Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fruit of the Vine: Part II

As we saw in Part I, the people of Jesus’ day drank wine as a regular part of their diet. It was a component of their social customs. They used it for medicinal purposes. It was even used in their religious ceremonies, such as the Passover. The use of wine was ingrained in their culture. Jesus knew this and He used wine as an example in his teaching. In Mark 2:22 we read:

“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.”


A wineskin is a bag or pouch made from animal skins (leather), which was used for carrying wine on long journeys. The reason we do not pour “new wine” into “old wineskins” is that new wine is still undergoing chemical changes from the fermentation process and these changes can cause expansion of the skins. Old skins have lost their flexibility and are unable to stretch to accommodate the changes occurring in the wine. However, “new skins” are still supple; they can stretch as the wine matures.

Jesus often used examples such as this from everyday life to illustrate His point to the crowds, and the people of Jesus’ time would have immediately known the reason for using new skins for new wine. Wine was as familiar to them as “the sewer and the seeds” and “the lilies of the field.” These metaphors were Jesus’ standard form of preaching and they are beautiful symbols of Christian truths. It should not surprise us then that Jesus used wine as an example in His teaching, just as He had used it as the object of His first miracle at Cana.

Jesus’ final use of wine is the most important. At the Last Supper, He took the cup filled with wine, blessed it, gave it to His disciples and said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood…”
But not all Christians agree that this cup, blessed by Jesus contained wine. Christians who substitute grape juice for wine at Communion often cite the fact that the Gospels only mention “fruit of the vine” when referring to the cup at the Last Supper. At first glance this may sound like a plausible defense, since the word “wine” is noticeably absent. But the expression used by Jesus does not rule out wine altogether. Since both wine and grape juice come from grapes, either one could fairly be called “fruit of the vine.” So focusing on this phrase alone doesn’t win points on either side.

Such arguments only succeed in avoiding the broader context of the passage, which is that the Last Supper was part of a Passover meal. Ask any observant Jew what drink is served at Passover. Wine has always been the prescribed beverage for this Jewish ceremony (a ceremony established by God in the Old Testament). When the disciples were commanded to make preparations for the Passover, they would have acquired wine, not grape juice. Therefore “fruit of the vine” must mean wine in this setting.

Add to this another important fact: the Passover is in the Spring, whereas grapes are harvested in the Fall. Since Jesus lived centuries before refrigeration or sealed containers designed for long-term storage, it would have been literally impossible for He and his disciples to acquire unfermented grape juice in the Springtime. Grapes harvested in the Fall would have spoiled long before the Passover was celebrated. So in those days, the only way to preserve the “fruit of the vine” for extended periods of time was to ferment into…wine. Therefore Jesus blessed wine at the Last Supper, not grape juice.

It seems fitting that the first miracle performed by Jesus (water changed to wine at the wedding feast) and the final act of Jesus before He is arrested and condemned to death (the Last Supper with His disciples) both involved wine. Perhaps this should offer us a clue to the importance of wine in Christian worship. Looking at everything we have examined thus far it seems clear that wine is the right choice for a Christian Communion service…

Yet some may not be convinced: “What’s the big deal?” some might argue. “Grape juice is close enough. It’s essentially the same stuff – it just hasn’t undergone the chemical process of fermentation.”

I would argue that fermentation is symbolically significant to how we understand Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper. The process of producing wine mimics Jesus’ own bodily sacrifice: To make wine we begin with grapes; these are crushed and drained of their juice. This stage of the process is symbolic of Jesus’ death – He too was crushed and His blood was shed. Next the juice is sealed up for a time. Likewise Jesus was sealed in the tomb. When the container is opened we see that the grape juice has been transformed just as Jesus was transformed when He emerged from the tomb. Jesus was changed (His body took on new properties and abilities), and yet He was the same person; so too the grape juice takes on a new existence with changed properties. Jesus’ life is extended into eternity; the wine is preserved from corruption  in a way that the grape juice is not. The comparisons are striking.

The same sort of analogy can be made with the bread: wheat is crushed by a mill stone and dough is formed from the flour; the dough is sealed in an oven for a time; the wheat emerges in a new state – as bread. Taken together, bread and wine are joint symbols of the death and Resurrection of Jesus. When we eat and drink these symbols we proclaim the mystery of Jesus’ death and Resurrection.

If we were to use grape juice instead of wine we would not have a complete image of Jesus’ triumph over death. We would consume the symbolically dead Jesus (crushed grapes), not the Resurrected, living Jesus (fermented wine). It would be like using raw bread dough in place of baked bread. It is not what Jesus did, and it does not make theological sense as a symbol of Christian faith.

A Protestant might reply: “Well, this is all very nice as far as symbols go. But if we use grape juice, what’s the harm? It is only a minor change from what Jesus did. How serious can it be?”

To realize just how serious this is, we should keep in mind that when Jesus’ commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it was His final farewell. It was the last wish of a man about to die. But this was no ordinary man, and this was no ordinary request. Jesus was not planning his memorial the way we plan a funeral. He was not choosing floral arrangements and selecting songs. Changing from wine to grape juice is not the same as substituting yellow tulips in place of the red roses that Great Aunt Betsy requested for her casket. Jesus’ memorial is something unique.

Jesus said of the bread and wine: “This is my body…This is my blood.” And Paul wrote about the Lord’s Supper: “…anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:29)

Jesus’ memorial meal is not just another funeral service (as important as these can be). Rather it is a participation in His Sacrifice. This ceremony makes His Body and Blood present to us. The bread and wine are not accessories; they are not like flowers that greet you at the funeral home, or songs that generate pleasant memories of the deceased. The bread and wine at Communion are the very means by which we come into contact with our Lord. When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me…” it is more than a suggestion about setting the right mood – He is telling us how to make His Body and Blood present to us here and now. If we deviate from Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper then we tamper with the very Body and Blood of our Lord.

Most of us would never go against the wishes of our family and friends when planning their funeral or wake. We honor their requests. But what Jesus instituted at the Last Supper is something more than a funeral. It is a memorial, to be sure, but it is beyond anything we offer on behalf of those who die. In fact it is not us who do the offering. It is He who offers us this Communion in His Body and Blood. It is not ours to reconstruct on our own terms. It is not ours to manipulate or change. What Christ offered at the Last Supper must be honored if we are to honor Christ.

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