‘What have you done to my church?’

“Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“’What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

Measures to control the pandemic continue to dampen our activities nationwide (and worldwide) in the interest of protecting public health. Some people think this could go on for a while; others don’t. I don’t have the qualifications to offer an informed opinion that would be of any value to you, so I’ll leave it at that.

But it has visibly affected churches large and small and it’s no respecter of denominations. The Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia, an assembly. If you assemble something it means taking parts and putting them together to make a whole. But you can only do so much assembling when you have to stay six feet apart, wear a mask and minimize or even prohibit physical contact.

I’ve written previously that I thought this pandemic could have a significant effect on how we do church. And I don’t mean a let’s-line-up-the-deck-chairs-in-rows-of-five-not-eight fashion. I mean in the way the monarchies, first of Israel by Assyria and then Judah by Babylon, were overturned and the people of God became subjects of foreign nations.

They became captives, which in our 21st-century world of lockdowns and restrictions, simply means we don’t have the freedom to function as we have been accustomed to for months, years or even decades. You can livestream a sermon the pastor or minister does from his den. But how do you coordinate 300 phones, laptops or tablets for full-throated worship with hymns and choruses? How do you download communion?

I’m sure some people console themselves that this won’t last forever, a vaccine (or vaccines) is in the research and development pipeline and then we’ll be able to return to normal. Once that happens, all the restrictions, all the awkward attempts to maintain the status quo that landed like lead balloons, and all the inconvenience will be soon forgotten.

But what if it isn’t soon? Or what if the duration itself isn’t the real issue? What if the temporary loss of freedom to do things as we have been has made people realize that certain aspects of their lives—now suspended because of restrictions—aren’t really that important or meaningful, to say nothing of vital?

People still tune in to PBS “golden oldies” programs because, their former teen idol’s paunch notwithstanding, they still love the music. It still has a place in their lives. But you don’t hear people complaining that they miss Blockbuster. Something better came along and it changed everything.

And what if God intended for people to realize that some things are no longer meaningful, or, in fact, they never were? Or what if, like the master in the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), the Lord is using this to assess what kind of return he’s been getting on his investment? (i.e., they are called talents in most translations, but bags of gold in the NIV makes more sense in light of the parable’s meaning)

That last paragraph might get some persons’ backs up. Have you any idea what it takes to operate a church today? Do you know how much we’ve invested to keep our doors open and continue in ministry?

I understand that perspective and I’m sympathetic. The best church (and, eventually, the worst) I ever attended took a considerable amount of my time, labor and not-so-considerable income before sinking like a stone cast into the sea. There is nothing left but a filing in the county clerk’s office to show for all that effort and money. Gone, and probably not forgotten, but not in a fond memory sort of way. A lot of people who stuck it out later didn’t want to talk about it.

And the reason it was ruined can be found in Jesus’ metaphor of the wine and wineskins. Since a wineskin was literally skin, it remained pliable and flexible for only so long. New wine could be effervescent enough, like a shaken-up can of Pepsi, that an old, dry skin couldn’t contain it. When it burst, both wine and wineskin would be lost.

I spent months teaching in that church prior to the installation of a new pastor who turned out to be a tyrant, lording it over everyone in sight. During that time, I came back to the letters to the Corinthians several times. In particular, I taught on the “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos” tendency toward division that Paul addressed almost immediately in the first letter.

Although I didn’t appreciate it fully until several years later, this was “new wine” that the Lord wanted to pour into his people. It was to check an all-too-typical charismatic tendency to exalt ministers, pastors and teachers according to the “anointing” on their ministry. This tended to divide people into followings that turned into rivalries that could turn into wedges to drive the church apart.

It may have been “new wine,” but it required a corresponding change in “the wineskins.” If you just couldn’t let go of this tendency to turn servants into saints (remember, that’s what Paul called himself and Apollos, “only servants”), then you end up eating the fruit of that choice. And it’s a bitter fruit.

And that’s what most of that church did. The new pastor came in and immediately imposed a loyalty test. “Are you with me or are you with Bob?” [the former pastor]. Most of the people were so enamored of this man’s “anointing” and intimidated by his manner that they readily said, “I’m with you.”

But woe to you if you didn’t. That’s because the corollary of “I’m with Bill” was “Because you’re with Bob, I can’t fellowship with/work with/even be seen in the same aisle in the grocery store with you.” I am not exaggerating, by the way. This is what actually happened. (As for the “you’re with Bob” assumption, that’s the way it was perceived, but I had just spent months debunking this approach, so that’s not the way I identified myself.)

You may have heard the secular saying that revolutions eat their own. Something like that can be found in the darkest days of Israel’s history. Before entering the Promised Land, the Lord warned his people about how other nations “did detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods” (Dt 12:31). But some of Israel’s kings did just that.

This is included in the catalogue of sins that led to Assyria’s attack and deportation of Israel (2 Ki 17:1-23). No more nation. No more “wineskin.” It was made for something else, not detestable things like this.

Most of the people in my former church, unwilling to change or be persuaded away from their idolatry of one man’s ministry that could brook no rivals, got burned. Some of them pretty badly: broken marriages, breakdowns, chronic fear and depression.

When the wineskin won’t be made new, it can’t handle new wine. But God, in his mercy, broke the wineskin himself so everything wouldn’t be completely ruined. Foolish, stubborn, willful—they were all of these things, but they are still flesh-and-blood persons for whom Jesus died.

All of this is to say that being captive to circumstances beyond our control can be salutary or it can be perilous if we cannot or will not change. New wine requires new wineskins, unless you want to take a chance at losing everything, wine and wineskin.

And keep in mind, it’s not your church. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Did you purchase it with your blood, or did the Lord who prunes his branches that they might be more fruitful?

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