There used to be a feature in the Sunday Buffalo News called The Magic Eye. At first glance, it appeared to be the kind of image you’d see on your computer screen when the mother board was failing, a mass of colorful, squiggly, incoherent lines. But if you changed your perspective and focused your eyes the right way, it suddenly transformed into a three-dimensional image. The key to making sense of it was to change your perspective.
The Magic Eye was more than a clever optical illusion; it became a metaphor for life. Thomas Moore – psychotherapist, former monk, and author of many popular spiritual books including Care of the Soul – has said, “It’s my conviction that slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change. . . . [D]eep changes in life follow movements in imagination.” If we change the way we look at life and shift our imagination a bit, we can sometimes see things in a way that radically changes our experience of life and even changes life itself.
Jesus often spoke of the reign of God that is close at hand, as close as our breath, spread over the earth, but present in a way most people ordinarily had trouble seeing. Because it was difficult to speak about, he often asked questions that seemed to have no good answer. Or he told parables, stories that made no sense at first but that could jolt his hearers out of their usual way of thinking, engage their imagination, and open them to a new way of seeing life. And that new way of seeing would often open the door to the new life they called the kingdom of God.
For example, “Which one of you,” Jesus asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it” (Luke 15:4)? Of course we’d say at first, “Wait a minute! It makes no sense to risk ninety-nine sheep in the uncertain hope of saving one. What prudent person would do such a thing?” And we’d start adding details to the story, trying to create sense where none seemed to exist.
Another way to approach the question is to step back and find a different, larger perspective, perhaps to imagine God’s perspective, which presumably would be Jesus’ perspective. We tend to think dualistically and divide things – good or bad, gain or loss, either-or, the ninety-nine or the one – so we weigh the value of one lost sheep against the value of the many that remain. But what if in God’s perspective no such division exists, there are only a hundred sheep – some here and one there, perhaps, but all held equally in God’s unfailing care?
What if we look at our lives as we might look at the ninety-nine sheep, realizing that something is missing, some quality that in its absence leaves us vaguely hungry for something more but that, if found, would make us full and whole? In that case we would not necessarily abandon the rest of our lives, but we would seek the missing piece, the piece that if found would make the picture of our lives snap into clarity.
That’s the way Jesus understood God to look at the human family – some here, some there, and all under God’s unfailing care – and it’s how he understood God to be at work in Jesus. Saint Paul put it this way: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). In Christ God was gathering everyone, without exception, into a single, all-inclusive community of love in which no one is left out, no one is lost. Paul understood that in Jesus that work was accomplished. He also understood that the role of the church was to embody that good news, to shape our lives after that good news, and to share that good news with others.
Jesus of Nazareth was the body of Christ 2,000 years ago, and we, the church, are the body of Christ today. We’re the community in which Christ today takes on human form and finds expression in the world. And since we are the body of Christ, the central aim of our ministry in the spirit of Jesus is the reconciliation of all persons into a single, all-inclusive community of love. It’s a community in which no one is devalued or left out, a community in which all people are necessary for the healing and wholeness of each one. Paul wrote, “there is no longer Jew or Greek [by which he meant there is no longer Jew or non-Jew], there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). There was no longer any division that separates us into separate groups. Every division founded on differences in physical, social, economic, political, cultural, gender, sexual orientation, or religious orientation no longer stands.
That gives us our identity and tells us who we are. And it gives us our commission; it tells us what we are to be doing in the world. No matter the variety of other things it may do, no matter how its particular ministries may be described, an authentically Christian congregation will be clearly focused on reconciling those who are estranged from God’s community of love. It will be clearly and uncompromisingly focused on reaching out to the least, the last, and the lost and making certain they have a place at the table – not because we’re commanded to do so, because it’s our job, but because we know we cannot be made whole without everyone else being made whole.
A colleague of mine recently shared a story that makes the point. There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned how he grew it. The reporter learned that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors,” the reporter asked, “when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” “Well sir,” the farmer replied, “didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and blows it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I’ve got to help my neighbors grow good corn.”
That’s the way it is with our lives in God’s reign. If we want to live meaningfully and richly and well, we must help enrich the lives of others. The value of our lives is measured by the value we add to the lives of others. Those who want to live an abundant life must help others live abundant lives, until no one is less than anyone else, no one is last, no one is lost.