Old and new wineskins: Wells Vineyard Nov 08

Alison Morgan

Reading Luke 5. 33-39


We are looking at the parables of Jesus. Today we are going to focus on the one about old and new wineskins. I have chosen this one because I actually think itís a really important parable for our times. Iíd like to start by telling you a bit about what I do, because I think thatís as good a way as any into the parable and what it means for us today.

My job

I work for an organisation called ReSource. Itís been going since 2004. Itís an Anglican charity, and we work mostly but not exclusively with the Church of England, basically trying to encourage local churches to depend on the Holy Spirit and to become effective at reaching out with the gospel to their communities. I do a lot of writing Ė whenever people say we need something on a certain topic, we try to provide it. We produce a magazine Ė this one is on Confidence in the Gospel -, booklets on different topics to do with the Christian life Ė Evangelism, Knowing Godís love, Who is Jesus -, and material for use in groups. Iíve just finished a new healing course, with John Woolmer who used to be a vicar in Shepton. Iíve put out some of our stuff over there so you can have a look at it.

But we also travel about the place a lot, speaking at conferences, working with groups of ministers and helping individual churches think about their mission and ministry.

Why do we need to do this? Whatís the problem? Well, itís here. In 1904 on any given Sunday youíd have found 33% of the population in church. Ever since then church membership has been declining. This is the current situation, across all types of church. The best areas are the dark blue ones, where 7-9% of people attend church regularly. The pale green areas have 5-7% attendance, and the dark green ones less than 5%. White is Wales, which is a case all on its own Ė and you really donít want to live in Hull. Somersetís in the middle category. That means that if in Wells there are 10,000 people, probably something like 500 of those go to church. 9,500 donít Ė and most of them probably have absolutely no idea what either the church or the gospel is all about.

The problem seems to be that we are living in a world which is very different from how it was in 1904. Itís changed a lot since then, and itís still changing faster than it has done for hundreds of years. And if we want to be effective, if we want to find ways of making the gospel available to people who havenít heard it and donít know they need it, then we need to make sure we are changing too. And surprisingly enough, this was exactly the situation in Jesusí time. He too was born into a fast changing society, and he had a lot of radically new things to say about what that meant Ė about how to live life and what it was all about, and about how something new and different was available. Thatís why this parable is so helpful.

So letís start about looking at our own world. This is how I usually summarise the way the world has changed in our lifetimes.

Between the 18th and the 20th centuries we lived in a period which we now call modernity. Modernity was all about science and technology, about systems and patterns. People worked for big companies, everyone knew what was expected of them, and life was very predictable. It was a Janet and John kind of world. There wasnít much choice. What did that mean for the church? Well, the church was really good at fitting in with this predictable world Ė you came to a service and you knew exactly what to expect, and you got it. But now we donít live in modernity any more, we live in postmodernity. People donít want to be the same, they want to be different. They donít want to be told what to do and how to live, they want to experiment. Just take clothing Ė 100 years ago weíd all have been dressed in the same things, now no two of us are wearing the same clothes.

slave3 michelangelo web gallery of artdavid - web gallery of artThis is how I sum it up. These are 2 statues by MichelangeloÖ



Which do you prefer, find more moving? I think they are a brilliant picture of our changing world.

So if one thingís clear, itís that we have to be adaptable. Various people have done lots of research with people who donít go to church, and it turns out that most of them are interested in spiritual things. They do have spiritual questions. They are experimenting with all sorts of things to find the answers to those questions Ė youíve only got to walk down Glastonbury High Street or even read the notice board in the market square here to find that out. They just donít expect to find the answers to those questions in the Christian church.

So the question for us is, what are we doing about it? We believe we have the answers to life, the universe and everything in it Ė and yet there are only 50 of us here this morning! Where are all the rest, the other nine thousand and something?

Iíve spent a lot of time looking at church history. If you look at different historical periods, you find that sometimes the church has grown, and sometimes itís declined. For it to grow, two things have to be true:

1.       The world around it has to be changing Ė itís when things change that people have questions

2.       The church has to be responding to those changes in an effective way Ė we have to show that we have answers

I like this sign:



The teaching of Jesus

OK so letís start by looking at whatís going on here. Jesus is in Galilee, and people have come from all over to hear him. One who has come is paralysed, and when his friends lower him through the roof into the house where Jesus is teaching, Jesus forgives him his sins and then heals him. After the meeting Jesus leaves the house and goes to the tax office, where he tells the despised tax man to follow him. The tax man does; and not only that, he puts on a big feast for all his friends and invites Jesus to it.

At this point the Pharisees can contain themselves no longer. Jesus is breaking too many rules. Not only does he equate himself with God by offering to forgive someoneís sins, he then goes off to a party with a bunch of tax collectors. Tax collectors were almost by definition corrupt, and were shunned by all respectable people. Look, they say. You set yourself up as religious. Really religious people, like John, and us, encourage their followers to fast and pray - and yours are at the 19th hole with a bunch of conmen. Whatís going on?

So what does Jesus say? Well, he tells some stories. He had a really annoying habit of doing this, actually. What would you say if you met the Son of God? Well, thereíd be a lot of things you wanted to know, so youíd probably ask him a lot of questions. And thatís what people did. But the problem was, he never gave a straight answer. Youíd think it was the ideal opportunity, wouldnít you, to pin God down, get him to explain things properly, to ask all those questions that canít be answered by Google.  But he never did. Heíd either ask a question back, or heíd tell you a story. Someone did a count in the gospel of Mark. He found that there are 67 episodes with conversation, and in 50 of them itís Jesus who is asking the questionsÖ

But here we donít get questions, we get parables.


What is a parable?

Letís just spend a couple of moments thinking about what a parable is. We tend to assume that a parable is a story used for teaching purposes. It uses images and examples from everyday life, and helps people to understand complicated concepts in ordinary language. So we learn about loving our neighbour from the story of the Good Samaritan, we learn about evangelism from the parable of the sower, and we learn about Godís care for us from the stories of the 99 sheep or the prodigal son. Itís not that much different from say the fables of Aesop. Have you read those? Do you remember the one about the oak and the reed, for example?

Hereís the illustration from a book I had when I was a child. The oak was big and strong, and used to laugh at the weak reed, saying you wonít last long! One night there was a great storm. The reed bent and tossed in the wind all night. In the morning it was fine. But the oak, which had refused to bend, had cracked at the base and was completely destroyed. A simple story with a simple message Ė it doesnít pay to be too proud; a bit of willingness to bend pays dividends.

But Jesusí parables arenít meant to be like that. Jesusí parables werenít comfortable stories Ė you didnít get crucified for telling simple, helpful stories. Jesusí parables were something else. They were meant to make you think about the whole of life a different way. They werenít comfy illustrations, they were revolutionary challenges to the status quo.

Weíve just been on holiday to Exmoor, and I spent the week reading a Russian poet called Anna Akhmatova. She lived through all the difficult bits of Russian history during the 20th century Ė two world wars, and the crackdown by first Stalin and then his successors on the countryís thinkers and writers. All she was was a poet. But you can use poetry to ask questions, pass comment, and above all point to the fact that things could be done differently. They banned her poetry, and between 1924 and 1940 she couldnít publish it. She carried on writing, and got 12 friends to memorise some of her more dangerous stuff. Her husband, also a poet, was executed by firing squad, and her son  was carted off to a labour camp. But still she carried on writing. Writing poetry and telling stories isnít just what you do for children at bedtime. It can be so dangerous it gets you killed. Thatís the kind of stuff Jesus was producing in his parables.

So Jesus doesnít give the Pharisees a straight answer to their question. Instead, he offers three comparisons. They all have the same function. Not to clear up a misunderstanding, but rather to produce an enormous challenge.

Old and new wineskins

So letís look at them.

Letís remind ourselves of the Phariseesí question Ė why are you and your disciples drinking and celebrating instead of fasting and praying? Let me just show you where they are coming from Ė how does this strike you?

But Jesus doesnít answer the question. Instead he offers three illustrations. He starts by telling a story about a wedding feast. ĎYou cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? Theyíll fast when heís gone.í

The comparison seems simple. Sometimes itís good to fast, other times itís good to eat and drink. Like for example, at a wedding.

The problem with this story is that it isnít just a story. Weddings and bridegrooms are symbols the Pharisees are used to, and they have a certain meaning. The image of the bridegroom was traditionally used to represent Godís union with his people (eg Ezekiel 16; Hosea). Now if Jesus is saying heís the bridegroom, heís practically saying heís God. That this is what everyoneís been waiting for, that fasting was fine while waiting but now heís turned up partying is the name of the game. And if God has come in the person of Jesus, that means the Pharisees, the religious teachers, are out of a job. No wonder they were cross.

But he doesnít stop there. ĎNo one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old.í Weíre still in the world of weddings, but once again the comparison has overtones. In the Old Testament the universe is often compared to a garment which will wear out - Psalm 102 says Ďthe heavens will wear out like a garmentí. Itís a traditional metaphor for the end of a world order (Psalms, Isaiah). So again, Jesus isnít talking just about the best kind of way of patching your overalls when they get a hole in them. Heís saying that everything is changing. A new world is on its way. From now on, things are going to be different.

And then, still sticking to the party theme, he moves on to the wine. And like bridegrooms and garments, it turns out that wine too has a long-established symbolic meaning. In the Old Testament wine is something good, itís the vehicle of health and new life. You get it after a lot of hard work to grow the grapes, press them and ferment them. And you use it, again, not to drink at home alone, but for big celebrations. We need a party, Jesus is saying: Iím here. Something new is on offer to you. And itís on offer not just to you religious teachers who have all the power and try and tell all these poor people what to do all the time Ė itís on offer to them. To the ones who canít read and write and pay their temple taxes. You canít put this kind of stuff in your old traditional containers. Itís time for change.

So can you see why they didnít like him? Not only does this man assault tradition in his words and behaviour, but when asked to justify himself he does so using the very language of that tradition. When accused of insulting God in his behaviour, he claims with one phrase after another to actually BE God.

So thatís the Pharisees. But what about the bewildered audience, the ordinary people? If youíd been there, what would you have made of this furious argument in religious language?


When I was first thinking about this parable of the old and new wineskins I thought Iíd better try and find out something about how you actually make wine, and what Jesus meant when he said you canít put new wine in old wineskins. I have a friend called Fiona. When we were students, Fiona used to take me on wild tours of the vineyards of Bordeaux and Tuscany. She hasnít stopped drinking since, and now sheís a Master of Wine, and works for a company called Bottlegreen.com.  As the learned theologians who wrote all the commentaries I consulted werenít much help on wineskins, I emailed Fiona. Whatís the problem with putting new wine in old wineskins, I asked? This is what she said. ĎItís all to do with hygiene. Old wine skins will have built up acetobacter, which makes wine vinegary, and also other spoilage yeasts, microbes, and so on. A skin is impossible to sterilise, so only a poor shoddy winemaker would put his clean new wine in a dirty vessel.í There follow various rude remarks about Italians using old barrels.

So here Jesus is stating the obvious. You donít put new wine in old wineskins. They knew that. He also says you donít patch an old garment with a piece of material youíve cut out of a new one - youíd wreck the new one, and it wonít match anyway. Thatís pretty obvious too.

The kingdom of God

If we look at these three little stories we see they are all saying the same thing. Thereís old, and thereís new. Something really important is happening. Everythingís changing. Have a party! Wear your new clothes, donít used them to patch the old ones! Get rid of your old wineskins and make new ones! The old clothes and the old wine represent a whole world order, a whole way of looking at life - the way upheld by the Pharisees. Jesus on the other hand is the new wine. He brought a new way of looking at the world, at the human condition, and at God. What do we call it?......

We call it the gospel. What does that mean? It just means good news, ordinary news, the kind of news that you could put on the front page of the newspaper. And the good news is that the world was no longer the way the religious people said it was. Relating to God wasnít going to be about keeping their religious rules. It was going to be done another way, and furthermore in a way that called for a party. Strong stuff.

The kingdom of God

If we look at these three little stories we see they are all saying the same thing. Thereís old, and thereís new. Something really important is happening. Everythingís changing. Have a party! Wear your new clothes, donít used them to patch the old ones! Get rid of your old wineskins and make new ones! The old clothes and the old wine represent a whole world order, a whole way of looking at life - the way upheld by the Pharisees. Jesus on the other hand is the new wine. He brought a new way of looking at the world, at the human condition, and at God. What do we call it?......

We call it the gospel. What does that mean? It just means good news, ordinary news, the kind of news that you could put on the front page of the newspaper. And the good news is that the world was no longer the way the religious people said it was. Relating to God wasnít going to be about keeping their religious rules. It was going to be done another way, and furthermore in a way that called for a party. Strong stuff.

Gospel today

Well, that was 2000 years ago. What are we meant to make of it today?  

Someone once observed that there are 2 ways to study a cat. You can put it down on a dissecting table, take it apart and label the parts. That gives you all sorts of information about it. I remember doing this as part of my A level biology course, except we did rats and frogs, not cats. Thatís one way of finding out what makes a cat tick. Then thereís a second way. You can put a mouse down in front of the cat and see what happens. Which way will give you a better feel for what a cat is like?

Thatís what itís like with the parables of Jesus. We can cut them up, look at the imagery, consider the context, compare them with the culture: or we can put them down in front of our own world and see what happens. In telling a parable Jesus was deliberately not giving his hearers a load of information. He was giving them a challenge. The parables never tell you what to do: they always make you think.

In a parable the ordinary world goes haywire, and you have to think why. Of course I donít cut up new clothes to patch old ones. Of course I prefer seasoned claret to last seasonís sharp new stuff, and of course when people round here make cider they donít put it into dirty bottles. Thatís obvious. So a parable isnít a homely illustration which makes a simple point. You have to ask, whatís behind this? How does it apply to me, to us? A parable is a question waiting for an answer, an invitation waiting for a response. So whatís the question for us, whatís the invitation?


Well, you might think that itís my job to tell you that. Iím supposed to have studied this passage so I can tell you what it means, what to think about it and how to live by it. But if you look at the parables of Jesus, that is exactly what he didnít do. The parables never tell you what to do; they always make you think. To tell us what to do would have been to offer a new set of rules in place of the old ones. Jesus could have given us a list of bullet points or a sheet of instructions, but he didnít. He chose this weird topsy turvey story approach. Why - because parables arenít there to correct our thinking, they are to challenge it. A parable is a signpost. It is not the destination.

So what are we to think about? Whatís Jesus wanting to challenge here, today, for us?

I think perhaps there are two things for us to think about.

1.   A question for you Ė is this stuff making a difference to your life?

2.   A question for us Ė what does this story say to us about the way we do church?


Firstly, a question for each one of us. Are you drinking the new wine, or have you without realising it slipped back into pouring yourself a glass of the old? Have you had an invitation to the party, or are you still trying hard to live by the rules? Do you look and feel quite different from how you did before you met Jesus, or has it all slithered backwards for you? What difference has it made for you to be invited into the kingdom of God? Have your values changed, or do you still think the same way about things as your non-Christian neighbours? Do you use your money in the same way as the they do, or are your values different  from theirs? Is there unresolved pain in your life, as their is in theirs, or has the gospel changed that for you? What are your ambitions, and which world do they belong to, the world the telly and the papers tell you about, or the upside down world of the parables? Whatís your life all about? To reduce it to a single question, if people didnít know you were a Christian, would they guess?


And then thereís a question for us together, as the church. If we want to do something about those statistics we started off with, if we want to make the gospel accessible to the 9500 people in Wells who still think itís all about keeping religious rules and attending boring services, how are we to set about it? Is there anything we need to do differently?

Now you might say, look, we are doing things differently. It says so on the notice we put outside every week Ė ĎVineyard, doing church differentlyí. Vineyard is a great name, isnít it Ė all about new wine. But letís just think for a moment not about the word Vineyard but about the word church. Whatís a church? What does the word church mean? Is it about the building? Doing church differently Ė how different do you want to be? Does it make us different that we meet here in a Sports Hall instead of sitting in a medieval building on pews? Does it make us different that we sing modern songs instead of old hymns? Or might there be more to it than that?

The word church is an interesting one. In English it derives from the old Anglo-Saxon word circle. In Greek it just means Ďpeople who are called outí Ė e-cclesia. We are called out from the world in order to live a different way. Don and Lynn have an ambition to reach out to the community and invite others in too. How can we get behind them and do that? How can we make sure we are a group of people who look as though we are having a party? What can we do to make sure those 9500 people know they are actually invited to the party, and that the host is Jesus? What are your ambitions for this church?

So what about us? In your own life, are you looking just to feel a bit better, to make sense of life a bit more efficiently, to have nicer friends? And in our church, are we wanting just to sing better songs in a more contemporary building? Or are we really wanting to take hold of everything Jesus has for us, and walk into a new life and a new way of living? What kind of stories do you want to listen to Ė Aesopís fables, or Jesusís parables?



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