Jesus stretches his followers’ spiritual skin. Do we resist Jesus’ teaching and way of life, or invite him to stretch us daily as he seeks to pour his new wine into new wineskins? Consider Luke chapter 5, where Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes’ challenge about his disciples eating and drinking rather than fasting:
And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’” (Luke 5:33-39; ESV)
This text came home to me this past weekend at the New Wine, New Wineskins annual retreat as speaker after speaker encouraged and exhorted us to live into Jesus’ beatitudes recorded in Matthew chapter 5. At the retreat, a banker spoke on what it means to be poor of spirit. A professional clown spoke of mourning. A lawyer spoke on meekness. An outreach pastor/engineer working with clean water systems overseas spoke on hungering and thirsting for righteousness. A theologian (though not of the scribal, Pharisaical sort!) spoke on mercy. A diversity consultant who is blind spoke on the pure of heart seeing God. A pastor from Uganda who grew up during Idi Amin’s reign of terror spoke on peacemaking. A student who comes from a diverse background and who often experiences marginalization in her Christian witness spoke on being persecuted for righteousness. Their talks were inspirational and stretching.
However, given that we live in an age marked by confirmation bias, it was no doubt tempting at points for those of us gathered to shut out their words and shut down. It is very easy for all of us to resist God’s Word and remove ourselves from vital Christian community. When we do so, we reveal that our skin is hard and brittle—like old wineskins.
Each of the beatitudes—from “Blessed are the poor in spirit” to “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”—are intended to encourage and exhort us in our pursuit of Jesus. The new wine of Jesus’ teaching requires new wineskins in which to dwell. For example, when we are rich in spirit, that is, confident in ourselves rather than Jesus (See Matthew 5:3), when we wish to be comfortable rather than comforted by Jesus (See Matthew 5:4), when we resist identifying with Jesus in his persecution (See Matthew 5:10-12), we become brittle (as well as lose our saltiness; see Matthew 5:13). We become like old wineskins that cannot be stretched anymore.
To return to Luke chapter 5 where Jesus speaks about his ministry in terms of new wine and new wineskins, we find Jesus touching a leper and making him whole (Luke 5:12-16) and calling Levi the tax collector to be one of his disciples (Luke 5:27-32). No doubt, those experiences stretched the other disciples he had just called to himself (Luke 5:1-11). Add to these stretching experiences the challenge posed by the Pharisees and their scribes that Jesus’ disciples eat and drink rather than fast and pray (Luke 5:33). In fact, the preceding text reveals that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling over Jesus’ disciples eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (See Luke 5:30). Unlike for the Pharisees and their scribes, the point of reference for Jesus’ disciples is Jesus. When he is taken from them, they will fast and mourn (Luke 5:35). Until then, they rejoice.
Then Jesus shares the parable of new wine and new wineskins. The parable is not about which is better tasting—new wine or old wine. Rather, the parable is about the need to match new wine with new wineskins. Jesus is not going to make his teaching and way of life conform to the Pharisaical tradition, nor even that of John the Baptist (See Luke 5:33). They belong to the old order. The old wineskins of the Pharisaical tradition could not hold Jesus’ teaching and way of life. The new wine of Jesus’ kingdom would burst the old wineskins.
Jesus’ new wine teaching and way of life then and now requires that we continue to allow Jesus to stretch us. Are we like those first disciples he called who, no matter how hard his teaching and way of discipleship were, continued to follow him and allowed him to stretch them? Every day, may we place ourselves before the Lord and ask him to stretch our spiritual skin and shape us as members of his church so that we remain like new rather than grow old and brittle in our discipleship. Jesus, stretch our spiritual skin!