New Wine, Fresh Wineskins!
(Readings: Hosea 2:16-17, 21-22; 2 Corinthians 3:1-6; Mark 2:18-22)
Introduction to Mass
The gospel readings for the last few Sundays recorded the reaction of the people who witnessed Jesus' ministry: "here is a teaching that is new". Jesus' listeners rightly sensed that there was something about his words and actions that departed from many received ideas about God and disclosed something new about his character. Jesus himself insisted that his message was not only different from what had gone before, but was in many respects incompatible. The "new wine" of God's Reign must have "fresh wineskins" to contain it.
Let's begin Mass by admitting our own failure to abandon attitudes that are incompatible with the life of God's Kingdom and ask God for his forgiveness.
This gospel passage is from the second chapter of Mark's gospel, and as we heard in the gospel reading last Sunday, Jesus didn't progress very far in his ministry of preaching, healing and exorcising before the dark clouds of opposition began to appear.
In Saint Mark's version of events Jesus perceives the way things are going early in his ministry and almost from the start he anticipates the moment in the future when the religious leaders will conspire to get rid of him. He recognises that the root of the disagreement between himself and the Pharisees lies in their very different way of seeing God and the framework of customs built around faith in God.
In their own way the Pharisees and their disciples represent the forces of conventional religion. They were people with a strong vested interest in regulating the religious practices of the community. Their meticulous practice of their ritual purity rules and strict sabbath observance gave them great spiritual authority and credibility among the people. The other side of the coin was that it marked out lesser individuals as sinners and outcasts and reinforced their inferior position.
Jesus' very public rejection of the whole mentality behind the Pharisees' practices, and his constant association with disapproved social groups, meant that a collision was inevitable at some point. His declaration that the pride and self-reliance of the "righteous" religious person causes a deeper alienation from God than the failures of the spiritually weak meant that, from the Pharisees' point of view, he had to be challenged and silenced.
Their method was to monitor Jesus closely, always looking for opportunities to pick fault with his preaching, to trip him up in argument, and in all sorts of ways to harass him and needle him. And when it came to these sorts of motives, and these kinds of people - full of showy religiosity, but in fact failing completely to discern God's real character - Jesus can't really be said to be somebody who suffered fools gladly.
His reactions, at least in his disputes with the Pharisees, weren't those of what we might call traditional piety: the idea that it's good for the soul to accept insults and misrepresentations meekly and never to fight back.
Jesus didn't only fight back against their criticisms. Sometimes he led the attack - and that was because in the battle between conventional religion and the proclamation of God's Reign there was a lot at stake. And there still is.
Even in our present-day Christian community, which faces all sorts of challenges and threats from forces outside our control, I would argue that the greatest obstacles to the growth of God's Reign comes not from "secular culture" or from the attacks of people who are hostile to the Church.
Often the greatest obstacle is the tendency on our part to slide back into the patterns of conventional religion - the tendency to package and manage God, to neutralise or domesticate Christ's message, so as to avoid being challenged or disconcerted by the real gospel. The temptation to squeeze God out in favour of the paraphernalia of religion is a constant one.
Jesus' own recognition of this problem comes out in his statement about the newness of his message and the way that the Good News of God's Kingdom is a radical departure from what has gone before.
"No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak" he says. "If he does, the patch pulls away from the coat and the tear gets worse. Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the skins burst, and the wine and the skins get lost". A very familiar metaphor from Jesus' preaching.
But the idea behind the image isn't just the novelty of Christ's message. Jesus is saying that the new is incompatible with the old, that the new replaces the old and makes it redundant, and that in fact the new way can't be embraced without giving up the old way completely.
And there are various senses in which we can apply that principle to our own faith, which I'll mention briefly before finishing. The first sense is the obvious historical sense.
Jesus' appearance, his identity as the Messiah, his work of salvation, has brought about a new situation and a new stage in the relationship between God and humanity. The period of the Old Covenant is over, and this is what Jesus' opponents couldn't bear to admit, because their own interests depended on the old situation carrying on.
The second sense in which this image applies to us is as individual believers, in our own personal life of faith. We all have a tendency, in one way or another, to cling to old habits, their understanding of what being to cling to certain spiritual attitudes which we find comfortable or reassuring. With the best will in the world, one of the easiest temptations religious people can fall into is the temptation to become fossilised in a Christian involves.
Whether we think of ourselves as traditionalist or conservative Christians or whether we would label ourselves "liberal" or "progressive" there are all kinds of ways we can refuse to give up our cherished ways of thinking or pet ideas. There are various ways we can put up resistance to Christ's demand that we bring out fresh skins for the new wine. As we progress in our spiritual life the ascent gets steeper and harder. It's then that we're tempted to produce all kinds of rationalisations and excuses and convenient reinterpretations of gospel teaching.
That spills over then into what I think is the last way Jesus image applies to us, which is in our Church life, our life as the community of Christian believers.
It's especially as a community that we can deceive ourselves about our lack of earnestness about Christ's message because, without a commitment to self-criticism, members of any religious community can easily take on the characteristics of a small, exclusive circle of enthusiasts. They can easily develop a common interest in deflecting criticism and in heading off change.
We only need to think of the energy that so many church communities put into activities that are really very secondary and trivial - activities that don't have any explicit connection with God at all - and we only have to think of the indignation that gets stirred up at the slightest hint of confronting that tendency, to see that in many ways we often prefer the comforts of conventional religion to the new wine of the Kingdom.
Later this week the forty day season of Lent begins. Lent is a time when Christians examine their consciences and make resolutions to renew their commitment to the gospel.
This Sunday, as we approach that period associated with repentance and deepening of faith, let's pray that we'll be more willing to leave behind the paraphernalia of religion so as to break into the mystery of God himself and give ourselves over more completely to his direction.