New Garments, Fresh Wineskins and the Abundance of the Holy Spirit

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Matthew 9:16-17

Then the disciples of John [the Baptist] came to [Jesus], saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. And no one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; if it is, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (see also Mk 2:21 and Lk 5:33-39)

What is all that about? Jesus regularly dealt with these sorts of confrontations from supposedly pious folks; and make no mistake they usually weren’t honest questions, but hostile challenges to a prophet they were discovering they couldn’t control.

I grew up the son of a Methodist pastor, which meant that I didn’t know the first thing about wine, but I certainly was acquainted with patches on my jeans. And while most of the time I may have been much more friendly towards Jesus than these Jews were, that doesn’t mean the ripped and torn jeans of my soul were quite ready for Christ to mend them overnight.

This is the lesson Jesus gets at here: readiness. He doesn’t have a beef with fasting; far from it, as we know from his temptation in the desert after his baptism. Rather he’s putting fasting in its place, along with certain hostile challengers. Disciplines such as fasting are meant not to kick-start or demonstrate genuine spirituality, but to help perfect it. They don’t produce love, they work to complete it. To fast and yet reject the way of love, to advertise one’s piety and then challenge Christ, sends a clear message: your virtue-signaling has backfired. Everyone sees you for who you are. You’ve just ripped out your pants, and your wine-skins have burst all over your friend’s new shoes… how embarrassing. Oh and by the way, congratulations, you have received your reward in full (Mt 6:16). 

May the Lord have mercy and save us from such a spectacle! Knowing this, who then can be saved? It’s widely recognized that the new patch or new wine represents the new life promised through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit; indeed, one the great early epiphanies of Jesus’ ministry occurs at the wedding in Cana, where he turned water into wine. The church has long recognized this miracle as a metaphor foreshadowing the renewing and transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of those who put their trust in Christ, the epiphany of God’s power manifest within us. But in order to be ready to receive this gift we have to be prepared for its abundance.

Enter a fancy theological term: prevenient grace. That’s to say, the help of God that goes before us and prepares us for abundant new life in him. Before we’re ready to perform acts of devotion like fasting, which help open the floodgates for the outpouring of divine love in our hearts (Romans 5:5), we need to be made ready for its torrents. The difference I think lies in the nature of our hope. The Pharisees and probably some of John’s disciples fasted in hopes of earthly gain, the praise of others, afflicting the body for the carnal reward of human praise. “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men…” The one who fasts privately, in secret, hopes to please only her heavenly Father, who sees in secret (Mt 6:16-18). 

The garment of the Christian soul is made ready for mending through faith and hope in the power of God, each born of a quiet love longing to know ever more love. The wineskin of the human heart finds itself made new and steadfast only by looking to the only one whose praise actually matters. Only the simple love of faith can contain the love of God; and only the pure of heart shall see God. Once this quiet preparatory work of the Holy Spirit begins to renew us from within, there is literally no limit to the gifts and power which can and will flow our way. 

My own friendliness towards Jesus apparently hasn’t been as strong as I might have imagined when I was a youth, for I know enough now to know what wine tastes like, and to lament the fact that there isn’t nearly enough of the divine grace in me to threaten to break the wineskins of my soul. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think God will come through, and that someday I’ll be positively bursting at the seams with divine love and joy and power. Until we all are, let’s all pray with Paul, who on our behalf bowed his knees before the Father, 

from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21)

 

The Pearl of Great Price

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The image of a large and beautiful pearl has fascinated humanity for centuries. Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl follows the life and misfortunes of a pearl-diver who finds an immense and valuable pearl, and the troubles that it brings his family. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints uses this parable, The Pearl of Great Price, as a title for one of its scriptures. Pearls play a significant role in Hindu mythology and Muslim and Christian scriptures. Pearls are a symbol of opulence, and all other factors being equal, the general rule with pearls is the larger, the better.

With this wide-spread human experience in the background, Jesus tells this parable, “Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant man who was seeking goodly pearls. But finding one pearl of great worth, he went away and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)

The hero of this parable is a merchant man, not a diver. His quest is not to find pearls in oysters in the ocean, but in stalls in a marketplace. He is not the producer nor even the harvester of the valuable item: he is a retail man, buying valuable items for less than they are worth and up-selling them for a profit. His specialty knowledge is not oysters and their oceanic habitat, but the human market with its never-ending waves of supply and demand. He’s more of a stock-trader than a fisherman; like any good retail seller, he’s more psychologist than scientist.

But to this merchant, as to other protagonists in Jesus’ parables, comes a life-changing moment. Suddenly his normal life of small successes and failures, daily systems, people and relationships comes screeching to a halt when he sees the One Great Pearl. What is its worth? Who can say? To the right buyer, the sky’s the limit. The pearl’s worth is such that the cost to obtain it – though it costs the merchant everything – is still vastly inadequate to meet the pearl’s potential value. What would a local aristocrat pay for it? What would a king pay? An emperor? Whatever resources he maintained on his person to purchase normal pearls on his daily market-trip are inadequate. This one will require more, much more – maybe everything. But if he can somehow acquire it, the payoff will be far greater still. The risk is worth it!

Imagine a merchant so animated – not by desire, but by opportunity – who goes in a frenzy and begins selling his possessions. Everything must go! Closeout sale! No deal refused! No sacrifice of value would be too great in the sale of his goods, as long as he can raise the necessary funds to purchase the One Great Pearl. Imagine his nervousness when, at the final limit of his resources, he takes the money to the oyster-man and offers it – a poor offering, really, considering the beauty and worth of his object; far from a fair exchange. But the seller agrees. A bargain is struck, and what a bargain it is! The merchant’s everything is really nothing compared to the value he receives in the Pearl of Great Price.

So also, says Jesus, we should look at the Kingdom of Heaven as opportunity. It comes to us in our mundane, work-a-day moments and offers unlimited value. What opportunity has God offered you? What does He promise to give that will be worth you risking everything in your life to obtain it? And though we offer to God our everything, altogether it is still nothing compared to the surpassing value that we obtain in return; the gap is so great that it can in no way be considered a fair exchange. We are almost cheating God, giving him nothing (though it is our all) and receiving wholeness, joy, healing, contentment, sanctity, hope, and an unlimited future. Yet nothing less than our all will obtain this blessing for us.

If you knew you would purchase a winning MegaMillions lottery ticket worth $500 million, would you buy one? For $1, sure! But what if it were to cost you $100? Would you spend $100 of your money to obtain a winning lottery ticket? What if it must cost $1000? What about $10,000? Could you justify selling everything you own, raiding your retirement savings, begging, borrowing, and stealing the last dollar at your disposal just to buy lottery tickets? It’s a trick question: remember, you KNOW one of them will win you more money than you can possibly spend in a hundred lifetimes. What risk would you not run to strike a bargain at such a guaranteed profit?

We stand now as the merchant who has seen the Pearl of Great Price and is wondering whether he can sell enough to obtain it. God has promised you everything: love, peace, joy, the power of the Spirit, community, contentment, hope, an unlimited future… and so much more besides. This God is faithful and will fulfill the bargain, even at His own immense cost (little do we guess how much it has cost Him!) The payoff is guaranteed, but to reach it – to reach it requires risk, and hard work, and suffering, and time. Will you attempt it? Will you give everything you have to obtain everything God has to offer?

Posted by The Rev. John Thorpe with

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