The reading of this passage has provoked some thinking that I usually avoid in conversation because of the fact that whatever “skin” we are in, when it comes to a discussion of “wineskins,” our skin is typically pretty thin. I think of wineskins as the paradigms we have and the perceptions we use to explain reality to ourselves. So within the Church, our wineskins are the individual and collective thought structures in which we attempt to contain the life of God. Every human has one. And the simple fact that we each believe we came by ours honestly (or even sovereignly), makes them nearly, if not completely, sacred. And what is sacred must be protected. Thus the thin skin. Thus our division.
The combination of yielding to His Word, imperfectly to be sure, through 64 years of experience and trials, some of which He appointed, most of which I created, all of which He has redeemed (or is redeeming), is how my wineskin has been shaped and is being painfully reshaped. (Note: I have not been a Christian for 64 years. However, His light shining retroactively on the first 23 years, when I was stumbling through the darkness without Christ, has been one of the most redeemed and instructive aspects of my life.) While my story does not reflect “perfected” theology, neither do I have to apologize for it. Even in my imperfect understanding and my imperfect telling, it is an account of the hope that is in me. And more importantly, considering that Christ is my life, the story I am recording must, to some degree, be His as well.
And, as Paul would pray, “May it be made manifest to your consciences.” If not—no harm, no foul.
As one who attempted to transition from a community-oriented local assembly to a traditional local church, I found myself frustrated because I had become a spectator to Christianity as I sat in my typical seat at the Sunday and Wednesday events. After a few years, I made the team, so to speak, when I was invited to become an elder in this “elder-governed” church. As much as I appreciated this gesture, my discomfort was not relieved. I could not escape the sense that the way we did church unintentionally created spectators instead of disciples. I do not anticipate that everyone will understand this or agree, but I would like to attempt to better explain myself by drawing from the theological meat of this passage and reasoning forward. The meat:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him…He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf…Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold new things have come… Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ; as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ be reconciled to God. (from 2 Corinthians 5:11-21)
Paul, as well as any man alive, understood wineskins. He was an outspoken and proud advocate of his previous wineskin—which was the hyper-religious culture revolving around the Law. It was while Paul was operating with zeal under the authority of his old wineskin that Jesus asked him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Paul’s Damascus epiphany included the shocking discovery that while a man is living in zealous compliance with his wineskin, he can simultaneously be persecuting Jehovah! Paul’s new understanding is essential to the process of being a disciple. He says…
We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, that you may have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart. (2 Corinthians 5:12)
I believe I am reasoning from scripture when I say Paul was deeply concerned with pretense. Note: The event with Ananias and Sapphira suggests that God is as well. This is why I think Paul would cry foul if He saw any type of wineskin forming that encouraged, intentionally or by default, the potential of pretense. Pretense is the circumstance in which people can conceal their hearts from each other while outwardly living a religious lifestyle compliant with the existing wineskin. Does this sound at all familiar?
I believe one of the reasons Paul may have been “beside himself” (vs 13) is because environments where pretense exists are “unsafe.” They are unsafe because there are unspoken agenda threaded like trip wires in the community. In these environments, there are typically freight car loads of unreconciled offenses which completely derail the train from its mission of reconciliation. This is a major problem. Why? Because the world is not going to accept the Ministry of Reconciliation from us unless they see that we are first reconciled to each other. Remember: for us to be reconciled to God, Jesus taught us that we must be first reconciled to each other. (Matt 5:23-24, 18:21-35).
We will one day be a united and loving family, not due to a reconciliation of doctrinal differences or a synchronization of understanding, but rather due to the fact that we learned, like Paul and his team, to recognize no man according to the flesh (i.e. according to titles, performance, pedigrees, or wineskin affiliation). Instead we will recognize and honor the new nature within each other. The love of God, by which our disciple hearts are constrained, will be made manifest to each other, to God, and to the world. We are not made manifest (i.e. our testimony does not ring true) to the worldly, not just because they are vile, unclean enemies of all that is holy, but because our claim that Jesus is both savior AND LORD appears, at least at this time, to them as a half-truth at best.
I am not sure what is required to change a wineskin for everybody. I only know that mine has had to suffer some violence along the way in order to experience much transformation. In this current season of reflection, my understanding is that there are no wineskins capable, however impressive they may be outwardly, of containing the Life of God other than the one Jesus announced had come: THE KINGDOM OF GOD. I also suspect, where we are the proud promoters of our particular wineskin franchises, God may be saying to us, the same thing He spoke to Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Father, ultimately Your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Help us to find the balance of trusting in this and working with You toward that end. Give us new wineskin hearts that are thirsty for the Living Water that You intend to fill us with. May the new wine spill over into our relational networks bringing healing, salvation and deliverance to all. Amen.