A Vision of Life by Ed Burns

Back in the late 1950s and the early ’60s, at the beginning of the civil rights movement in this country, the African American novelist James Baldwin wrote these words: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter even by a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

All revolutions—those that build up our humanity and those that tear it down—begin with some kind of vision. Every one of us has a certain vision of life, of our own lives, a way of seeing the world. Our overall vision of how we regard the world in which we find ourselves gives us a perspective on how to interpret the events and the people we encounter. The way in which we envision our lives provides us with, if not clear answers, at least some direction, some convictions about those basic questions we all must ask ourselves from time to time.

For example: Is the world we live in ultimately trustworthy, or is it simply absurd and meaningless? Do we have reason to have a sense of hope in our lives and for the people around us? Or should we simply be cynics or, worse yet, despairing of our humanity? Should we even bother ourselves with trying to answer questions like these? I’m sure we all know someone who believes that when you die, you die, and beyond that there is nothing. Shakespeare wrote about that vision of life centuries ago when he described Macbeth lamenting that “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Jesus also had a vision of life, both his life and ours, and his whole mission on earth was to alter the way people saw the world. His vision of life has now come to be called, simply and profoundly, the “Good News,” or the Gospel.

In the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 6:13–16), Jesus confronts us and the world at large with a key and fundamental question, one that those who profess the Christian faith certainly cannot avoid. He asks, “Who do you say that I am?” How each one of us answers that question will determine how we see the world, and how we are called upon to act in it. If our answer is the same as the apostle Peter, that is, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” then we have made an act of faith; we have made a personal commitment to see the world in the same manner as Jesus saw the world.

And how did Jesus see the world? He saw this incredible, awesome creation as God’s gracious gift to the human race. And he saw the human race as the beloved sons and daughters of his Father, of God. He saw himself as one of us, a brother, one like us in all things. Beyond that, he saw himself as having a mission to bring this good news about who we are, this astounding truth about ourselves, to every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth. He saw this sometimes sad, sometimes frightening, sometimes violent, sometimes suffering, and sometimes joyful human race as being encompassed by and held fast in the loving embrace of his Father, who would not let go of his children come hell or high water.

That is how Jesus saw the world. That is the vision that drove him throughout his short life and to his early horrific death inflicted upon him because he would not renounce his vision. He would not let go of the way he saw things. So if our own personal answer to the question Jesus posed to the Apostles is the same as Peter’s, then we are pledging ourselves to live out this same vision of Jesus in our own lives as best we can.

If we reflect on the way early Christian communities sprang up and spread so rapidly throughout the Roman Empire, we would surely have to say that this vision of Jesus which took hold of the hearts and lives of his followers did indeed create a revolution. Within 150 years following the death of Jesus, Christian communities were flourishing in every part of the then-known world. Within 350 years, at the time of Constantine, the Christian religion was declared to be the official religion of the entire Roman Empire. Up until that point, the revolution that occurred was a peaceful one on the part of the Christian believers. That is to say, Christianity did not take over the Roman Empire by force—just the contrary. The followers of Christ had no standing armies; they had no imperial governing bodies; they had no political power structure. They had only the original vision of Jesus and a new way of living in the world. In fact, the name given to the early Christian Church was simply “the Way.” Others at the time who were not Christian marveled at this new way of living which they did not understand. “See how these Christians love one another!” they exclaimed.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom. 12:2). And in his letter to the community at Philippi, he makes explicit what he means by “the renewing of your minds.” He says, “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). In these passages, Paul is saying to those who had come to believe that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” that they also now participated in the inner life of Christ and shared intimately in his own vision. Now they also were enabled to see the world in a new and different way. Their original vision of the world had been radically altered.

It takes courage, sometimes great courage, to hold fast to the vision of Jesus and to act upon it. Sometimes it requires heroic sanctity. In our own times, we need only think about the Christian communities living in places like Nigeria, Yemen, the Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and many other places on the globe. Most of us are not likely to be called upon to endure violent abuse and persecution for our faith. At least not so far. Still, we are all called to live a life of sanctity. And that call has its own kind of challenges and demands. It is one that is not to be achieved in moments of great crisis or persecution, but one that is ordinarily lived out over the long haul, even over a lifetime.

Noted theologian Karl Rahner has described well what I would call the “ordinary way to holiness.” This is what he says: “God is the Lord not only of the holy days of life. He has created not only sublime things; it is his holy will that the little things also should live, and that he should be glorified in what appears to us the insignificant monotonies of our life. In this everyday life, we must bear in mind that we belong to him in every department of our lives. Through our whole life, his praise must rise up to heaven . . . if we would only accept our ordinary life as God’s charisma, our burden would be eased and we should be happy in this world.”

The vision of Jesus radically alters the way we see and interpret reality. His vision involves us in a paradox. What was previously considered to be ordinary has now become extraordinary; what appeared as mundane is now regarded as sacred; what was earthbound in our lives has now become a sacrament. This is the vision of Christ. Let us endeavor to have this vision in us which was also in Christ Jesus.

Ed Burns is a family therapist living in Litchfield, Connecticut. He preaches monthly at Trinity Episcopal Church in Milton, Connecticut.

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