NEW SKINS - Mark 2:22

Preached at St. John's Church, Portsmouth, Kingston, Ontario on February 27, 2000 as part of Ten days for Global Justice.
By Robert Brow     (

Today we are asked to think about Global Justice, and you will wonder what new wine in new wine sins (Mark 2:22) has to do with justice? The Christian Church does not free people from oppression by engaging in politics. But the Holy Spirit is continually creating the new wine which gives a vision for bringing justice to the world.

But first we should remind ourselves how wine making works. I buy a kit, add water and yeast, and three weeks later produce vin ordinaire, very ordinaire! In Jesus' day there was the annual grape harvest. Everyone in the village helped to cut the clusters of grapes, throw them into a huge wine vat, and young people jumped in singing with bare feet to stomp out the grapes. Meanwhile goat skins had been prepared, and these were filled, the neck tied, and hung up to ferment. A year or more later when the wine was ready to drink, the old skins had stretched and had to be discarded. If you tried to use them for new wine, the fermentation would burst them. So Jesus' observation was that "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost."

Two hundred years ago by far the biggest cause of injustice in the world was the Hindu caste system. For three millenia it had kept millions of people under the power of the Brahmin priests and the ruling warrior caste. If even the shadow of a low caste person passed over their food, Brahmins would refuse to eat what had been defiled. At the bottom of the heap there were the untouchables. And from generation to generation nobody was free to move up out of their caste There was no way you could tinker with or improve the enormity of such a system. And there is no evidence that Hinduism ever fostered justice for ordinary people.

The way God changes such a situation is by the power of the Holy Spirit. When missionaries began establishing Christian churches, high caste, and low caste, and untouchable people, began sharing in the bread and wine of their communion services. At first the Brahmins were horrified, and Indian society was shaken to the core. But slowly enlightened people saw the injustice of the caste system, and in 1947 when India became an independent secular state distinctions based on caste were made illegal. They still exist, but their power has been broken. It was the new wine of the Holy Spirit in the new wineskins of the churches that ended the gross injustice of that situation.

In our generation the worst examples of injustice are found in central Africa. One third of the people are dying of AIDS. And to make matters worse since the last war billions of dollars have been given by way of loans and aid projects. This money went to buy weaponry for tribal dictators to fight each other, but most of it was syphoned off to their Swiss bank accounts. Instead of improving the situation for ordinary people, their situation was made far worse. The aid money was squandered, and people not only got no benefit from the loan but they are now stuck with huge interests payments that could never be paid. Governments are still discussing how these debts should be canceled, but everyone knows that further loans and financial aid will go into a vast bottomless pit of corruption.

That is the bad news. But God is preparing new wine skins on a vast scale. There are far more Anglicans just in Uganda than the total of all Anglicans in the Church of England, Australia, Canada, and Episcopalians in the United States. That is just one denomination in one African country. The power of the Holy Spirit in the new wine skins of a million Christian churches is the only hope for that continent. That is why I wouldn't give one cent to their corrupt rulers, but supporting our brothers and sisters in that land is the best investment we could make to bring justice in that terrible situation.. Islam is trying to win converts, but there is no evidence that Islam creates justice anywhere, least of all for women.

If Christian churches are God's way of bringing justice to the world, what kind of congregational wine skins are needed to contain the new life of the Holy Spirit? Two hundred years ago churches were shackled by the idea of a one male ministry. In the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Lutheran denominations, a priest or minister was responsible for everything. The job of lay people was to sit in the pews, pay the bills, and do the menial tasks to keep the church going. That was what I call the one male ministry. It is like trying to drive a racing car on half a cylinder.

God raised up John Wesley to give us the new wine skins that were needed. He established Methodist class meetings in which lay people could meet together to study and pray and work to transform the terrible social injustice in Britain at that time. Many of these class meetings were led by women. This was unthinkable to the upper classes. The Church of England threw the Methodists out of the established church, but slowly the new vision took root. In this century Anglicans have finally learned that a Christian congregation is more like a body where every member has his or her own function, and women can exercise all the gifts God has given (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

This has turned the vision of Christian ministry upside down. Instead of one man running the work of his church, every Christian has different functions to perform, and the task of a leader is to free them to do their work in the congregation and in the world outside. As a denomination begins to think this way new wine skins are provided to contain the mighty ferment of the Holy Spirit. There is no way you can keep patching an old garment (Mark 2:21), and without fresh new wine skins the new wine of the Spirit will burst and destroy the old structures.

Roman Catholics are still shackled by the idea of a male celibate clergy. This in spite of the fact that Peter, who is called the first Pope, was himself married (Mark 1:30, 1 Corinthians 9:5). The result is a disastrous drop in the number of priests. This situation will eventually need the new wine skins of a married clergy and women ordained as priests. But meanwhile due to the shortage of parish priests huge numbers of Roman Catholic lay people find themselves performing many the functions from which they were previously excluded. This seems to be God's way of providing the new skins to free his people, and women in particular, to exercise their ministry..

We have looked at God's way of bringing justice in the oppressive situations of the world. And we have seen the kind of congregational life that is needed. Thirdly we should look at the new wine skins that are needed for each of us to contain the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are all caught in the rat race of mammon worship, and I include myself. We have to buy a house, pay off the mortgage, put the maximum into our Registered Retirement Savings plans, buy mutual funds, so we have more than enough for our old age, and then we are worried about leaving much more than is good for our kids. Meanwhile we are frustrated every time we turn on the news, and we feel guilty we are not doing enough about the injustice of the world. There is nothing wrong with being careful with our money, but we badly need a new vision of what life is about.

An easy way to free ourselves from the world's rat race of earning and saving and spending is to set aside ten per cent of our after tax income. It is a method which was already used in the Old Testament. This is income tax time and we know exactly what our income adds up to. Tithing it may seem like a large sum. If we have $40,000 to spend after paying our taxes, we say to God "here is $4,000 for you to provide the new wine skins needed to bring justice to our world. How do you want me to invest it?" God turns it back to us and says "you do the investing for me, and do it as carefully you invest your own money." There are many organizations that collect money and most of it never leaves their home office, and we have seen the bottomless pit of corrupt dictators. That means we need to do our home work. You have to decide how much to give to your own congregation, how much for other needs in Canada, and how much for other churches and missions throughout the world.

Mollie and I have tithed for the past fifty years. We never had much income when we were missionaries for eleven years in India. On one occasion for six months when we were in New Jersey on furlough we were so short of money we used to buy three day old bread for our two children. But we still tithed the small income we had, and to our astonishment we never needed any medical treatment.. I haven't met anyone who said they had become poor by tithing. God is no man's debtor.

Most people who begin tithing set up a budget, and soon find their finances are ordered and they are in much better shape than before. For a start the government returns forty per cent to you next year as an income tax refund. But far more important, you will find that tithing begins to free you from the power of mammon, the god of money (Matthew 5:24). You quickly become a partner with God as you invest in his concern for justice throughout the world. And you will find a growing pleasure in following the good results of the money you invest. There is nothing more exciting than new wine skins being filled with the new wine of the Holy Spirit.

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