Christian Mysticism

At its most basic level, the word “mysticism” refers to a direct, intimate union of a person with God through contemplation and love. The Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter can help explain why every serious Christian can and should be a mystic.

The allegory of the vine in John 15 teaches that believers in Jesus are related to him in a vital and organic way, and that their discipleship entails abiding in that relationship and demands faithfulness to it. An allegory is a figure of speech in which each element in a narrative is equated with someone or something else. Here the vine is Jesus, the farmer/vine grower is God the Father, and the branches are those who follow Jesus. Today’s text is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 13–17, whose setting is Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. Their main topic is how the community formed by the earthly Jesus can carry on when he is no longer bodily or physically present as he was during his earthly ministry. The point is that the life-giving Spirit of Jesus will still be present and active among his disciples and their successors.

In the vine allegory, Jesus is the vine in the sense that his vital energy courses through the whole plant and its branches and serves as its source of life and dynamism. The Father is the farmer or vine grower, who tends to the vine at every stage in its existence. The disciples are the branches, who depend upon both the vine and the vine grower for their growth and continuing care.

The vine grower’s activities include cutting away the dead branches and pruning back the live branches so that they may produce fruit ever more abundantly. The criterion by which the branches live or die is their productivity, or bearing fruit, by keeping Jesus’ commandments to believe and love. The disciples whom Jesus addresses have already been “pruned” through his word—that is, they have been cleansed from what prevents their bearing fruit. But just as branches cannot bear fruit unless they remain connected to the vine, so disciples of Jesus cannot bear fruit unless they remain or abide in Jesus. Those who fail to abide in Jesus can expect to be cut off, to wither up and be burned as fuel for the fire. The allegory of the vine is basic for understanding Christian mysticism. The defining character of Christian mysticism is direct, intimate union with God through the person of Jesus.

Today’s reading from 1 John 3 develops the concept of Christian mysticism from the perspective of the response expected from disciples of Jesus. First, they must express their relationship with God through Jesus “in deed and truth.” That expression evokes the Johannine concept of doing the truth. In the Johannine theological lexicon, the truth is not merely something to be contemplated, talked about and admired. Rather, the truth is something to be done, acted upon and expressed concretely. For John the truth is incarnate in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.

Doing the truth is best expressed by keeping the two great Johannine commandments: “Believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us.” Those who keep these commandments will “remain in him and he in them.” Christian mysticism in the Johannine context demands a response from the believer in the practical arena of everyday life. Doing the truth involves believing and loving, all in the framework of abiding in Christ.

The biblical prototype of the Christian mystic is the Apostle Paul. The story of Paul’s conversion and call to become the Apostle to the Gentiles is narrated three times in Acts, in Chapters 9, 22 and 26. Today’s reading from Acts 9 describes the aftermath of his transformation from being the enemy of the early Christian movement to becoming the instrument chosen by God to bring the Gospel to non-Jews.

On his own testimony (see Phil 3:4-11), Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus on the Damascus road was so powerful that it made his past accomplishments in the practice of Pharisaic Judaism seem to him like so much rubbish. From then on Paul’s whole life and energy were consumed in sharing that experience and its consequences by showing others their new dignity in Christ and encouraging them to act in ways appropriate to their new status in Christ. The classic expression of Christian mysticism comes from Paul himself: “I live, not longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Christian mysticism is not limited to a tiny minority of religious professionals or spiritual virtuosi. Rather, Christian mysticism, in its Johannine and Pauline senses, is available to all who believe, love and abide in Jesus and his Father.

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