Holding a wine glass and a peice of cheese the man stood weeping silently in front of a beautiful painting. “It’s broken and it can’t be fixed”, he said with his voice so full of emotion, he was clearly moved by what he saw. The painting was of an old church and it had roofers re shingling over a hole that was being repaired. If he was commenting on what the artist had captured, he was wrong-but he referred to something bigger. To him a patch is not a fix, and this painting wasn’t about a roof it was social commentary on the state of religion. There are times when church feels more holey than holy.
Jesus saw this and tells a curious story to demonstrate the absurdity of broken religion. “No one tears a patch off of a new garment and sews it on an old one” he tells the Pharisees. If you did you would ruin a new one and make an old one look silly. If the point is to preserve something old, there must be a better way than sacrificing what is new. This story Jesus tells is meant to be a parable, so it has a deeper meaning. We easily observe that the religious who are confronting Jesus are defenders of the old, which is broken. These Pharisees are struggling with the choice of people Jesus has asked to follow him. They are uncomfortable with how much fun Jesus seems to be having with these tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus understands this and continues telling another story about making wine.
“No one pours new wine into old wineskins, if he does the old wineskins will burst and be ruined. New wine gets poured into new wineskins” Jesus says. This isn’t something the Pharisees didn’t know already. They would know that wine as it ferments expands and causes the animal skin bags to expand with it. As it ages the wine skin becomes brittle and rigid. These brittle goat skinned wine bags aren’t a problem unless they are empty. New unfermented wine cannot be poured into them again to age because they have no elasticity and cannot expand-they will explode. Religion is like a brittle goat skinned wine bag. Jesus is hoping the Pharisees pick up what he is putting down. The irony is that if the old brittle wine bags contain amazing well aged, full bodied wine then they are of great value. They then can be poured out to celebrate new life like that of Matthew choosing to follow Jesus. But when they are empty and rigid, they are not able to ever contain again something that is alive and growing because they will explode. Faith is more about fermentation than about cementation. It is meant to be alive and ever expanding.
The idea that God would be interested in having a lowlife like Matthew be disciple is too radical an idea for them to be able to accommodate into their rigid religious world. They lived by the strict laws of the Torah and everything was cut and dry. Jesus comes along and complicates their way of life by demonstrating that faith is alive and expanding. Nicodemas a member of the religious elite comes to Jesus at night curious and hungry for what Jesus is offering. But Jesus knows that Nicodemus has a rigid religious belief and would not be able to receive the Kingdom which is alive and expanding. Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again and start all over. In some ways suggesting that he begin to brew a new living faith inside a new living framework. Nicodemus’ current religious framework could not contain the dynamic expanding message of the kingdom of God. Some would argue that faith is all about knowing the absolutes, about cementing in the unchanging ideas of God. While there is truth in that it is not the complete truth. It has been said that the opposite of faith is doubt, this is a lie. The opposite of faith is certainty. To live a life of faith is to live in the tension of doubt. There are times when we struggle with understanding what God is up to, when we question everything we thought we knew. It is in these times that we choose to believe regardless of any evidence, and that requires faith.
In no way is Jesus saying that vintage faith is old and tired, but he is saying that faith that no longer celebrates the mystery of what God is up to, is rancid and flat. Faith desires to be alive and expanding. We need to accommodate its working in our lives, and quit trying to fit it into our concrete forms of religious practices and dogma.
While old brittle goat skinned wine bags cannot be used to ferment new wine, they would be better filled with water. Jesus has demonstrated his ability to turn water into wine. May our prayers and hopes be that our faith stays alive, and we pour it out to celebrate God and what he is up to. In those times when we are stale and dry and have become so religious our wine is more poison than celebration – may we like Nicodemus pour out the toxic ideas and start again and smash our Brittle Goat Skin Wine Bags.