Monday, March 15, 2004

On Wineskins 

Saturday we took Veronica, Nahum, and Victor to a Youth Specialties conference in Puebla, Mexico. On the way home we were debriefing, talking about the state of our local church, of youth work in our city, and even the state of the evangelical church in general in Latin America, and I was reminded of a verse Félix mentioned when we were in Spain:

[And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And] no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, 'The old is better.' "

I have to confess that when he mentioned this verse I didn’t believe it was really from the Bible because it didn’t sound at all familiar to me. Of course Félix was right; the other day I found it in Luke 5:39. When I first read it, it seemed odd and unrelated. But in the car as Nahum talked with frustration about the resistance we face as we try to help people be more effective in their efforts to carry out the Great Commission, I understood the truth and the relevance of Jesus’ words.

Although I have no experiential proof, I imagine that a skin would flavor the wine stored in it. In the same way the methods, tools and traditions the church uses to communicate the Good News of God’s love for humanity flavors that content. People who are used to drinking “old wine from old wineskins” think that the flavor they are used to is how wine should taste. When someone offers them new wine from new wineskins they don’t like it; they think that because the container has been changed the wine has been ruined. They say, “The old is better.”

In Mexico, where the culture of the Evangelical church is so different from the general, predominantly Roman Catholic, culture, we have a real wineskin problem. People inside the evangelical church are used to the taste of their wine, as a friend of ours Lucas Leys says, “They have been domesticated”. In the best of cases, they love God and have tasted His goodness being poured out of a particular “wineskin” (style of music is one of the most visible “wineskins”, but every method or tradition we have is a “wineskin” while the essence of God’s message is the wine.) They want others to know God, to taste His goodness for themselves, so they reach for the wineskin of the practices and traditions of their church.

This becomes a problem when the other person rejects the wine because of the flavor of the skin. (Tim, for example, is so sensitive to any food product of goat origin that he can’t even eat “cajeta” – a Mexican caramel sauce – made with goat’s milk. I, on the other hand, can’t tell the difference between cow’s or goat’s milk cajeta.)

Several years ago Nahum led an evangelistic Bible study with several friends from school. It went very well and most of them even make a commitment of their life to Christ. Now, five years later, despite continued follow-up by Nahum, none of those friends is growing in their spiritual life. Each person has their own story, but in short, none of them could/would get involved in a community of other believers where their new faith would be encouraged. The evangelical church was inaccessible to them. (I’m not minimizing their personal responsibility but the compassion that Jesus showed for “sheep without a shepherd” doesn’t leave room for us to be complacent in the face of this situation either.)

I think there are some important things we, God’s ambassadors to a broken world, need to learn about wineskins. The first is we need to learn to discern between the wineskin and the wine. Although the medium does influence the message, that old skin flavors the wine, you can change containers without compromising the essence of the wine.

This gives us the freedom to be creative and discover better ways to store and distribute the wine we’ve been entrusted with. All of the wine I’ve seen is sold in glass bottles – a transparent medium that doesn’t flavor the wine. I think the wine business just might be on to something there. The world needs to see and experience Jesus in the most direct and unadulterated way possible.

But we have to be honest. This change of containers will give the wine a different flavor, and some of us will say, “Aw, I don’t like this. The old is better.” So the next thing we need to learn is how to sacrifice the styles and traditions that we personally prefer out of love for our neighbor.

This might sound simple; it might even sound obvious; but it is a tall order. And honestly our eight years in Mexico lead me to feel a bit hopeless about the prospects of it happening any time soon and in an extensive way. (I know that Mexico doesn’t have a corner on the market for old wine. I hope this is thought provoking for you in terms of your life and your context, but since I’m sitting in Mexico wanting you to understand what we face here that’s my focus.) Hopeless, however, is not really a bad place to be because it reminds me of lots of hopeful truths:

Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart…But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair… 1st Cor. 1, 7,8

Even though the situation is not hopeless, there continues to be a huge gap between the reality of a tiny minority (around 4% of the Mexican population is evangelical) sitting in their church buildings drinking their grape juice out of old wineskins and the dream of a generation of young people having a personal encounter with the “heart-gladdening wine” of God’s love made available through Jesus. The bridging of this gap will be, in a word, a miracle. And the Bible shows us that miracles happen when people ask for them.

O Lord, hear our prayer…”

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