past presbyterianism?

Why I am a Presbyterian.

Back in 1934, Walter Bryden, who was a professor and later Principal at Knox College in Toronto wrote a little book entitled Why I am a Presbyterian. He wrote that book in response to the creation of the United Church of Canada. The United Church, of course, was formed in 1925 out of a union of Methodists and Congregationalists and Presbyterians. However, a good number of Presbyterian congregations chose not to join in that new United Church – as a result, many of the continuing Presbyterians went through something of an identity crisis. They spent years, and even decades, trying to sort out what it meant to be Presbyterian when so many had left to join the United Church. In his little book, Why I am a Presbyterian, Professor Bryden explained what it meant for him to be a member of the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada.

To this day, of course, many struggle with that question. What does it mean to be a Presbyterian? Why am I part of this denomination and not some other? Some of us are born and bred within Presbyterianism.  Others of us have come to it later in life. For some our place within Presbyterianism is the result of a mission society decision to evangelize this region and not that.  Or perhaps an arbitrarily drawn line on a map meant that we found ourselves in Protestant rather than Roman Catholic lands.  We all fill out that statement a little differently, don’t we – why I am a Presbyterian. Some of us might not even identify with that statement since we don’t particularly identify with Presbyterianism. Each of us has a unique story when it comes to our presence in a Presbyterian church this year, or this morning.

With that question in the back of our minds, we are going to change gears for a moment as we look at this scripture passage from Mark chapter two.  By a somewhat meandering route, we will come back to the question of Presbyterian identity.

This portion of Mark’s gospel finds us in the middle of a continuing conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities.

In verses 1-12 the religious leaders are upset that Jesus presumes to forgive someone’s sins.

In verses 13-17, they are upset that Jesus is eating with sinners and tax collectors.

And then in verses 18-22 the religious leaders are angry that Jesus’ disciples do not fast according to the tradition, according to the religious rules.

Now, in the regular cycle of the Hebrew calendar, according to the Hebrew bible, a fast was held only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. In the centuries before Christ, however, the religious leaders had developed the practice of fasting on Monday and Thursday of every week. It was a new pattern of religious behaviour every righteous Jew was expected to observe – though it’s an open question as to how many of the Jews actually observed these fasts.

But as in the other situations of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, Jesus sets himself against this novel religious convention. He swims against the stream – his disciples do not fast, and their failure to fast is met with deep suspicion. Who do you think you are?

In verses 18 and 19 Jesus is asked: “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus replies: “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them and then they will fast on that day.”

Jesus response to his questioners is this: Fasting is what you do when you are waiting for God. Fasting is what you do when you are waiting for the messiah. So what sense does it make to fast when the Son of God is among you? This is not a time of waiting. This is not a time of anticipation. This is the moment. This is a time of celebration and joy – a time to make merry and to praise God together. Jesus makes it clear that in his presence the tradition of fasting doesn’t make any sense. The answer of Jesus couldn’t be more clear – put off the dour face of fasting, and put on the joy of merry making in the presence of God’s Son.

This seems relatively straightforward, doesn’t it? But then, as we look back at this passage, we find Jesus making some rather strange statements to clarify what he means. We read in verses twenty-one and twenty-two:  Jesus said: “No one sews a piece of un-shrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”  Both of these images seem to have the same meaning, so we’ll just focus on the second image – that of the wine and wineskins.  Jesus says, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and so are the skins.”

In Jesus’ day, new wine was usually put into a wineskin and was left there to ferment. In the process of fermentation, the new wine would expand. And as the wine expanded, you had to make sure that the wineskin would stretch with it, otherwise the wine skin would burst. Usually this meant that you would use a new wineskin to ferment wine, because a new wineskin would have lots of give in it – it would stretch to accommodate the expanding wine. An old wineskin on the other hand would already have been stretched out – it wouldn’t have any give left in it and so when the wine expanded the old wineskin would burst.

But what does Jesus mean by this image?  To put it simply: Jesus is the new wine, and the tradition of fasting is the old wineskin. This new wine bursts the old wineskins. In Jesus God is doing an amazing and marvelous new thing, and the old tradition, as the religious leaders describe it, simply can’t contain that new thing. What sense does it make to be fasting and waiting for God to act when the Son of God is present? Why live in anticipation when the one worth celebrating is already here. Jesus exploded the narrow-minded conventions of the religious leaders – neither temple worship, nor repeated fasting, nor ritual cleansing, nor separating yourself from those who are unclean – none of these religious patterns could contain the reality of God’s presence in Christ Jesus. All of them, rather, were pointers to him. They are fulfilled in him – they must conform to him, rather than vice versa.

What then, does this passage mean for us today? What does the text have to do with us?  And in terms of this morning’s sermon, what does this passage from Mark’s gospel mean when we are exploring the question of Presbyterian identity.

Well, perhaps you could imagine where this sermon might go. On the one hand it would be very easy to launch into an explanation of how so much of Presbyterianism is old religious wineskins.

Our worship styles are fitted for another century.

Our decision making processes are so slow – designed for when minister’s road on horseback.

Our approaches to ministry can’t address dynamic, twenty-first century culture.

The Presbyterian Church is dying because it’s nothing more than old wineskins that can’t contain what Jesus is doing in the world today. I’ve heard that sermon often enough when it comes to passages like this one. We Presbyterians are the old, inflexible wineskins.

Perhaps you could imagine this sermon going in a slightly different direction. Perhaps this could be a sermon about how we Presbyterians must always be open to the new.  Isn’t that Jesus’ point? We should be open to the new wine of his kingdom. We should be open to new ways of thinking about God, new patterns of worship, new forms of community, new ways of living in the world. God is always doing something new and we better get on board with the new lest our old wineskin lives and old wineskin theologies be burst by the living God.

The truth is that passages like this one from Mark’s gospel are often used by preachers to launch such sermons. The language of the text fits so nicely with what some think is wrong with the Church. Old wineskins and new wineskins. Such texts represent a great opportunity to pronounce on everything the preacher thinks is wrong with Presbyterianism today. It’s tempting.

But this portion of narrative from Mark’s gospel has little or nothing to do with many of the issues I’ve named. This portion of the narrative cannot be forced to address the preacher’s pet-peeve of the week, whether on worship or church structure or theology. We must resist the temptation to hijack the text.

So, it turns out that this is in large part a sermon about what Mark 2:18-22 doesn’t say. It doesn’t say much about the many questions of Presbyterian identity we face. It doesn’t offer any answers about how or why to bring change to the church – it doesn’t help us identify old wineskin Presbyterianism or help us identify new wineskin Presbyterianism. It’s not a very useful text.

But what does the text say. Well, very simply – it says something about Jesus. Very simply it tells us that the pattern of fasting established by the religious leaders didn’t make any sense because God’s son was present. It tells us that the new thing God was doing in Jesus was something that could not be easily contained by the conventions of human religiosity. The gospel of Mark tells a story that can only make us turn toward God in astonished worship. Mark tells of a Jesus who speaks with real authority,

of a Jesus who casts out demons,

of a Jesus who forgives sins,

of a Jesus who touches the sick,

of a Jesus who suffers and who dies,

of a Jesus whose tomb was found empty.

What more is there for the preacher to do, really, than to simply repeat the story that the gospel writer tells? It’s not about me. It’s not about my ideas. It’s not about this tradition or that tradition. It’s not about Presbyterianism, old or new. Rather, when it all comes down to it – it’s about Jesus.

We stand at the beginning of a new year – and in the course of this year most of us here this morning will live together within this old Presbyterian denomination and congregation of ours. In the year ahead we will wrestle with the question of this old Presbyterian building. We will explore new ways of living as Presbyterians in this new decade and century. We may sometimes disagree over hymns sung or not sung. We’ll sometimes wonder why it is that we are here and not somewhere else. We’ll worry that this denomination isn’t long for this world. We’ll wonder whether it makes any sense to be Presbyterian today. Some of us, at least, will be preoccupied with what it means to be Presbyterian – and whether it matters any more.

But we start out the year with a simple reminder – somehow all of those questions are secondary – they’re not meaningless, but they are also not nearly primary. Rather – it’s about Jesus. His life among us; his living of a truly human life; his presence with us and for us; his promise a new kingdom of justice, righteousness, and peace. Sure, it can get complicated as we try and sort out what all of this means. But for this morning, let’s keep it simple. It’s about Jesus. He has come. He is among us. Let us worship him; let us learn of him; and let us walk in his way.


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