“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins,and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined. Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins” (Luke 5:38).
Jesus’ parable of the new wine into fresh wineskins addresses the conflict he was having with the religious leaders of his own day over the need for the renewal of structures to hold the message of liberation and joy he was preaching (See Luke 4:18 ff). The same conflict is written into the history of the church and is evident today in the debate over how to offer families pastoral care in a fast-changing and increasingly diverse world.
Changing views on marriage, family planning, divorce and gender have stretched institutional teaching and practice to the breaking point. Pope Francis’ difficult balancing act to recognize this new reality while emphasizing church ideals offered in a spirit of compassion, is running into stiff opposition from traditionalists who would rather have a smaller church than the “big tent” or “field hospital” the pope’s position seems to suggest. The October Synod on the Family in Rome will reveal how this debate is resolved at the policy level and for pastoral ministers representing the church.
Jesus’ message of God’s unconditional love and his practice of consorting with public sinners, outcasts and foreigners was one reason he was excommunicated by the Sanhedrin and turned over to the Romans for crucifixion. His views were regarded as heretical and so radical they would bring down the nation. It was better for him to die than to see the official authority, religious and secular, threatened.
But it was Jesus’ sacrificial death that Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, later saw as God’s plan to heal the divisions pulling humanity apart: “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross through him, whether those on earth or those in heaven” (Col 1:20).
The human body of Jesus is broken in death, and his blood is poured out as the source of the new creation, revealed by the transformed body of the risen Jesus -- new wine into new skins. The Holy Spirit, Jesus’ last breath from the cross, now animates the new creation, the new humanity.
Something new is happening in the church and in our world. Pope Francis is inviting us to share his vision of a more merciful church that can help reunite a fractured, polarized and violent world. Something has to give, something new and bold is needed to move us forward. Without change, the world and the church will face further division and deeper conflict, a dangerous time with huge consequences for all of us. There will always be adversity and debate, but without hope the world faces a judgment of our own making when we might have chosen life.