He told them this parable: “No one tears a piece out of
a new garment to patch an old one. If they do,
they will have torn the new garment, and the patch
from the new will not match the old.
And people do not pour new wine into old wineskins.
If they do, 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 none of you, after drinking old wine, wants the new,
for you say,‘The old is better.’
Moses and the law are prominent in the background of Luke chapter 5. The Pharisees are keen to see that Jesus reinforce the familiar ways – ways that have sustained them as a people, but also have kept the religious leaders in control.
The chapter opens with Jesus choosing and calling his disciples. Immediately (5:11) they are asked to leave the familiar and safe ways behind, and go forward with Jesus into an unknown future.
That theme reappears at the end of the chapter in the parable of the wineskins. Actually, there are three metaphors here under the heading of one parable:
The metaphor of patching an old garment, mixing old and new
The metaphor of new wine in an old wineskin, dangerous and counter-productive. Risks the loss of the wine (new life) and the skin (the structure)
The metaphor of old wine versus new, the familiar versus the unknown and untested
The basic question in this chapter is this: what relationship does grace have to Law? And what relationship does the law have to the gospel? I want to answer these questions not with reference to that narrow theological grid, but with reference to structures and systems. Structures and systems we can reference as creational design. We rationalize, strategize, and design these things. What is less amenable to design is the human element that flows within the structures. The relationship in question, then, is between life and the form it takes, between Spirit and form, and sometimes, between design and emergence.
In bringing renewal to existing structures, we concern ourselves with both Word and Spirit. But the emphasis is on Spirit: the life that fills the structure, the “new wine.”
The first warning Jesus offers is that old and new don’t mix. He offers that mixing old and new is damaging on both sides. The new pattern or system will be limited by old ways; and the old pattern or system can’t incorporate the new. It’s a good summary of the nature of paradigm shift. Paradigms don’t build on each other, they replace each other.
The second warning Jesus offers is that old wineskins can’t hold new wine. Old forms are not really renewable: rather, they must be replaced. Trying to cram new life into old structures risks the loss of both. The contrast tells us that the forms are less important than the function. New forms and new methods arise periodically, and although they look very different than old forms, they take us to the same goal. Humanly, we get caught up in the forms and the feel of the familiar. One of the gifts new forms and methods offer us is that we remember WHY we are doing what we are doing: they help us refocus on purpose.
The third warning Jesus offers is that the familiar will always seem better to some of us. Where this is most easily tested is in musical styles. I grew up with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, the Beegees and the Stones. Harmony is important to me. In church music I was heavily immersed in the Vineyard sound. The Gaithers left me cold. There are a handful of old hymns that I love; the rest put me to sleep. Certain sounds and styles just feel more spiritual, relative to the culture we were raised in. There is no reference to truth here – just to cultural fit. And culture is powerful. It will always be easier for me to connect in worship with a style that fits my cultural preferences.
It’s important to recognize this, because we have to create space for different cultural styles. We want to let the new come, without destroying the old.
At the same time, community leaders face a human limitation: the more energy we put into maintaining the old systems and structures, the less time and energy we have to invest in the new. Everyone has their favorite projects and programs. For many, these are programs that are invested with deep meaning because they are rooted in a golden past. But few of these programs will offer life to a new generation.
And it’s the new that holds the future. Spirit wants to bring renewal. If we are busy patching old things, we are going to make a few people happy, but also limit what God can do among us. The more energy we invest in old forms, the less energy we have to invest in the future.
Our energy and focus has to be on those areas that hold promise for the future. New forms will look very different than the old forms, and this will make some of us uncomfortable. The process of discovering the new forms can also be taxing. Much of our learning comes by experiment, and that means trial and error. But none of us likes to see an effort fail, and if we aren’t making mistakes, we probably aren’t taking any risks, and that means we aren’t learning.
And there will be some among us who are fine with that. They like the old wine just fine. That’s the force of culture and the familiar.
Some years ago, reflecting on Acts 27, Erwin McManus offered this summary:
Everything is going well – you think you can make it. A huge storm comes up.
Get rid of anything that weighs you down. Get rid of anything that prevents you from creating the future.
They started throwing stuff off the boat that they originally thought they needed.
We’re going to crash, but you’ll accomplish your mission.
What is ahead is not smooth sailing. There is a crash impending. If you are going to advance the Kingdom of God, there is conflict, battle, and pain waiting. Retreat is not an option.
Cut the anchors – blaze ahead.