Mission begins with a kind of explosion of joy.
– Lesslie Newbigin
The juggernauty growth of the gospel (Col. 1:6) requires newness all around. It is bursting through our lives and structures. It is utterly transformative. This is what we see in the breakneck pace with which Mark records the Gospel of Jesus’ life and work. He wants us to see (1) the absolute depths of joy and (2) the extraordinary wideness of transformation this joy has. The sheer authority of Jesus’ teaching results in deliverance, healing, restoration, and resurrection. How come?
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 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 in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
– Mark 2:18-22
How is this talk of cloths and wineskins connected to the question about fasts? I think it goes something like this:
The Mosaic Law only really required one regular fast. The others that occupied the Jewish calendar grew up around traditions. Not bad things in and of themselves. It is possible that John’s disciples were fasting because he had either already been imprisoned or executed. They likely fasted out of mourning. The disciples of the Pharisees likely fasted out of tradition, which became an idol for many of them (see Luke 18:12). One kind of fasting (grief, expectation) was legitimate, the other not. But Jesus’ disciples weren’t going with the flow of the traditions mainly because they had nothing to grieve (yet) and no merit to glory in. They had Messiah, and having Messiah means having fullness of joy (John 15:11).
Jesus goes on to connect the man-made traditions and ceremonies to outdated structures not suitable for the new wine of the gospel. This joy is growing, going forth into the world and bearing fruit. It cannot be grafted onto brittle, inflexible institutions. The gospel is not just for Jews, but for Greeks as well. It is for the unclean, the ungodly, and the outcasts. All that came before is fulfilled now in Christ. The light by nature cannot be confined to the shadows. It must spill out, shine forth.
There is a time to fast (Ecclesiastes 3), but those united to Christ are not to be typefied by grief but by joy, even in hardship (Hab. 3:17-18, Rom. 12:12, Phil. 4:4, 1 Thess. 5:16, 1 Pet. 4:13). This means that joy must run deep. And if joy runs deep, it will overflow and run wide.
When we have this deep joy, we navigate seasons of suffering and brokenness with both the firmness of faith and the flexibility of it. We are able to confidently say, “This day” — with all its troubles — “is the day the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24) Because we know that the joy is so deep, it will buoy our souls for all eternity.
The ferment of the gospel needs the wineskin of the church, which shall be made up of every tongue, tribe, and nation. The Jewish ceremonial laws and temple system are no longer sufficient for the purposes of God’s glory covering the whole earth like the waters cover the sea.
The ferment of the gospel needs the wineskin of missional adaptability. Our traditions and structures must serve the joy of Christ and his kingdom, not the other way around.
The ferment of gospel joy needs the wineskin of new hearts (Psalm 119:32, 2 Corinthians 6:13, Ezekiel 36:26). We must be born again to be a new creation.
As we look to however many more days God will grant us, for ourselves as Christians and for our churches, let us commit to proclamation of the gospel, that it would settle deep into our bones, soaking into the marrow, enlarging our hearts that we might run in spreading the news that Christ is King, casting aside all that hinders us, including even religious, churchy things.
And when the gospel changes our attitude to depths of joy, it will change the latitude of our missional boundaries to widespread transformation. This is the joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).