by Daniel Harrell
How special to mark a 70th anniversary in a church’s life. While the intention is to save some folderol for the 75th, life is short, so let’s go crazy, to borrow a lyric sung often this week, and look for the purple banana, whatever that means, and party like its 1629 (that would be the year of the Salem Covenant we use as Congregationalists to unite with new members). We give thanks to the Lord for his goodness.
If, as the Scriptures teach, a thousand years are as a day to the Lord, seventy years is but the blink of an eye. But blink by blink, as Arthur reminded, “the great constant is the power of the Spirit. And the heart of Love.”
It is the heartbeat of the Holy Spirit that sustains our life together in a day when so many churches like ours are on life support. I’ve shared the grim statistics. 5000 churches shut down every year. Thousands of people leave churches every day. While at Fuller Seminary on sabbatical (thank you again for that gift), there was a lot of hand wringing over the dying white North American church. We struggle to survive and attract new members. We rejigger our identities for the sake of relevance. We design flashy programs and funky websites and whatever else we can do to get attention and prove we still matter. We implant show business ideas from Hollywood, download business ideas from Wall Street, cozy up to Washington for influence and power, but have too often forgotten our filters. Worship ends up a stage production in search of applause, church mission gets measured by monetary profit and loss, righteous objection to privileged power gets sacrificed to a Christian civil religion not worth its salt.
While in Los Angeles, a megalopolis of immense and sprawling multicultural diversity, my Christianity came under scrutiny. I’d introduce myself as a minister at “Colonial Church,” and internationals and racial-ethnic others in particular would stare at me with wide-eyed puzzlement and sometimes disdain. Is this a joke? A middle-aged white man, without a hint of irony, saying he’s the minister of a church brazenly named for the imperialist, racist exploitation of native peoples and lands? “Why not just call yourselves Apartheid Baptist or White Supremacy Presbyterian?” I’d sheepishly explain we are neither baptist nor presbyterian (ha ha). And that our name derives from colonial New England congregationalists passionate for religious freedom and the gospel. “Oh, you mean the congregational colonists who decimated the Wampanoag Indian tribe in Massachusetts and Rhode Island and sold their women and children into slavery?” “No, no, we’re in Minnesota,” I’d say, “and we are decidedly postcolonial.” I must have had this conversation a dozen times.
The history of the church, and of any particular church, celebrates chapters of faithfulness and accomplishment, but there are invariably chapters of failure and sinfulness too. Our integrity as witnesses to gospel power displays in these darker pages through repentance, rebirth and reconciliation. Redemption demands we die to our old ways for the sake of new life. New wineskins are needed for new wine to fill.
Wineskins were storage bags made of leather. Pressed grapes fermented inside and expanded, stretching the skins. Old wineskins, stretched to capacity already, could never hold a new vintage. Using an old skin for new wine made no more sense than ripping a piece of cloth from a new pair of pants to patch your old work clothes. Of course, this being a parable, Jesus’ point was neither clothing repair nor fermentation. The context was the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus’ questionable behavior. A privileged religious class if there ever was one, the Pharisees demanded to know of Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” and “Why don’t you and your disciples fast and pray like good Christians should?”
Jesus gave oblique answers to both questions: only sick people need doctors and you don’t fast during weddings. He then went on to muddle things more by talking about old pants and old wineskins. The traditional interpretation paints the old-fashioned Pharisees in a corner—protective of power, stuck in their structures, resistant to change—they were old skins unworthy of the new wine of the gospel. Too full of themselves to be filled with the spirit. Jesus turned over their tables, upended their self-righteous rules and regulations for the sake of real relationship with God. Temple Judaism was doomed, Jesus said. Not one stone would be left on top of another. Thousands of churches shut down every year. Old ways and old wineskins won’t work. Change has to happen if our mission is more than merely survival. We guard what we love. And yet love also lets go. The way forward will suffer disappointment and loss. But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. We walk by faith not by sight.
Fuller Seminary practical theology professor (and friend of Dave Williamson) Tod Bolsinger draws a comparison to Lewis and Clark. According to old maps, the famous tandem’s nineteenth century expedition in search of a Northwest Passage to the Pacific should have led them to discover a Columbia River running from the Continental Divide all the way to the sea. Having packed canoes and paddles, Lewis and Clark planned an easy float downriver to Portland. What they ran into instead was the Rocky Mountains. How did those not make the map? What were they supposed to do with their canoes?
Old wineskins won’t work. You don’t patch old clothes by ripping up your new pants. You can’t paddle canoes over mountains. For Lewis and Clark, heeding their mission meant ditching their boats and going off the map. They saddled up horses and recruited a Native American teenaged mother named Sacagawea to lead them, her baby strapped to her back. The mountains American churches face do not mean the end of true religion—Jesus said genuine faith can move mountains. But some things, mercifully, do have to die. True religion cannot survive as civic assumption and majority rule. Christians worship a Savior crucified by privileged power. While majority white churches show steep decline, growth is strong among racial-ethnic minorities, among the marginalized and disenfranchised, people with whom Jesus has always done his best work. What will soon be true demographically in America is already becoming true among churches.
We must override the instinct to self-preservation with holy curiosity and adventure—with fear and trembling we must continually ask, could God be doing something different?
Then again, that’s the thing about Jesus. As soon as we’re sure we know what he’s doing, he seems to be doing something else. His parables are never as straightforward as we tend to interpret. Here in Luke’s account of new wine and new wineskins, Jesus tacks on a caveat. “No one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” If this extra line in Luke is simply a reiteration, you’d interpret it to mean people resist newness because the old wine is just fine. But what if Jesus meant something different? After all, old wine is fine, and most often better than any new vintage, its quality proven by age. As Son of David and Israel’s Hope, Jesus did not come so much to make new as to renew ancient bonds already forged. “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” he insisted, “I’ve not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus came to keep vintage promises made to Abraham and Moses, to restore relationship and redeem life as intended to be lived before humans so badly messed everything up by thinking they knew better than God. “Woe to you Pharisees,” Jesus thundered, “you load people down with extra burdens, new burdens too hard to carry and then don’t lift a finger to help them.” “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he said. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
New wine is usually not very good. It’s yet to be proven by age. The best change takes time and rightly recognizes and preserves what is precious and essential and worthy of losing everything else. Forcing new wine into old wineskins spills the wine and bursts the skins. You ruin everything.
Lewis and Clark were young and adventurous explorers; their discovery of new pathways a rediscovery of mountains billions of years old. Their expedition over these mountains was a tribute to courage, creativity, curiosity and a commitment to mission. But the idea for doing it came from a senior citizen, President Thomas Jefferson, who for all his visionary passion had never traveled more than fifty miles west of the Shenandoah Valley. Now Jefferson was an ambivalent believer, a slave-holder and as eccentric as a two-dollar bill (on which I think he’s still being kept), but his passion inspired a next generation to go where he had never been and would never go. How much more, then, will the proven power of God’s eternal spirit inspire this congregation into its next seventy years? We go where God already waits for us. Old wine is good, but you never know until you drink it.
Colonial Church must override any instinct to cellar fine wine. Uncork it and let the courage, creativity, curiosity and adventure of the Holy Spirit pour into our postcolonial future—redolent with ancient notes of faith, hope and love—the ever-new covenant in Christ’s blood shed for us, intensely flavored with grace and drinkable now.