by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak,
for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.
Neither is new wine put into old wineskins;
otherwise, 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.
It comes from the most straightforward of questions. It’s a question about fasting (or not), but all of a sudden we’re into the garment-tearing, skin-bursting potential of newness. It’s as if Jesus is saying that questions about how religion is observed, rules kept (or broken), are questions belonging to an age that is past its use-by date. When newness comes, the old structures of faith and even of thinking will struggle to contain it for long – and the struggle will eventually be lost.
And immediately the old ideas are burst open: that a haemorrhaging woman cannot be touched, cannot touch, cannot be communicated with; that death is the final frontier. The contact with the woman no doubt produced gasps of indignation, letters to the papers, notices of motion, as garments creaking open groaned under the strain. The comments about death produced derision, open mockery, laughter even, as the stock of organised religion sank so low as to become a laughing stock – and the new wine began to spill out all over the place.
‘Safe in your hands, all creation is made new,’ we sang earlier; but the truth is that being made new rarely produces a feeling of safety. We too creak and groan under the strain; we too feel the ferment of newness swelling uncomfortably, indigestibly. We too insist on continuing to ask questions that no longer make sense – the last, desperate throw of the old, as it tries, impossibly, to reassert itself.
‘Happy New Year,’ we like to say, but if it is anything near new we may be far from happy. The flute-players, the professional mourners, the commotion-intent crowd were all far from happy. A tragic death was what they knew how to deal with, they had their responses well honed. Newness of life was something that knocked them off their well-practised stride.
Jesus was clear. The old patterns had to go; the old presumptions were no longer useful; the old skins and garments were too set in their ways, too inflexible, too unimaginative – and he was quite prepared to see them set aside, or cast aside, if new wine was too much for them to take.
Both our bible passages today concern the conversation with the past that we tend to have constantly – and it’s a conversation that seems particularly apt at the beginning of a new year, when our double-headed Janus, January existence forces us to think of the present in the context of the past, asking what will be new about it, what from the past might need to be put aside. And organised religion, the target of so much that Jesus said, often finds that conversation particularly difficult to deal with.
The faith of which Jesus was a part, the faith from which Christianity grew, the monotheistic faith in which our roots are planted, is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons – under attack in Paris, under threat (it is thought) in the United Kingdom; and so we are using prayers this morning from the service book of Reform Judaism. It is a small symbol of solidarity; but also a little recognition of the connections we have – in the past, part of our conversation with the past; part of our recognition that, having once, in the past, been the new wine of which Jesus speaks, does not mean – could not possibly mean – that we are forever new. Every new year becomes an old one; every new wine ages, while the newly new continues, in God, to be produced.
Let me read you an extract from another prayer from the same service book:
May my life link in to one chain of goodness. As I say the prayers of past generations, help me to remember their devotion and faithfulness, their joy and suffering, which are in every word. Holiness is my heritage, may I be worthy of it.
May the tradition live in me and pass from me to generations I shall never know, enriched by the truth that I have found and the good deed I have done. So may I fulfil my task on earth and receive my blessing.
It is a prayer entitled ‘tradition’, and it is perhaps indicative of a conversation with the past which many in many religious traditions feel is the most appropriate. It is a conversation in which the beauty of a chain forged over the centuries provides not only continuity but also the parameters, the boundaries, the limits of the conversation.
Jesus had a recognisably different approach. His was one of radical discontinuity: anything, he said, that attempted to limit, to define, to hold in, would burst – would be burst. Religious skins were like snakeskins – they had to be shuffled off, discarded, to give room to breathe, to give room to grow, to develop. Because religious tradition is not only about continuity; religions have a tradition of sudden spurts of growth – time when the old ways simply would no longer do, could no longer cope; time when change had to come.
Look at Samuel and Eli. Eli is not here simply as an individual; he is here as a representative of the old ways, the personification of a faith that had become geriatric, lethargic, myopic.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
The word was rare, visions were rarer; Eli had taken to his bed, unable to see. Things have come to a pretty pass, there’s hardly any energy left in the life of faith – but the lamp of God had not yet, not quite, gone out. There was a flicker still there, a flicker of life and light in the old ways.
Samuel, the new hope, the new life, the new way, was also lying down – awaiting the call, though he did not know it. But he, the new, was where the ark of God was. The new was in the presence of the one who could renew. But the old still had a flicker of light, of sight, of understanding – and an important role to play when the call of the new was heard.
The old ways had a role to perform which gave permission to the new to go to God, not through the old – but directly. Samuel is encouraged to speak for himself, to listen for himself – and for the new generation he represents. Don’t depend on me, Eli says, because the lamp of God in him has not yet quite gone out – and it sheds enough light for him to see that the new must take over. So Samuel, not without some trepidation, does that.
‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ And God, having now found a new vessel, pours into it his bubbling, disturbing, overwhelming new wine. There was no point trying to renew Eli – his day had gone: tired, worn out, no longer up to being the carrier of the intoxicating taste of the living God. And what God tells Samuel has nothing at all to do with continuity; he will not sew this new cloth onto the old – this is a new garment altogether.
And Samuel can scarcely bring himself to tell Eli, can scarcely find the words to say that Eli’s days were not numbered, they were finished. Samuel and Eli provide a tale of radical discontinuity, a tale of new cloth, of new wine – not growing out of the old, but taking over from the old – and the old has enough of God still there to know it must happen, to encourage it, to enable it.
It is a tale worth the telling – and a tale worth the hearing. Because, among other things, it reminds us of our tendency to regard religious tradition as an unbroken line, when it is anything but; it reminds us of the dangers of taking a bit of tradition, and separating it from the whole. It’s a tendency, actually, not confined to religions and faith; you can see it in the modern, and even the secular. So let me give you a rather modern, and indeed secular, example of the same phenomenon.
The French philosopher Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote that the most revealing thing was not the event, but the reaction to the event. I wrote a very long piece based on that observation following the attack on the New York Twin Towers in 2001. It is an observation still worth remembering.
Because, following the attack on the office of Charlie Hebdo, and the associated attacks on police officers and on a Jewish supermarket, the reaction that has been most often heard has been to do with the word taken from the French revolutionary tradition, forged in discontinuity: ‘freedom’, ‘liberté’. This attack was an attack on freedom of expression, freedom of the press; but also an attack on the freedom to live without fear or oppression.
But freedom is not only for some. Freedom, if it is truly freedom, is for everyone – and for everyone equally. Freedom is not freedom if it can be bought by those with the biggest bank balances; freedom is not freedom if it is imposed by some at the expense of others; freedom is not freedom if it depends on the servitude or the impoverishment of others.
So the French revolutionaries knew what they were doing when they yoked ‘liberté’ to ‘égalité’, because if liberty is not equal it quickly becomes division, or oppression, or arrogance. But the French revolution went further – their ambitions were not just about an equality that was enforced or applied. Freedom and equality were together linked to and by ‘fraternité’.
Robert Burns was a great admirer and supporter of the French Revolution:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
it’s comin’ yet for a’ that,
when man tae man the world o’er
shall brothers be, an a’ that.
When my neighbour is seen as a threat, fraternity is defeated; when my neighbour is seen as an imposition, fraternity is defeated; when my neighbour is seen as a burden, fraternity is defeated. And fraternity is what makes liberty a joy, and equality a delight; not things to be tolerated, but rather to be celebrated.
The world we want to live in is one in which we look at those around us as brothers and sisters; a world in which we are all equally regarded, equally valuable, equally treated – and that is where you find freedom: not freedom from one another, but freedom for one another. The attacks in Paris were aimed not only at freedom, but also at equality, and particularly at fraternity. They were aimed at turning us not toward one another, but away from one another; aimed at division – and so it is the fight against division that will oppose those and other terrorist atrocities.
Tradition, this conversation with the past, is not ever a purely academic exercise; it is a vital part of life, as we find ourselves having to confront old ways, old suspicions, old prejudices, and find that there are old ways that cannot simply be learned from, they have to be discarded. But the conversation has to be one that is with the whole tradition, not just edited highlights, or the bits we find most agreeable, or indeed the most useful, or the most to our advantage – as freedom, unattached, tends to be for the rich.
The French Revolution knew what it was doing (in spite of many appearances to the contrary) because it knew that there is no liberty without equality, and there is neither unless the motivation comes from the heart, unless the motivation comes from a spirit of fraternity.
‘Je suis Charlie’ was taken up as a rallying cry, as a word of liberté; it was answered, by those who felt excluded by that, as by so much else, with a word of égalité: ‘je suis Ahmed’, (in the name of the Muslim police officer gunned down in the street, as he sought to protect the Charlie Hebdo offices). There is a danger that these two could become alternative, rival, divided, traditions – if care is not taken, care for ourselves, care for one another. There are moments, in life as in faith, of radical discontinuity. Perhaps this is one. Perhaps we need to find ways to have conversations not just with our own traditions, but with each other’s. Perhaps the rallying cry of a new living needs to be one that proclaims a word of ‘fraternité’: I am for you – ‘je suis pour toi’.
Perhaps it’s time, in the world and in the faith, for new wine in new wineskins.