New Wine in New Skins

Over the years I have kept a few things as reminders of people and events – nothing that would mean much to anyone else, but things that help me trace my footprints back over the years.

In my box of memories I found an audio tape Ann had sent me while I was in Israel during the summer of 1972. I stuck it in a tape player and listened to the voices of our four children; they sounded so much like our grandchildren now. Their voices were not the only ones on that tape. I heard my mother (who died in 1983) say that she was praying for me every day. Then my father (who died in 1974) said a few words. Before he began to speak, I could already anticipate his first two words: “Hey, boy….” That’s the way he began every telephone conversation with me.

I could not hold back the tears. Those voices recreated for me scenes that are a precious part of who I am and brought back feelings that neither time nor change has been able to obliterate. As long as I live, they will always be a part of me.

As I put my treasures back in the box, I thought of the words of Jesus in Matthew 9: “People do not put new wine into old wineskins – otherwise the skins burst, the wine is spilled and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into new skins and both are preserved” (v. 17).

This verse had come to mind because of something I’d read in a book by Donald Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety. In introductory comments to his second edition Bloesch had written: “The question remains: Can the new wine of the gospel be poured into the old wineskins of the institutional churches? It may be that the hope of the church lies in the movement of the Spirit raising up new forms of Christian witness and service that do not negate the wider church but serve to reform and purify it.”

In regard to a contemporary worship service, I have not wanted to see us lose the heritage of our hymnody. To do so seemed the same as throwing out the box where we have kept the precious memories not only of our past, but of what has made the church the church over the past 300 or, for that matter, the past 2000 years.

However, those who have not shared our past want newer wineskins; and why shouldn’t they? They would not have wept with me at the sound of my mother’s and father’s voices, so why should they have deep feelings for those things not belonging to them? They have only to remember that it was the wineskins that were to be new. For centuries the wine, though newly “vintaged,” is still being produced the same way. In a sense, the wine was the same; the containers needed changing.

I am not the only “foot-dragger.” Nor is it only those of us who are older. Some of us are hanging on to old ways, even those that may not be that old. Our ways are familiar. Our hanging on may simply indicate that it’s easier to keep the old skins rather than make new ones; or because we would be inconvenienced. In other instances, we may have sanctified the old skins and declared them to be God’s own – anything else would be against God!

We all need to heed Bloesch’s observation: “It may be that the hope of the church lies in the movement of the Spirit raising up new forms of Christian witness and service.” It will mean putting away (not throwing away!) our box of precious memories and moving on. That’s what I had to do that afternoon. We all have to. ~William B. Coker, Sr.

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