Jesus Doesn’t Want To Give Us That Old-Time Religion 

There’s an old gospel song that we used to sing when I was a kid. It went like this:

Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
It’s good enough for me

Then there were several verses about how the “old-time religion” was good enough for the Hebrew children, for Paul and Silas, for our forefathers and foremothers. There’s something about the idea that is awe-inspiring: we are connected in a web of relationship, a long line of spiritual ancestors that were having experiences and conversations that we are still engaging in today. And if that is what it means to have that “old-time religion,” to be connected to and grateful for all those who came before us, then sign me up. 

However, when I hear this language used, it isn’t generally referring to that “cloud of witnesses,” but to a particular way of seeing and interpreting our tradition and the Bible. It’s essentially a perspective that sees our faith and all it contains (how we understand God, the Bible, the faith journey, etc.) as static and unchanging. “This is how we’ve seen this issue, and this is how it has to/should be.” To question it or rethink it is a mark of unfaithfulness and heresy. If that’s what the phrase “old-time religion” means, then I don’t think Jesus wants to give it to us.  

This has been on my mind so much during the current teaching series I’m doing at MCC. It’s called Signs & Wonders, and it focuses on the seven signs through which Jesus reveals himself to his disciples and the world in the Gospel of John. These signs aren’t the point, in and of themselves, but like road signs they point beyond themselves to the larger reality Jesus is embodying and enacting.

The first sign Jesus performs is, on the surface, quite odd. In John 2, He goes to a wedding celebration, and when the wine runs out, he turns water into wine. Yep. This is not the Jesus of the temperance movement. And it seems like a really strange place to begin. Yet, this sign, according to the author, “…revealed his glory, and his disciples trusted in him.”

Like most stories in the Bible, the details matter here. Jesus is at a wedding celebration, which was a time of jubilation. Dancing, fine wine, good food, and abundant joy would all be in attendance. Even in first century Palestine, where the overwhelming majority of the people (especially those with whom Jesus spends most of his time) are living at a subsistence level or worse, all the stops would be pulled out for such an occasion. This was also an honor/shame culture, and the importance of generous hospitality can not be overstated. So, when the wine runs out, this is a catastrophe for the host family. They could not provide enough wine for their invited guests. The celebration was ruined. The shame of this event would follow the family around. For years to come, they’d talk about “The day the wine ran out.” [Not to mention a bad omen for this new marriage!]

At this critical moment, Jesus’ mother steps into the spotlight briefly. She urges Jesus to do something about this potential disaster, but he pushes back. It’s not his “time,” he says [in John, Jesus “time” refers to the ultimate manifestation of his glory, which in this Gospel, is the cross]. But then, he takes the initiative. He calls for the six-stone jars which held water for ceremonial washing to be filled with water. Then, he tells the servants to draw some out, and take it to the headwaiter. The headwaiter’s response is unexpected. This isn’t water, but actually a much better wine than what had previously ran out. 

“Everyone serves the good wine first,” He says. “They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.”

 And this, John says, reveals Jesus’ glory and causes his disciples to trust in him. 

There’s so much we could say about this story. The messianic overtones and winks and nudges toward the Hebrew scriptures are important. After all, Isaiah [among others] had talked of a Day when all nations would come to the Mountain of God, for a lavish feast of good food and fine wine. But what I want to draw our attention to is the importance of wine, and how it functions in this story.

First, in the scriptures an abundance of wine symbolizes blessing. In contrast, a lack of wine was taken to be symbolic of the absence of blessing [notice Psalm 104 and Isaiah 24 as examples]. The wine Jesus provides is more than abundant, as much as one-hundred-eighty gallons! And the quality of this wine: it was finer than the wine that had run out. 

Second, it’s important where the wine comes from. Before I continue, a brief aside. Often John’s gospel, with its scathing critique of the “Jews,” has been used in Christian history to justify anti-Semitism. That couldn’t be farther from what’s happening here! The author/community behind John was likely Jewish. Jesus and his followers were all Jewish. Jesus’ movement was about reforming his tradition, not starting a new religion.  John is critiquing the religious leadership, that in his mind, had resisted the message of reform Jesus brought. I make this aside because, sadly, anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in our world, and in our country. There is no place for this, and to make the story of the Jewish Jesus a vehicle for such attitudes and behaviors is blasphemy of the highest order. 

Back to where the wine comes from. There were six-stone jars, which would have been used for ritual cleansing and purification. This idea of purity/impurity was not one of “sin,” as we talk about it. It was about who could be in the presence of God in the Temple. As Psalm 24 asks,

Who can ascend the LORD’s mountain?
Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?
Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart;
the one who hasn’t made false promises,
the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly.
 
Instead of locating the action in a place, like the Temple, Jesus offers a different understanding [which was shared by many of the Prophets]: That God actually wants to give us the experience of an abundance of God, in the everydayness of life.
 
At this wedding, the abundance of wine then, is symbolic of the Spirit. Jesus, in this sign, points us to the work he’s doing in the world. He’s inviting us to open our eyes and hearts to the Spirit who is overflowing and bringing life and joy into the world. 
In other places Jesus talks about wineskins. “New wine,” he says, “cannot be stored in old wineskins.” The old wineskins are brittle, dry, and stretched to their capacity. New wine, still in the process of fermentation, needs new wineskins that have some stretch and give, because as fermentation happens, change is a necessity. 
I think what these two images [abundant wine and new wineskins] offer us is a way of approaching our faith that both respects the past, and launches us into the future. First, we are all talking about wine here. Our ancestors were interacting with and experiencing the Spirit in their own times and contexts. They processed their experiences through the lenses that were available to them at the time, and at some points, they traded their old lenses for new ones. We must honor, appreciate, and learn from their experiences. We must also realize that any religion can become a brittle, old wineskin. The point isn’t the religious label, the point is our openness to the work of the Spirit. 
We must also acknowledge that, as we understand it, the wine is still fermenting. None of us, past/present/future, will say all that needs to be said or learn all that can be learned about the Spirit.We are offered to drink of the fine wine of the Spirit. We are simply being invited into the fermentation process in our time and place. We are asked to be a new wineskin that has room to grow and transform as the Spirit expands us. 
If “old-time religion” means just repeating the discoveries of the past, and shutting ourselves off to the guidance of the Spirit today, then I don’t think Jesus wants to give us that. Jesus invites us to play our role in expanding our understanding and experience of the Spirit and moving our faith forward. 
 
Someday, future generations will look back on us, but I hope they don’t idealize us. I hope they know we have moved in fits and starts. That every step forward has often been followed by two steps backward. That the work of opening ourselves to the Spirit isn’t easy, but it is abundantly-life-giving. And then, I hope they seek to be open to the Spirit-at-work in their own time, place, and experience. Because God doesn’t change, but our understanding of God should.
 
May we ferment well, friends. 

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