It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Immediately before his arrest Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples. He prayed for their mission, for their unity as a group, and for their unity through him and with the Father. The final part of this prayer is read on the Sunday before Pentecost. It is one of those mind-bending scriptural passages that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. Some readers simply scan it, not absorbing a word, or they turn the page in search of something Jesus says that is easier to understand, something like “love one another.”

But this prayer from Jesus to his Father on his friends’ behalf is beautiful and enlightening and deserves to be read slowly. Jesus’ words challenge us to wade into our deepest spiritual waters in order to contemplate this union we share with God and with one another. Sitting with this reading can help us make sense of our Christian mission.

As part of my own study of the text, and to feed my logic (which is illogical) I attempted to diagram Jesus’ words. Pencil in hand, I began to draw circles.

In my mind this “you in me, and I in you, and they in us, and we are one, and I in them and you in me, and I know you and they know that you sent me, and your love for me is my love for them, and therefore, our love is in them,” (deep breath) takes the form of concentric circles that expand and recede and shift to accommodate the fullness of the described union in an endlessly twirling helix.

My first attempt was to place God at the center of the Jesus circle, which I put at the center of the disciple circle, in which both the Father and Son dwelt. Hmmm.

Dissatisfied, I drew another set of concentric circles with disciples in the center of the Jesus circle, who was in the center of the God circle. But no.

Then I drew two concentric circles, one with Jesus at God’s center, and then God at Jesus’ center which was just as confounding as my earlier attempts because each one resulted in a picture of a picture of a picture, and so on. This is known to visual artists as mise en abyme, which translated from French means “placing into infinity.” In painting and photography mise en abyme can continue only so far as the artist is able to depict it; eventually, the image becomes too small to be perceived. Although it is theologically intriguing, the mise en abyme was inadequate. Or, was it?

My final attempt involved two overlapping circles, one for the Father and one for Jesus, with the disciples in the intersection of the two. This sketch I tossed out immediately because the union of the father and son was more representative of a mutual giving between two persons whose “product,” for lack of a better word, is revealed in the giving, such as in a family. Hmmm. Not perfect, but not bad, either. I sketched it again.

These attempts to diagram a satisfactory translation of Jesus’ prayer were inadequate precisely because the relationship between the Father and Jesus and Jesus’ followers cannot be contained or reduced to a concept of fractal geometry or artistic theory. So, you see, I have not added any clarity to the discussion. I apologize.

However, inadequacy is not the same as fallacy. The mise en abyme, the overlapping circles and the endlessly twirling helix each hold a portion of the truth.

  • Jesus is and always has been in the picture of the picture of the picture of God. In today’s second reading from Revelations, which we have been reading throughout Easter, John tells of hearing a voice that self-identifies as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” and as “I, Jesus,” the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus’ death was a departure, a transition; he returned to the Father where he has dwelt since “before the foundation of the world.” [John 17:24c].
  • And of his friends, Jesus says “Father, they are your gift to me.” [John 17:24]. It is a mystery why seekers begin and continue to search for God, or, in the case of the poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), who wrote about the divine pursuit in The Hound of Heaven, why they attempt to resist their spiritual stirrings. But Jesus’ words acknowledge that Peter and James and John, and all the other apostles, and every disciple and follower throughout Christian history, including you and me have found our way to him because of the Spirit’s urging, inspiration, and nudging; we have accepted the invitation to know God through Jesus.
  • The fullness of our union with God and Jesus and with one another is very much like an endlessly twirling helix. Christians understand that Jesus—the Word made flesh—made God known through his teachings and actions and love. Jesus remains, he dwells within the hearts of his followers, not so they can hoard Jesus for themselves but so they can share him. Jesus has made God known, and it is now the task of the disciples to do the same—this is the work of the evangelist—you and me.

mise en abyme

And here is the message about our mission. Unlike Jesus’ actual disciples, none of us can claim to have known the man, Jesus. We only know what has been passed on to us and what we have experienced with Jesus.

It is that experience—our interaction—that we share. We can spout off bible verses and tell people what the church and theologians say about Jesus, but without a heartfelt expression of one’s own experience, these things are dry, inconclusive, and unconvincing. Jesus expressed his loving relationship with God with his words and works and his love for God and his followers. Our job is no different.

Looking at my sketches now I began to notice something resembling a seed within a seed within a seed, and it occurs to me that this “seeding” is the work of God, the work of Jesus, and the work which we have been commissioned to fulfill. This is the union. We in them, them in us, Christ in all, Christ in God, God in all things.

We receive the gift of life-giving water which Jesus offers us and we accept our Christian mission: to make God known to future generations through our unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This is the way of being that has the power to change the world.

In my mind, I imagine hearing Jesus speak to me, “I wish you could experience what I know about the Father. I want this for you, for you to know this. Because, if you knew God as I do, you would love one another as I have loved you. But the world does not know God, and this is why loving is so difficult. This is what you do know: you know that my works are of God, you know that I am of God. All that I say and do, these words and works are not my own, but God’s. It all comes from God. Listen, if you know me and you know these things about me, you know God. God’s love for me is my love for you. It is one and the same.”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

3 thoughts on “It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

  1. Susan, I’m awed but not surprised you’d use visual means to understand this mysterious passage. And I love the fact that it bears fruit in the form of an increased understanding in words. Thank you for making the complicated things seem a little clearer!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Delightful approach – theo-doodling! I loved the image you described and the image you used in the post: so good.

    Complications, though, are deep in life’s design! I am always reminded when I see the word ‘complicated’ of the theologian, Catherine Keller’s intriguing imaging (she would say explication) of the word/concept as ‘fold upon fold’. (See Cloud of the Impossible, 23-24 … Viewable on Google books, if you’re interested)

    Liked by 1 person

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