“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, so both are preserved.” (Luke 9: 14-17)
When Jesus speaks the words that are quoted above, he is responding to a challenge set before him by the disciples of John the Baptist in regards to fasting: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds by describing his followers using two unusual images – “unshrunk cloth” and “new wineskins.” In both cases, Jesus is comparing the new life that he has come to offer to the old life represented by the “old time religion” of his day. The Pharisees totally centered their lives on obedience to the law; the followers of John the Baptist totally centered their lives on John’s baptism of repentance. The problem with both the Pharisees and followers of John is that they saw the law or baptism as the complete embodiment of all God was, is, or will be in the world. The God of the Pharisees and the God of the followers of John was not a living God, a God who could do new and surprising things – a God with whom believers could have a relationship.
Jesus speaks of a new life in regards to those who follow him, a new life that he described as “new wine” in the gospel of Luke. In the John’s gospel, Jesus changes the ritual water of Jewish purification into wine at the wedding of Cana, which illustrates once again the new life that the Messiah brings into the world. God’s law and John’s baptism were stepping stones into the new life of Jesus, but life in Christ could not be categorized, summarized, or organized into something under the total manipulation of the sinful human heart. In Jesus, we are dealing with a living other, one with whom we relate in the same way we relate to the others we encounter in our lives each day. We never wake up each day saying. “I know exactly how my day will go… I know exactly who I will encounter.” Yet, we often view our Christianity as a static rather than a dynamic part of our lives. Yes, the church does run on a schedule, but we cannot schedule our encounters with Jesus Christ or the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To say that we worship this hour on this day or we celebrate this season or we practice this sacrament does not mean we confine our Christianity to just those days, seasons, and sacraments.
Authentic Christianity is about one’s heart-to-heart encounter with the living God – a relationship more real, more profound, and more effective than the closest relationships we experience in this world, including husband/wife or parent/child. The “new wine” of which Christ speaks is the new life of living with Christ in the same way that the first disciples lived with their Lord – they spoke to him as he spoke to them; they learned from him every day; they observed the miracle of Christ’s love working in the lives of others, then they shared that miracle by living out Christ’s love in their lives.
As we enter the New Year, Christ invites us to become new wineskins, filled with the Holy Spirit and its meaningful life. Repentance is part of this, as is obedience to the law of Christ’s love and the practices of our worship, but both must only serve to lead us to the center of our faith – our living relationship with the Son of God. With Christ we cannot possibly know what to expect, but we can live in expectation, because every day, every moment, is new and different; every moment we are called to be more like our Lord than the moment before. This is a radical change in our way of thinking and our way of living. It means that we live to change the lives of others. Are we ready for the radical life of being a Christian in 2017? This community is going to need us more than ever – all of us, in all the ways that Christ calls us to serve. If we make this commitment, it will be so much more than a happy New Year – it will provide a joyous new wine for all the lives we touch.