Have you ever wondered what Jesus would be like if he were a pastor today? There might be a few problems. For one thing, Jesus tended to go places that church people don’t like. He hung around the wrong kind of people. I can imagine the deacons saying, “Pastor Jesus, we’re really not trying to be critical, but we saw you going to a pretty loud party. We don’t think you should be going to those parties or hanging around those people.”
Then there’s his teaching. We think it would be great to hear Jesus preach, but think about all the times the disciples had to take Jesus aside and ask him what he was trying to say. Maybe the deacons would get Jesus in the foyer after the morning service and ask, “Pastor Jesus, good sermon, but what were you trying to say? We didn’t understand half of it.”
Jesus did things differently than we do them today. Most pastors tend to be pretty linear and speak in propositional form. In other words, they have an outline, they make points, they build arguments, and they may tell the odd story. Jesus spoke very differently. Mark 4:33-34 says:
He used many such stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they were able to understand. In fact, in his public teaching he taught only with parables, but afterward when he was alone with his disciples, he explained the meaning to them.
Jesus used the everyday world to communicate eternal truths. If Jesus were preaching here today, he’d probably use stories right from everyday life – about the person driving on the 401, about the Blue Jays, politics, shopping. His stories weren’t allegories. They generally made one point, rather than having intricate details that all corresponded to some eternal truth. He occasionally taught in propositional form, but mostly, he told stories.
Once his disciples asked him about this. “His disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you always tell stories when you talk to the people?'” (Matthew 13:10). Jesus’ response was different than we might have guessed:
Then he explained to them, “You have been permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others have not. To those who are open to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But to those who are not listening, even what they have will be taken away from them. That is why I tell these stories, because people see what I do, but they don’t really see. They hear what I say, but they don’t really hear, and they don’t understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)
One of the reasons Jesus told stories was actually to conceal truths. He could speak to a crowd of people, and some would get it, and others wouldn’t. The stories were subversive. John Eldredge writes, “When Jesus comes to town, he speaks in a way that will get past all our intellectual defenses and disarm our hearts. He tells a certain kind of story.”
I want to look at some of the lesser known and understood stories that Jesus told. We’re not going to look at the more commonly known ones – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son. I want to look at those we don’t talk about as often – the wineskin that burst, the house with demons in it. If you have a Bible with you, let’s look at one he told in Luke 5:33-38 today.
Jesus had just finished having dinner at a tax collector’s house. In that culture, tax collectors were financially successful crooks. Probably the closest parallel today would be for Jesus to go to dinner with some members of the Mafia. The religious leaders of the day didn’t like it. They asked Jesus, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Matthew 5:30)
The religious leaders really hadn’t liked John the Baptist when he was around, but now they saw they had an opportunity to use John’s reputation to bash Jesus. They made an accusation in the form of a question: “The religious leaders complained that Jesus’ disciples were feasting instead of fasting. ‘John the Baptist’s disciples always fast and pray,’ they declared, ‘and so do the disciples of the Pharisees. Why are yours always feasting?'” (Luke 5:33)
Jews were supposed to fast once a year. The Pharisees fasted twice a week. They were criticizing Jesus for not being as religious as they and the disciples of John the Baptist were.
To this, Jesus told three stories.
First, about a wedding: “Jesus asked, ‘Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Someday he will be taken away from them, and then they will fast'” (Luke 5:34-45). You’ve probably been to some good weddings – happy occasions with lots of fun. That’s appropriate. You’ve probably been to some boring weddings. Jesus says, “I’m here. If you understood who I am, you would know that this isn’t a time for fasting. This is a time for celebration.”
Second, he talks about patches: “Then Jesus gave them this illustration: ‘No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be torn, and the patch wouldn’t even match the old garment.'” (Luke 5:36). When you patch old clothes with fabric from new clothing, you wreck the new clothing, and you don’t match the old clothing. Both are wrecked.
Jesus didn’t come to patch up the old religious system. If he had done that, he would have ended up destroying his message, and he would have destroyed the old system as well. Jesus isn’t into patching up. That applies to your life as well. He’s not into patching up. He’s into making something completely new. He’s not into slightly improved. He’s into brand new.
Jesus then tells a third story:
And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. The new wine would burst the old skins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be put into new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the fresh and the new. ‘the old is better,’ they say.” (Luke 5:37-39)
Wine was stored in goatskins. The first time a goatskin held wine, the fermentation process would expand the skin. If you tried reusing the goatskin a second time, it would burst. Goatskin was fine once, but then it became rigid and brittle. A winemaker would know not to put new wine into a rigid goatskin. A used skin, already stretched, would break.
This tells us something about Jesus, and about us.
1. Something about Jesus
Jesus came to do something much more significant than to patch up old religious systems or to make us slightly better people. His message and life are too much for old systems and old hearts to hold. His purpose is to bring in something new, something alive, something that old, rigid hearts can’t possibly hold.
Life of Pi is a novel about a spiritually inquisitive boy. His father owns a zoo, which provides some background to understand what happens when Pi talks to a priest about Jesus:
Catholics have a reputation for severity, for judgment that comes down heavily. My experience with Father Martin was not at all like that. He was very kind. He served me tea and biscuits in a tea set that tinkled and rattled at every touch; he treated me like a grown-up; and he told me a story. Or rather, since Christians are so fond of capital letters, a Story.
And what a story. The first thing that drew me in was disbelief. What? Humanity sins but it’s God’s Son who pays the price? I tried to imagine Father saying to me, “Piscine, a lion slipped into the llama pen today and killed two llamas. Yesterday another one killed a black buck. Last week two of them ate the camel. The week before it was painted storks and grey herons. And who’s to say for sure who snacked on our golden agouti? The situation has become intolerable. Something must be done. I have decided the only way the lions can atone for their sins is if I feed you to them.”
“Yes, Father, that would be the right and logical thing to do. Give me a moment to wash up.”
“Hallelujah, my son.”
What a downright weird story. What peculiar psychology.
I asked for another story, one that I might find more satisfying. Surely this religion had more than one story in its bag – religions abound with stories. But Father Martin made me understand that the stories before it – and there were many – were simply prologue to the Christians. Their religion had one Story, and to it they came back again and again, over and over. It was story enough for them.
We sin, we mess up, and yet God sends his Son to be killed by us so we could be forgiven of our sins and adopted into his family. That’s the Story. It doesn’t fit into any old religious system, although they may have hinted at it. It’s too new, too amazing. It’s like new wine.
2. Something about us
This story also tells us something about us. Our hearts, like wineskins, can become rigid and prevent us from receiving what Jesus has to offer. We’re continually in danger of developing hardened hearts.
Forms can’t contain Jesus. Even the best religious system is incapable of fully representing him and his message. God gave a system, and people focused so much on the system that they missed God. They became focused on the rules and the systems and the requirements and missed the whole point. We have a history of doing this. Israel ended up worshiping snakes on poles, treating the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant as lucky charms.
It’s true of us as well. We idealize and maintain a certain way of walking with Christ, and it’s hard to give it up. Our church programs, ministries, and forms can be so rigid that it prevents us from accepting new ways of thinking that Jesus brings. We get stuck without even knowing it.
It’s true of us personally. Our hearts can become rigid and inflexible without us even knowing it. The heart that was so soft to God at one point can quickly become hardened. It happens to all of us.
We’re all creatures of habit. That works in most of life, but habit can, over time, dull our relationships. When our relationship with Jesus Christ becomes one of old habit, we lose intimacy and freshness in our walk with him.
I want to bring this home for us as it touches a number of areas of our lives.
First, about church. I’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks. We were camping and we didn’t even go to church. What we’ve done here today has been so good for me. But we all need to understand that what we’ve done today, as good as it’s been, isn’t the only way. It’s a form. Forms can be good, but a form – even a good form – is not the essence.
I came across these thoughts from, of all people, the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Mission, it’s been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in. And at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, ‘new ways of being church’ or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable. These may vary from the classic church plant model – a new congregation generated by an older one – to the Thursday night meeting for young people once a fortnight, the Sunday evening Songs of Praise in the pub, the irregular but persistent networking with the people you met at Greenbelt or Spring Harvest, the mums and toddlers event on Tuesday morning or the big school Eucharist once a term which is the only contact many parents and friends will have with real worshipping life. All of these are church in the sense that they are what happens when the invitation of Jesus is received and people recognize it in each other….
Can we live with this and make it work? This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre. We need a positive willingness to see and understand all this – and to find the patterns and rhythms and means of communication that will let everyone share the benefits. That’s to say we need ordained leadership which is capable of making and servicing connections between lots of different styles of ‘church’ – leadership which is therefore very clear about theological priorities, not protective of its status, skilled in listening and in interpreting what may seem very different language groups to each other.
When we begin to separate the form from the essence, we begin to be open to what God might be doing outside our own forms and structures.
Second, I think this is a good reminder to be understanding of others. I mean that both ways. I’m learning to be more tolerant of those who like the old forms, because I can see that same rigidity setting in my heart too. I fight it, but it’s still there. It’s also challenge to be open to those who are, as the Archbishop says, on the edges. We need to give them freedom to look for new wineskins, even as we cling to our old ones. We’ll all be on both sides of this tension at some point in our lives.
It’s also a good reminder that we’re living between eras. Jesus has come, and we’ve tasted a little too much of his life to be content with anything less. Yet we haven’t tasted enough. We’ve tasted just enough that we long for more. It’s like the period after I had tasted real milk. I still had to drink powdered milk, but I longed for more. Once I tasted fresh donuts, I didn’t want the day-olds my family had to buy because of finances. We live in that period somebody has called “already but not yet.” We wrestle with forms because we’re trying to capture an essence that isn’t yet ours.
One of the keys to focus on the relationship with Christ rather than the forms. That sounds clich‚, but it works. If you show me a 50-year-old woman who knows the music of Avril Lavigne, I’ll show you a 50-year-old mother of a teenager. If you show me Peter eating unclean food according to the Jewish religion, I’ll show you someone who values listening to the Lord when he speaks. When we focus on our relationship with Christ, we stay open in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise. We see the forms as only that: forms. We go places we might not choose to go, but it’s okay because we’re only following Jesus there.
I want to ask you today to do a heart check. Our hearts get hard without us even knowing it, just as our arteries harden without us ever feeling any pain. I invite you to come today to communion and admit that you’re not the way you used to be, and pray to the one who specializes in softening hardened hearts. Sandy’s going to sing a song. I hope you’ll let it be your prayer.
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to you and dead to me
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is you, your spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of your blood