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When I was in college, The Problem of Wineskins by Howard Snyder stirred up lots of controversy. Snyder had the gall to suggest that many common church structures did not adequately contain the new wine of the gospel, and must change. Church folk tended to be unhappy with this book, while collegians like me loved The Problem of Wineskins.
Early in 2007 I had my own, personal problem of wineskins, but it didn’t have to do so much with the church as with my own discipleship. If you’re just now joining this series, let me say that in 2006 I was trying to discern with greater clarity how best to use my gifts for the work of God’s kingdom. I thought this would happen in the context of my being the pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I had served for over fifteen years, and where I had hoped to minister for many more years to come.
Early in January of 2007 I received an impressive packet of information from a leading Presbyterian church on the East Coast. They were looking for a new senior pastor, and asked if I would be a candidate for the position. I scanned their material for a couple of minutes and noted that they were a fine, evangelical church. But I quickly sent a note declining their interest. Leaving Irvine Pres to become pastor of another church, even a larger and more influential one, simply wasn’t something I seriously considered doing.
Meanwhile, I was working my way through the Gospel of Luke in my weekly preaching. The second week in February brought me to Luke 5:37-38, a passage about new wine and old wineskins:
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins.
On Thursday, February 8, I wrote the sermon called, simply, “New Wine.” In this sermon I warned folks about the fatal disease of “Oldwineskinitis,” what which kills churches and debilitates disciples. Echoing the insights I had once learned from Howard Snyder, I called our church to a costly, scary openness to the new wine of Christ and the new wineskins required to contain that new wine. Here’s how I ended that sermon:
Some of you might now be thinking: “Wow, pastor, you’ve stepped on enough toes here today for a year’s worth of preaching. Keep doing this, and you’ll be looking for a new job!”
Indeed, I may. I hope not, of course. But let me be very clear about something: I’m not the wine; I’m just a wineskin of this church. And if there ever comes a time when I’m not the best person to help contain and communicate the new wine of the gospel here, then new pastoral wineskins are needed.
If this sermon leaves you a bit unsettled today, remember that Jesus has been unsettling people for almost 2,000 years. I don’t know how we can honestly and faithfully hear Jesus talk about wine and wineskins without being unsettled. Yet if we offer our unsettledness to the Lord, if we invite Him to be sovereign over our lives and over our church, if we open our hearts to Him, then He’ll pour His new wine into us, the new wine of salvation, the new wine of the kingdom.
And this, my friends, is the point. The new wine is the point. The good news of Jesus Christ is the point. The truth of God’s Word is the point. Loving God, each other, and our neighbors is the point. Changing lives is the point. Making disciples is the point. Restoring God’s creation is the point. The new wine is the point. Everything else is wineskins.
In my excitement over the implications of Christ’s new wine, I wrote more than could be contained in a single sermon. So I took the personal implications of this parable and put them in one of my Pastor’s Letters. Here’s an excerpt from that letter, composed on February 8, edited and mailed on February 12:
In a larger sense, our lives are wineskins for the new wine of Christ. This means that we need to let the new wine renew and transform, not just the obviously religious parts of life, but everything. We need to ask the Lord: How can my work be an effective wineskin for Your new wine? And my marriage? And my family? And my finances? And my professional goals? Etc. etc. etc.
I confessed in Sunday’s sermon that I am by nature a conservative “old winer.” That’s true for my personal life as well as my church preferences. I tend to hold on tenaciously to my favorite wineskins, including those that may have outlived their usefulness. Thus I am challenged to surrender my life to the Lord, to offer to Him all that I am. I realize that doing this is risky, because God may just have plans for me that require new wineskins. In principle I know that God’s plans are always the best. But in practice I’m more comfortable with what’s predictable and familiar. So I find Jesus’s talk of new wine and wineskins to be personally challenging and unsettling. . . .
Your challenge is the same as mine: to surrender to the Lord all of your wineskins and to ask for the filling of new wine. If you do this honestly, I’m convinced that the results will be wonderful. But I’m also convinced that you’ll be called upon to give up some old wineskins and take on some new ones. This is the hard part, the part we tend to resist. So I pray for you, as I pray for myself, that God will give us the freedom to surrender our lives to him, so that He might fit us with new wineskins and fill us afresh with His new wine.
As I wrote this sermon on the Thursday before I preached it, including the portions that ended up in the Pastor’s Letter, I felt unusually passionate. It seemed as if this word about wineskins was exactly what God wanted to say to Irvine Pres as a body, and to each of us as individual believers.
But I had no idea on that Thursday just how much God wanted to say to me about the wineskins in my life, and how He would use this text to change my life in ways I had never imagined. Stay tuned . . . .
Note: My friend and fellow blogging pastor, Mark Daniels, has sensed God’s call to another church after 17 years of pastoring Friendship Lutheran Church. He is blogging about his experience, which is both like and unlike my own. It’s good to see how God works differently in people’s lives. Check out Mark’s fine post. His sofa analogy is a good one.