Circles

Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

Seventh Sunday of Easter | John 17:1-11

As a child I watched magicians on television. Well, magicians, and other folks like them who performed tricks of legerdemain. There were standard tricks—the disappearing lady, things in hats, impossible numbers of plates spinning on implausibly thin poles. Then there were the rings, the metal circles, clearly solid, solidly linking, joining and rejoining into chains.

Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926
Several Circles by Vassily Kandinsky, 1926

John talks in a circle. It’s a trait that is apparent even on a casual reading of this Gospel. The story, and the language that tells it, loops back upon itself, circling, always circling, and nowhere more than in chapters 14-17, the farewell discourse of Jesus with his followers, passages John places in the narrative just before the arrest and crucifixion. Chapter 17 itself is one long prayer.

You have given him authority over all… to give eternal life to all… and this is eternal life, that they may know you…

I have glorified you,… now Father glorify me… All mine are yours and yours are mine and I am glorified in them…

And finally: …that they may be one, as we are one.

In this Gospel, everything is connected—God as Father, God as Jesus, all of us—everything is made one, touching, containing, interconnecting, rings within rings.

Each link of a chain is a separate thing, an entity in itself, a ring without beginning or end; a link can be positioned so as not to touch the rings passing through it. Nevertheless, each ring is itself part of the greater chain, whether a particular link is aware of it or not. In John’s Gospel, the ends of the chain loop back, a circle made of circles, and for this Gospel, unbreakable.

We might reflect on a single link in an unbreakable chain, which is our own place in John’s view—part of a chain, part of the circle, part of a living vine. We might be held in a perfect position so as to touch nothing. We may not feel the embrace of any other link—the world may pass by us, through us, touching nothing. Though we feel nothing, still the other links pass within us, encircling us, holding us. Nothing can remove them. Nothing can separate us.

Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923
Circles in a Circle by Vassily Kandinsky, 1923

There are some chains that enslave us, chains that weigh us down, rattling and dragging behind us, chains of our own making, like Marley in Charles Dickens, or chains made by human hands, by human slavers, to trade and profit from human misery. Then there is this chain, weightless, unseen, that binds nothing but itself, connecting us to God, to all that is good, to one another—this chain is not what we wear, it is who we are.

Embracing God, we realize that God already embraces us.

Thirty-Eight Years

Pool with lilies and a dragon

Sixth Sunday of Easter | John 5:1-18

Thirty-Eight Years

“There was one man who had been ill for thirty-eight years,” John tells us. We do not hear how many of those years the man may have lain near this pool, hoping for a cure. Thirty-eight years. It is such an odd detail, but not the only one. This story, a gospel story no less, speaks of a pool stirred by an angel, and of people being healed when entering the water, a miraculous baptism.

The fourth verse, the one that tells of angels stirring the water, is almost certainly a later addition to the text, not written by the same hand that gave us the rest of the story. Still, the pool was real enough, matching a pool excavated on the site, with four surrounding colonnades and a dividing partition — the five porticoes of the Gospel description. Perhaps there were indeed stories of an angel who stirred the water, not unlike Muslim stories of a pool stirred by a jinn.¹ Whatever the reason, this crippled man waited beside the pool.

He isn’t the cleverest person there, our crippled man, that much is certain. He has figured no way to get into the water quickly, and he even seems to be whining about his chosen spot at some distance from the water and his lack of a helper. Later he does not have the good sense to avoid the questions of the religious leaders, who themselves ironically ignore his miraculous cure in their indignation that such a thing would be done on the Sabbath. Never mind the miracle: this man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath.Water dripping into a container

Imagine, God breaking the Sabbath rules these men had made, or encouraging someone else to break them.

Religion has never lacked for small minds.

Consider the person Jesus chose. The healed man demonstrates no faith in anything but in the properties of the pool, and he has never managed to act on that. He does not know who Jesus is. He offers no reason to be favored by God or by anyone else. He is dim witted, undeserving, a rat who goes out of his way to inform on the man who gave him everything he wanted.

Jesus picks him, out of however many others were lying there, and we see no good reason for his choice. It appears whimsical, but must be for a purpose — Jesus finds the man a second time and speaks to him again. Whatever the reason for his choice, this healing is an act of pure grace.

We might think on that act of grace, and on the man who received it. Looking at him, we can lay aside our notions of earning favor, or even of having sufficient faith, which comes to the same thing — we try to buy God’s favor with the fervent currency of belief, but this crippled man had nothing going for him.

He is stupid, ungrateful, a rat, and Jesus helps him anyway. Maybe by looking at him we can make a more honest assessment of ourselves, our supposed worthiness (for anything), and the depth of our belief.

After all, faith is not currency, that we should offer it in exchange for what we want from God and the universe. Neither is faith magic, that we should use it to influence God and the universe to do what we want.

Faith isn’t a price we pay, and it is not a crutch for a crippled mind. It is a response. Faith is the acceptance, and the acknowledgment, of grace, no matter how many years we spend waiting for the water to stir.


¹ Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII), AB 29 (New York:
Doubleday, 1966), 207.

Pool with Dragon


Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John — reimagining this story in the Gospel of John from the points of view of the disciple John and of an angel named Adriel. I hope you enjoy it.

 

John

The pool was crowded, but the light reflecting from the water brightened the pillars and the mosaics. So many sick people, waiting for this miraculous cure—jump in the pool when the water moves. It was ridiculous. They must have been idiots as well as invalids, because that water was never going to move on its own. Not that a bath wouldn’t do some of them good, but they’d likely drown as soon as they rolled themselves in the pool.

I’m sure that the Romans thought they were idiots. They thought we all were, anyone who wasn’t Roman. The sooner we passed through, the better.

Jesus stopped, though, and so did we. He was looking around at the invalids, and some of them were looking back at us. No doubt they were hoping for charity. I felt awkward just standing looking at them. Peter, his hair at all angles, stared at the people lying on their mats as though they were something odd washed up on the shore. I was trying to think of something to say quietly to Jesus to get us moving again. No good could come of a bunch of us standing here looking at these people.

Jesus stepped past a blind fellow, his head bobbing around like a bird as he slept sitting against a pillar, and stood at the feet of a paralyzed man. He was perfectly still, watching Jesus and only glancing at the rest of us. I could see daylight streaming through a portico. I was thinking that if we quietly walked through that opening, perhaps Jesus would follow us.

“Do you want to be made well?” Jesus asked the man. A stupid question, I thought. I was embarrassed.

The man explained that he did not have anyone to help him get to the water when it was stirred by angels. Angels, I thought. Really. I just wanted to walk quietly into the light of the portico, melt into the people going along into the city, but we couldn’t leave Jesus standing there.

“Stand up,” Jesus said to the invalid. “Take your mat and walk.”

The man’s legs were shriveled, a waste, and Jesus was telling him to stand up. Peter was over at the other side, jutting his great head forward and staring, first at Jesus then at the man’s legs. I felt like everything stopped, just for a moment, the particles of dust in the sunlight stopped without movement, and it seemed that I heard water gurgling, a fountain or splashing.

The man was looking into Jesus’ eyes, then the man put his arms out and started pushing himself upright. That’s when he moved his knee, drawing his leg up toward him, and he stopped again for a moment, alarmed. Around me, the other sick men were moving as well, dragging themselves toward the pool where the water was swirling.

“The angels stirred it,” I said, then I put my hand over my mouth, not believing I had said it. We began helping the men into the pool, all of them except the one in front of Jesus. That man stood up on his own, Peter reaching toward him to steady him in case he fell. Peter was staring at the man’s legs. They were as straight and as muscular as my own.

I felt someone take my arm, a blind man sitting near me, and I began helping him toward the pool. All of them, all the sick, we put into the pool, and I couldn’t tell if the water was moving because of them or on its own. As soon as the blind fellow I was helping stepped into the water he stopped and turned to me. He was looking at me, looking at my face as though I was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I realized he could see.

I looked back at Jesus, but he just walked through the portico into the sunlight, the dust in the air making him vanish as he went.

Adriel

Jesus is talking to the crippled man near the wall, but I cannot focus on his words. The blind man near me is thinking too loudly, and he is difficult to understand. He is blind from birth, and all of his thoughts blend the abstract and the concrete, a place name with a sound, feelings of fear and the touch of leather, memories of home with the smell of bread, and I realize too late that he is dreaming the dreams of the blind. Dreams are dangerous at best, but with his odd sensory associations I am captivated, falling, not seeing the ground but knowing it is there.

I fall into a pool, and the water envelops me. It should not matter. I am not a physical being, but the blind man’s dreams make me reach out to touch this world, and suddenly the water knows I am there.

Miraculous. They lay here expecting the water to move, and it does.

I rise from the water to gauge whether anyone has seen, and the man Jesus is looking at me. He says nothing, just turns unsurprised and continues talking with the invalid.

There are more splashes, and some of the people are hurling themselves into the pool, water surging out onto the tile floor. The healthy men and women who had been following Jesus start helping the sick into the pool. It is madness, a bizarre game of Adriel Says, though I have said nothing, just fallen into the water.

I feel the power, though, power that is in the water with me, not from me. The sick ones are changing, leaving the pool with stronger bodies. The dust stirred by the crowd sparkles in the sunlight, and the water splashing from the pool and dripping from their bodies mirrors the light. Jesus is already walking away, and the blind man is staring at one of the followers, both of them wet and dripping.

A Quality of Love

Fifth Sunday of Easter | John 13:31-35

When we love, we give — though usually of our excess, and usually with some thought of what we might receive in return. That is not the love described in John’s Gospel.

We give of what we have. God gives of what God is. Love looks for nothing, needs no reward: love is its own end.

That love, divine love, perfect love, God’s love, never springs from excess — God always gives all. Perfect love is never from thought of gain — God always has all. God is complete — there is nothing extra to give away, nothing missing to fulfill. The gift of the divine, the love of God, is God giving of God’s self, always complete, with nothing lacking, and with nothing to spare.

Father and Daughter 2Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the best reason, the truest reason, to love God is God. Love God for God’s own sake. Jesus commands that we love one another the same way, for the same reason, for love’s own sake, for God’s own sake.

It is impossible, of course. Perfect love, like anything other perfection though more so, is impossible for anyone but God.

So what are we mere mortals to do? Cease trying?

Everything we do is lacking and incomplete. Everything from home remodeling to recipes, gardening to spaceships, poetry to medicine — all of it is imperfect, lacking, missing something, not ideal.

Father and Daughter 3The ideal is unattainable. Our problem is that John’s Gospel does not present God’s love as an ideal. It is presented as a reality, a path, a command.

Love one another, as I have loved you.

We might say that Jesus was setting his followers an impossible task. Or we might say he was setting them on the path, the Way, of this gospel message.

Evangelical Christianity places so much emphasis on the cross, on earnestly explaining what God accomplished there, on offering opaque arguments about sin and redemption and God’s requirement for atoning sacrifice. Never mind that by the time of Jesus the prophets had already moved beyond sacrifice.

Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:7-8)

As much as anything else, the crucifixion was an act of love — on the part of Jesus — God giving God’s own self to the world, an act of love undiminished by human judgment and violence. Killing Jesus on that cross was an act of human aggression, fear, resentment, transference. In accepting that death, Jesus responded with the same love he had shown his disciples.

We need not agree on the theological explanations of the cross. Jesus himself spent little time explaining. He did not command his followers to explain. He commanded them to love one another. Explanations, and the ensuing arguments over them, do not feed the hungry, clothe the poor, or shelter the homeless.

We are not commanded to explain the gospel. We are commanded to live it.

We are not even commanded to be right. We are simply commanded to love.

Father and daughter

Holding On

Blowing Bubbles

Second Sunday of Easter | John 20:19-31

Holding On

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  How people love to argue over that passage. Hold on, though, don’t turn away just yet—past the arguments, there may be something useful here, something practical.

It is no surprise that the Church has argued over this Jesus saying, much as they have over so many other passages, so many other notions, so many other lines in the sand. The world around us, and sometimes the world within us, is full of lines, walls, cracks, divides, most of them no more real or substantial than the edge of a cloud. People push other people away, or draw them closer, all for their relative positions, their ideas, their sexuality, their color, their religion or absence of one, their poverty or wealth, their education or ignorance.

None of that is particularly useful.

Oh, there are all sorts of theological arguments and ideas, if you are inclined to that sort of thing. Much of it comes down to who has power and authority over whom, which seems to miss the point. For instance, was the power of forgiveness (or the power to withhold it) given only to the twelve (or the eleven who were left after Judas) and so by implication limited to their spiritual descendants, the ordained priests who claim to trace their line unbroken through the patchy bits of history to the select few who received the Spirit of God from Christ himself? Or, is this forgiveness (or lack of it) tied solely to baptism, limited to entrance into the Church? Or, is Jesus talking about sins committed prior to baptism or those that follow it? And what sort of sin is he talking about, and just what constitutes a sin anyway…?

Blowing BubblesYou see why I say none of it is useful. Nothing in those arguments will get us through a dark night of the soul. There is nothing that would even brighten a cloudy afternoon. It is like giving a thirsty child a cup of honey–it’s very nice, but it won’t help.

Wait it a moment, though. How about this idea of retaining and forgiving, holding and releasing? There might be something useful in there.

How about the burdens we carry? You know, the ones we hold onto. And how about sin, however we understand it (it’s a bit like pornography — we know it when we see it), our own and that of others? We don’t really need to define sin to know it. Or experience it. Or regret it. Or do it, whether it is against God, or against other people, or against ourselves.

Burdens. Sins. Short fallings. Disappointments. Mistakes. Regrets. Injuries. Loss. I don’t know yours, and anyway yours are probably different than mine. We all have them, all of these things, in different measures and degrees and times, but we all have them.With a Bubble

This Gospel claims that God empowers people to hold onto these burdens or to lay them down. More than that, it claims that this Spirit of God empowers people to help someone else do the same thing — to let go, to lay down a burden, or perhaps the opposite, to hold onto something precious, to carry a responsibility, to keep a shoulder to the wheel.

After all, the things we carry are not always burdens, and being unfettered and unburdened is not always freedom.

And who gets such power to hold or to release, to forgive or to be forgiven? Well, in this Gospel, Jesus was talking to everyone who was there. He breathed the Spirit of God into everyone present. There is no list of names, no picking this one but not that one. They are just called οἱ μαθηταὶ (mathetai, from the same word that gives us “mathematics”, or ‘that which is learned’.) These are the disciples, all who were there, without limitation.

Jesus breathed onto his followers so that they might breathe in the Spirit of God. It is the image and symbolism of God breathing life into the world all over again.

It is a creation story, a new beginning. It is a love story. It is the miracle of forgiveness and of healing, the Easter story of God-whom-we-killed returning to fill us with the life that imbues all creation.

It is the power of letting go of what needs to be let go. It is the power of holding on to what needs to be kept and carried. And it is for everyone, the very breath of God.
__________

From this same Gospel, compare John 8:31-32: Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Blowing Bubbles

A Story About Ordinary Things

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560

Second Sunday after the Epiphany | John 2:1-11

A Story About Ordinary Things

It was only wine and water, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find at a wedding, nothing to grab your attention. The first great sign, the first astounding miracle Jesus performs, at least according to the gospel story as John tells it, is done with such ordinary things, changing water into wine, and for an audience who have already drunk enough to make their testimony unreliable.

Ask any good defense attorney whether party people make good witnesses, or whether a jury will believe a mother testifying for her son.

The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460
The Marriage at Cana by Gerard David c.1450/1460

Still, in telling the simple story of a wedding, this Gospel opens our minds to the idea of God—the God of “Let there be light”—at work in the lives of ordinary people like ourselves. Thought about long enough, it is a little odd, a little unsettling.

And why do we get this story? Why all these stories at all, instead of just a list of assertions, ideas about God, rules about living, that sort of thing? What is it about telling stories, even all these short stories stitched together, that makes the gospels so compelling?

If you tell people what you think, they can agree or disagree or perhaps ignore you altogether, forget about it. On the other hand, if you tell them a story, the story gets into their heads, and they are stuck with it.

Stories we tell people, whether they believe us or not, have a way of getting past the firewalls in their minds. It is what we are hardwired for—ever since the first camp fires, we’ve listened to stories, and we’ve told them over and over to ourselves in our minds.

So on this passage for this week, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to tell you a story, the same story, actually, just told a little differently from the way it sounds in the Gospel of John.

Here it is, as retold in my novel I,John. I hope you enjoy it.

Water

I did not know the family, but we had been invited. We were gathered in the courtyard, a group within the group, although Peter was going around talking and laughing, his great shaggy head easy to spot. I was sitting near Jesus in the shade of a fig bush just tall enough to offer a screen from the sun, and I saw Mary making her way toward him before he saw her, although I was never sure what Jesus knew about his surroundings. He picked people from the crowd when I had not seen them, ignored others who were standing in front of him.

Mary could not be ignored. She waved at people across the courtyard and smiled at them, then came and knelt beside Jesus. She reached up and rubbed his shoulder, and I supposed she was happy to see her son. That’s when I noticed two servants had followed her from within the house.

“They are running out of wine,” she said.

Jesus sighed.

“What do you want me to do about that?” he said. “It is not my party, and it is not my time. This is their day. Their party.”

Mary ignored him and waved the servants over.

“Do what he tells you,” she said. Jesus just sighed again, looking around the courtyard. It was only a little theatrical, enough to say, ‘See how much I love her, even when she annoys me.’

He pointed at some large stone jars standing at the wall of the house.

“Go and fill them with water,” he told them. It was not a small task. Each jar would hold a number of buckets of water, and the process would be tiresome in the heat. The servants looked at him, then at Mary. She nodded and shooed them with her hand.

“Go ahead,” she said. “Do what he told you.”

They did not look happy, but they hurried over to a well and began pulling up buckets of water and carrying them to the stone jars. It was warm enough in the courtyard that the sound of the water was welcome. When they had filled all of the jars, they stood waiting to see what idiotic task they would have next. I knew that if this ended badly, we would be leaving quickly, but things never ended badly around Jesus, at least not until that very last thing. I sat still and quiet, waiting like the servants.

Jesus appeared to be lost in thought. Mary nudged him in the side, and he turned to look at the stone jars, wet with the water splashed on the sides and along the tiles near them.

“Draw some out, and take it to your steward,” he said.

They stood with backs straight, looking first at Jesus then across the courtyard at the head servant who already appeared displeased with all the water carrying. Then, dour and resigned, one of them took a dipper and filled it from a jar. Drops fell dark on the ground. With round eyes he stared at the liquid all the while that he walked across the courtyard. The head servant took it and tasted it, the disgust on his face shifting to surprise.

Quickly he sent the man back and told them both to draw more from the jars and to serve it to the guests. Some of them had been watching as well, and the rest certainly noticed when they began to drink the new wine. We would not be leaving quickly after all, it seemed. Mary was enormously pleased and went off to talk to someone, probably to say that she was the mother of the one who had brought the wine they were now tasting.

As I said, things tended not to end badly with Jesus, not until that very bad ending itself. That was a different sort of event anyway, more something that Jesus endured than something he did. This was like the people at the pool, the blind man who stared at my face in amazement. It was a sign, a sign for us, for Mary, and for as many of the people who realized what had happened. At the same time, it was ordinary, just wine being served at a wedding. What was miraculous about that? It was only a miracle if one saw it as a miracle.

Of course, that was always the case, I thought. Maybe those crippled men who got up and walked out of that pool weren’t really crippled, maybe they had been pretending for the sake of being able to beg money from those who worked for a living. It was possible that the blind man was the same, pretending, and when Jesus caught him in his pretense, he had to abandon it. Of course, that would have been a sort of miracle, some would argue, just not one that required the power of God. I think that changing the behavior of men like that would require more power, be the greater miracle. Changing the mind is a greater sign than healing the body.

But I saw that blind man, saw his eyes when he could not see me. And I saw the amazement on his face when he could see me, when I was suddenly the most beautiful thing in his world. I knew things that the people sitting here drinking wine did not know, and even when we told them, some would never believe.

I got up and walked along the row of jars, and I saw my face reflected in the new dark wine.

This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find more about the novel I,John here.

Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560
Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto, c.1560