Some thoughts generated from a sermon on Mark 2:18-3:6
In Mark 1:40-2:17 we saw three stories about the people of Jesus' kingdom. And this was the shock: The people of Jesus' kingdom are the lepers, the paralytics, the tax collectors and their spiritual equivalents. Jesus calls sinners. Sinners. Not the righteous. Jesus' people are not the people religion expects.
In Mark 2:18-3:6 we continue with this revolution. In these three stories the focus is on practices - in particular fasting and Sabbath observance. And again, Jesus' practices are not the practices religion expects.
Jesus does not fit our religious moulds. And so over the top of the three stories stands Mark 2:21-22 where Jesus gives us this mental image:
"No-one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no-one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins."
People are looking at Jesus and struggling to fit Him into their way of thinking. But Jesus is saying: It's not that I don't fit into your religious expectations. Jesus says I won't fit into your religious expectations. It's impossible to contain Jesus within moulds that aren't already designed with Him at the centre.
Jesus and His practices are like new cloth and if you try to patch them onto any old cloth it will tear apart the garment. Jesus and His practices are like new wine and if you try to contain them within any old wineskin it'll burst the thing apart. Whatever spiritual forms that exist in Jesus' kingdom they must consciously and explicitly be oriented to Jesus Himself. Christ refuses to be just one more ingredient in a human religion. You can't just take a bit of this spirituality and a bit of that philosophy and add a twist of Jesus. You can't take your own common sense, your own culture's moral code and then expect Jesus to fit in. Jesus demands a complete revolution. If we haven't already, we have to begin afresh with Jesus.
In Jesus' kingdom, if you fast, you fast because of Him (you experience the absence of your Bridegroom - the true meaning of the Yom Kippur fast). If you feast, you feast because of Him (you anticipate the presence of your Bridegroom). If you observe Sabbath you do so 'to the Lord'. If you don't, that's also 'to the Lord' (Rom 14:5-9). Whatever forms of spiritual practice that exist in Jesus' kingdom are to explicitly relate to the Person of Christ.
Now apply this to any spiritual practice. The question is not whether nor is it which practices you perform, not in the first instance. The most pressing question is why. More specifically the question is how is Jesus Himself the centre of this practice? Think, for instance of bible reading. Is reading the bible a spiritual practice of yours? Why? Because that's what Christians do? Because advancing the bookmark makes you more holy? Well you've just stripped Jesus out of this spiritual practice and turned it into human religion.
Jesus spoke to the religious of his day who clung onto the scriptures as an old wineskin, yet they had no place for Jesus:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
This is simply an extension of the wineskin principle to the Scriptures. Without Jesus consciously at the centre of this practice it becomes an old wineskin - unable to cope with the reality of Jesus Himself.
Now of course the Scriptures, viewed truly, already have Jesus at the centre. In the same way fasting and Sabbath, viewed truly, always ought to have had Jesus at the centre (hence Jesus' consistent appeals to the Old Testament in Mark). But it's entirely possible that proper looking religious practices - even biblically mandated ones - can miss the whole Point. The danger is always that we hold onto spiritual forms and neglect our spiritual Centre.
What spiritual practices do we need to re-examine in this light?