The Strange Fire that May Be a Church
19 enero 2020, Iglesia Bautista de El Cielito
Buenos días. La gracia y paz del Señor sean con ustedes.
Me pidieron que hoy no infliga mi español en ustedes. Van a escaparlo por la traducción hábil de mi esposa. Sí, es una traducción gratis. No es una coincidencia pura; para esas, me le casaré. Usualmente, recibo mucho por lo que no pagué. You have been warned.
Today, I have chosen for a text the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 2, Verses 18, 19, and 22:
John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and they said to Him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “… No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (NASB)
Let me start by sharing a little of my personal journey. You may know that I was raised Lutheran. Missouri Synod, so fundamental Lutheran. The fundamental Lutherans are very serious about Christian Education. Their Sunday School program may well be second to none, and I was a proud product of it.
One of the Lutheran fundamentals is how the Bible is the ultimate rule for faith and action. So, when I was little, I could not wait to learn to read so that I could read the Bible for myself. By the time I was ten, I had read it cover to cover. I have continued to read it for almost fifty years.
About thirty years in, something very disturbing started to happen. I began to realize that some things in the Bible are different from what I had been taught was in the Bible. I began to realize that, from the perspective of what is written in scripture, I and many other Christians have a weak grasp on even fundamental things: like what is faith, what is baptism, what is the Word, what is evangelism, what is a disciple, what is the church.
Let’s do a quick example. One thing the Bible says is that disciples should be trained to leave.
Don’t believe me? What is the last instruction Jesus gave the first disciples?
“Now go! Now go and make disciples of people that are not yet disciples, teaching them to do everything I taught you to do (including this).”
So what should a church of mature disciples look like?
Empty. Empty, right? If they follow Jesus’ last instruction?
But I’m still here… You’re still here…
You know, most people don’t like school – ask any kid – but here am I, after more than fifty years, still without my diploma. When I think of it this way, it makes me feel very uncomfortable.
So today, I felt led to talk a little about that. To think a little about why we’re here and what we’re doing, particularly in regard to evangelism.
So, getting back to our text. As always, I find it profitable to reflect a little on the passage.
Two groups of people approach Jesus here. One was the Pharisees, who were reformers for religious purity. They were fundamentalists, roughly equivalent to today’s Evangelicals. They frequently criticized the Sadducees, who were the priests that ran the Temple and headed up the religious practices of the Jewish nation.
The other group that approached Jesus were the disciples of John the Baptist. Their perspective was, if anything, even more rigorous – if we remember John’s criticisms of the Pharisees. But in this instance, the two groups agreed that scripture or tradition required a particular religious observance.
They came to Jesus because Jesus’ ministry had been born out of John’s. The very message Jesus preached had been developed by John. (Can anyone tell me what the Gospel, as Jesus preached it, was?)
Jesus had come out of the Baptists (so to speak), so they expected Jesus to adhere to their structure of belief, to stick with the program that they had developed, to keep company with others just like them. In response, Jesus paints this word picture about making wine. Not the best idea when dealing with Baptists, but that’s what the Bible says he did.
I know little about producing alcohol, but the one thing I do know is that the process of fermentation produces carbon dioxide. In a well-sealed container, this causes pressure. If a wineskin were not supple, if it were an old one that has already been stretched to its limit, the pressure could cause a rupture. To avoid ruining everything, then, one puts wine that may still be fermenting into new skins that can be stretched into new, different shapes. Conversely, everything gets ruined if one tries to add new things to old things.
This principle, of course, has enormous implications for all expressions of faith – not just the fast mentioned in the story. It is readily understood that Jesus’ response applied to the whole of the religious movements that the Pharisees and John the Baptist had started, so of course it applies to the religious movement that resulted in our church. Even more generally, Jesus’ illustration raises a question about evangelizing into an existing church. If new people are new wine, what will happen if they are added to a church that has already been stretched by its existing members into a particular shape?
Someone might say, “Oh, it’s no problem accommodating new people!” Oh really? Let us go over some of the peculiarities of our church and remember how old they are…
We are about to celebrate the founding of our church 74 years ago. Our church was started out of the denominational conversion of the Island by American missionaries. For music, these missionaries translated hymns that had been novel in the US a full generation before. These hymns still form a significant part of our worship music. I jokingly call them the greatest hits of the 19th century. One I swear is often used as music in movies about cowboys and the US Civil War of the 1860s. Here, everybody loves them because they sang them as children. But how will someone completely new to church react? Or even the children born into our church? They may normally listen to trap or reggaeton. Chances are, they will look forward to singing our songs no more than we sing medieval monk chants.
Or consider that our church was founded from a movement that started 500 years ago. The Reformation performed an essential service – aligning the idea and practice of Christianity more to its scriptures – but there has been half-a-millennium of experience and discussion since then.
The Reformation was an academic exercise of rationality that took place at the start of an emphasis on a natural perspective. Faith was reduced to an intellectual assent of doctrine. The notion of non-abstract spirits and Luther’s fights with them produce bemused shrugs and psychological explanations. Once I looked up what John Calvin had to say about spiritual gifts. I was shocked to read that he had experienced their power, but he concluded, perhaps rightly, that their place is at Christianity’s frontiers. To this day, in our denomination, we require a recital of doctrine as primary evidence of faith. Contrast this perspective with the evidence that compelled Peter to baptize the household of Cornelius in Acts 10.
Going back to the idea of the frontiers of Christianity, when the Reformation took place, there were almost no non-Christians in Europe. Without anyone to evangelize, the structures that the Reformation developed and passed down do not accommodate evangelism very well. It was focused on improving existing believers; not discipling new ones.
The more recent movement of Pentecostalism, in contrast, was formed in an environment of compelling signs by the Holy Spirit and multiple classes, cultures, and religions. Perhaps it should be no surprise that it has become the fastest spreading expression of Evangelicalism. The older wineskin of the Reformation cannot stretch as well to accommodate.
And there are still older structures in our church that the Reformation left intact. A thousand years before, the explosion of the faith into Europe necessitated rapid mass indoctrination. Archaeology shows that this was accomplished through the construction of large auditoriums with a raised structure in the center, called a pulpit, where one person would instruct large crowds. Perhaps it was a good solution to the emergency, but to this day, most churches and indoctrination are structured the same way. This is not the “feed one another” model the Bible specifies for ongoing church meetings; it is probable that some other structure for a local church might produce a more fitting kind of success.
So, some of the expressions of our faith are very old indeed. This is not to say that the old is or was bad. If anything, most people agree that old wine is better than the new, which tends to be unfinished. But it is important to recognize that wineskins are meant to be temporary. Their purpose is only to carry the wine they are first filled with, and, Jesus implied with his illustration, they are best discarded when that wine is finished.
Every new group or movement of believers must develop local churches and other expressions and solutions of faith. We need to admit that these are most appealing to the believers that develop them. For this reason, churches and movements have a natural life span not much longer than their first adherents. The adjustment new members must make grows with time and the speed with which the world moves on.
You know, this is true even of the new people from inside the church – that is to say, our children. We assume they are attached to the church, but a church and its activities are shaped for the generation that built it. To assume that our children are attached to the church is effectively to assume that they are clones of their grandparents. And then we wonder why they disappear when they can no longer be compelled to come.
After enough time, as Jesus warned, it becomes downright dangerous to add new wine to an old skin. You know, Martin Luther didn’t set out to break from the Catholic church. He just wanted to shift it onto better ground. Moreover, it was ground that was “new” only in the sense that it had been forgotten. That’s why we call what happened “the Reformation” rather than something like “the Revolution” or “the Schism.” But his well-meaning correction exploded with such force that Catholics and Protestants slaughtered one another for centuries. Not to suggest, with the way the Catholic church insisted on its dominion, there was a better way that could have gone down.
I’ve reached the point in my sermon where a preacher typically suggests action steps.
I’ve demonstrated that all of this – the specialized building, we who tarry within its walls, the pulpit, the man up front engaged in a meandering monologue, the years of a sort of talking discipleship without graduation or action – all of this is outside the Bible’s teachings about what a church should be. It is strange fire before the Lord. What does one do about strange fire? I’d be happy to have that discussion.
If we follow the Biblical model and go out and make new wineskins for new wine, new churches of new disciples, we need to release them from all but the Bible’s expectations of what a church looks like. We would do best to discard as much of the old wineskin as possible. The situation and its people are different than 100, 500, or 1500 years ago, and Jesus essentially says here that the shape of a new wineskin is the prerogative of its young congregation.
If we instead continue in the model of bringing new people into our old wineskin of a church, we at least need to be ready to change for them – and for our children. It’s really a disservice, even a betrayal, to invite them but then put our old ways before the new needs and preferences they bring. And even then we have to be ready to run and patch all the holes this inevitably causes. We just have to realize, if there is to be a congregation in this building that will succeed ours, it will require an active denial of ourselves in order to assist in our replacement.
It’s sad to think that something we treasure must pass away. You know, Paul compared the church to a human body. They say that the body largely renews itself every seven to ten years. In this way, the body is able to continue in whatever environment it may find itself. I don’t think my body’s cells think about this, but if they did, I’d hope they’d relish both being a part of my body and being part of sending it onward.
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