship carried the best brands possible – from Chateau Dieu (God’s throne-room) and the slopes of Sinai. What better wine could this Nazarene carpenter possibly offer? In their passion for God’s older words and Laws they missed the presence of God in their midst in Jesus. The people we encounter aren’t likely to be in that category, unless you live in close proximity to an Orthodox Jewish community, but they do have their drink of choice. Some other system of belief that they are convinced is better than the new wine you are offering. Our lives need to overflow with the effects of the new wine – to be filled with the Spirit in such a way that His fruit of love, joy peace, etcetera is evident to all. In our churches we need to demonstrate that He is at work in us, creating the kind of family that people wish they had and guiding us to a life that is more concerned with God’s glory than our own comfort. We need to celebrate the new wine and encourage others, who think their old systems of belief are superior just because they are familiar, to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good!

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