Mark 1.14-15; NLT:1 Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. “The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”
The “time promised by God” was when Israel’s god would come back to Israel and reign over the entire creation (see Isaiah 40, Daniel 9, and Malachi 3-4 for example2). When Jesus continued his ministry announcing, preaching, and teaching that the “kingdom (realm) of god [had] come,” the Jews of the first century were thinking of the fulfilment of their story, the completion of god’s story with Israel, that their god was finally coming back to Israel to rule and squash the pagans.
The return of god to Israel can really seen in Luke 19.29ff. Sometimes called “The Triumphal Entry,” it’s the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt. What’s significant about this story is that the coming king is not rejoicing with the people. Instead, Jesus is weeping for them (verse 41). He’s quick to point out the reason for his sorrow - they have gotten the story wrong. Their views of what god’s kingdom should look like were false. God’s realm is not a mirror image of Rome’s where violence and torture are how one does kingdom work (Mark 10.42-44). And because they didn’t understand “the way to peace” (verse 42; NLT), they got what they were clamouring for - a war with Rome that happened about forty years in their future (verses 42-44). Furthermore, notice what Jesus said in verse 44. The reason for their coming calamity was “because [they] didn’t recognize the time of [their] gracious visit from God.”
Now, I say all of this to lead up to what I’m really starting to see in the Gospels - the removal of religious systems. We see this quite clearly in verses 45 and 46, where Jesus clears out the Temple (and even better in the parallel passages; compare Malachi 3.1). We have misunderstood this event. Jesus wasn’t “cleansing” the Temple - that it just needed to be cleaned up and made pure again. No, he was showing that the Temple was now obsolete. The whole system was no longer needed.
Let’s think about this for just a moment. It’s been said that the root meaning of “religion” is “to unite [people] with god.” But, if god, the true god, had finally come back to earth to reign, why would we need to have religious institutions to unite people with god? What would be the point? God would be here! Religious systems would no longer be needed! And who is Jesus? He is Emmanuel - “God with us” (Matthew 1.23; CEB). He is “[the] Word [that] became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1.14; CEB). The same Word that created all that is seen and unseen (compare Genesis 1, with John 1, and Hebrews 1).
Furthermore, Jesus’ confrontation with the “Jewish opposition” wasn’t just limited to them. I see it as an sign to all religious systems. And he most certainly didn’t come on the scene to start his own! He came to inaugurate god’s realm, the New Creation, in the present time. This is how some stories in the Gospels make sense - his stories about the realm (kingdom) of god being like a seed planted that eventually grows as a home for all the birds (Luke 13.19), a woman putting a little yeast in the dough before she bakes it that eventually fills the entire dough (Luke 13.21), why it was then time (and still is) to worship god in spirit and truth and not this place or that (John 4.23-24). These are all signs to those in power, not least to political power, but to religious power as well, that their way of doing things is over. The life of Jesus is about what reconciled humanity looks like when god has fully come and is reigning “on earth as in heaven.”
This leads me (finally) to the story that really sparked this post. The story of the new wine and the new wineskins.
Luke 5.33-38; CEB: Some people said to Jesus, “The disciples of John fast often and pray frequently. The disciples of the Pharisees do the same, but your disciples are always eating and drinking.”
Jesus replied, “You can’t make the wedding guests fast while the groom is with them, can you? The days will come when the groom will be taken from them, and then they will fast.”
Then he told them a parable. “No one tears a patch from a new garment to patch an old garment. Otherwise, the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t match the old garment. Nobody pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the new wine would burst the wineskins, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, new wine must be put into new wineskins. No one who drinks a well-aged wine wants new wine, but says, ‘The well-aged wine is better.’”
This passage has always bothered me. I couldn’t understand the correlation of his story (parable) within the context. But, as I was reading it last week, the connection came rushing to the top. My understanding is that the “new wine” should not be understood as “Christianity.” Again, Jesus is not talking about (nor did he ever talk about) forming a new religious system. The “new wine” is the The Way. The Way of living life with god. The Way of being. The Way of New Creation. It’s the time when god begins reining. And when that happens, the “well-aged wine” - the old way of living - becomes superannuated. Not only that, but the “wineskins” from those “well-aged wines” - the religious systems themselves - are also outdated. The “new wine must be put into new wineskins.” When god began to reign, the old ways of doing things became archaic, no longer necessary. Furthermore, and this is really crucial for me right now, the “new wine” can’t be an added ingredient to the old “wineskins.” If it is, the “wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined.” This means that the whole thing would be a disaster. Nothing would work.
And this seems to be the case with a lot of churches today. People are leaving churches in droves and no one can seem to figure out how to stop it. So many people that still attend are just going through the motions. Others are just going because that’s what one is supposed to do on Sunday morning.3 But for most of them, our churches lack depth. They lack god’s Spirit and power, not to mention mercy and service. And, most importantly, they lack the one thing whereby all creation would know that we follow Jesus - Love.
The reason that our current way of following Jesus isn’t working is it was never intended to; because the New Creation can’t be added into the Old Creation. Just the idea itself - New Creation - gives us the sense that a different thing altogether is taking place. To say it another way, the realm of god can’t be added to existing religious traditions. Furthermore, it can’t be a new religion, either (because religion is to unite people with god). It’s a completely different way of being and, therefore, it must take on a completely new way of doing.
And, more pointedly still, it can’t “emerge” from the existing systems. We can’t take a system that has been made obsolete and add some cool new gadgetry or fancy graphics or modern instruments, ad nauseum, and think that’ll work; that this will speak to future generations. No. A thousand times no. We’ve missed the point. We are missing the point. The birth of Jesus ushered in a completely new way of being, The Way of being. This Way removes the need for religious systems. They should all be thrown away.
Now, someone will say, “You just sound like you’ve had a bad experience in church. What you need is to find a good place where god’s love and grace can heal some of those hurts that are so obvious.”
Actually, most of my personal experiences with churches have been wonderful! Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of politics, but I’ve experienced some great moments with god in church services. I’ve even had the honor of leading others in tremendous outpourings of god’s grace.
But this is, dare I say it, a counterfeit to what is supposed to be experienced in our day to day lives. Following Jesus has always been about meeting people where they’re at - not making them come to our special places to maybe experience something and call that god. No. Look at the Gospels. Jesus went from place to place, meeting people in their “secular” lives and bringing god’s realm to them there. It was to those places where the disciples went and implemented god’s realm. Certainly, they tried to talk to those in power of the religious systems. And each time, they got treated in the same way that Jesus was treated. Why? Because religion recognizes it’s no longer needed if god is truly mending the world; if god’s realm is really coming “on earth as it is in heaven.” The politics and money and power of religion will fight tooth and claw to make sure that this message of god’s reconciliation of everyone and everything (2Corinthians 5.19; Colossians 1.19-20) is snuffed out. In one confrontation, St Paul told the religious opposition, “We had to speak God’s word to you first. Since you reject it and show that you are unworthy to receive eternal life, we will turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13.46; CEB).
Someone else will say, “But what about the Bible’s emphasis on fellowship and community? What about the Lord’s Supper? What about teaching and preaching? What about the ‘five-fold’ ministry?”
All of those things are important. I’m not saying they aren’t. (“It sure sounds like it.”) What I’m saying is that we have taken those crucial things and bastardized them into a religious system. Those things were to be done in small, intimate settings - just like we would with any family gathering (though, some families can be quite large). Where everyone can share (see 1Corinthians 14.26). Every family has people who are gifted in different ways - some are great storytellers, others are great at being leaders by serving, others are great compassionate healers, and so on and so forth. But, and this is crucial, those gatherings were never intended to take the place of the daily practice of living The Way. There were never meant to replace following Christ and implementing god’s realm in the world. They were first put together for security and solidarity from persecuting, corrupt, religious and political systems. When the “church” was the religion of the empire they were no longer being persecuted and the emphasis shifted. When the empire fell, the “church” stepped in and became the new empire. People were no longer gathering for security. It was now an imperial edict. Those who didn’t follow the “church” were labeled and banished and, in too many cases, tortured and murdered (and this was especially true of other people and of other faiths). Following Jesus was no longer about a new way of being. It was now about power. And it has been that way ever since.
It is high time that we end our religious systems. We need to “put an end to childish things” (1Corinthians 13.11; CEB). We must see that following Jesus is supposed to be about a new way of living; a new way of being. It is time to turn to Christ, follow The Way of being, and walk away from the nonsense of business and politics and power that has become our religious systems. We must take back The Way and live it to its fullest. Here. Now. In our everyday lives. We must be about walking The Path of service to god, our neighbors, our enemies, and the world. The New Wine must have new wineskins. The old ones have burst and are no longer usable. It’s time we threw them all away.
** I’ve had a reader ask some questions about this post. She was kind enough to give me permission to post them so I responded to them here.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br Jack+, LC
1 Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
2 I’m trying to get away from this type of “proof-texting,” sometimes, though, it’s still needed. Honestly, the whole story of Israel and Israel’s god point to god returning to Israel and becoming king. That’s a theme, a thread, running throughout the entire Jewish Scriptures. It can be found in Exodus, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, the Psalms, etc. When the New Testament talks about Jesus fulfilling prophecy, it’s not some bits here and there. It’s the culmination of the entire story that they have in mind.
3. Just look at the difference between attendance on Sunday morning to Sunday evening to Wednesday evening or any other evening when something is going on at “church”. There can be over a hundred people at a Sunday morning service but not even a quarter of that on Sunday evening and even less than ten percent on any other given evening.