Following Christ

An engineer, an artist, and a computer programmer joined forces in 1991 to manipulate a repeating pattern so that a 3D image could be hidden in a 2D pattern. The result? A new optical illusion craze – magic eye. First, the 3D image is created in greyscale with the parts that appear farthest away darkest and the parts that are closer progressively lighter. Then the 3D image is hidden by a repeating 2D pattern.

The object that will be seen is placed first…it is there all the time. You have to learn to see it. The longer you look the more defined it is and you can then look around and see the whole image. But, it is easy to blink away and have to refocus. It can be hard to ever see it at all, and some people never do.

When you are not able to see the image, it is because your eyes are not working together. One eye may have become dominant over the other eye, or you may have a misalignment of your eyes, or you may have a cataract clouding your vision. The message from each of your eyes to your brain is not able to be merged into one, so you are not able to perceive the depth within the image.

The Christ hymn that Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippians has this kind of depth. The center of the hymn is the focus: “He gave up everything and became a servant, and became one of us. When he When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

New Testament scholar Frederick Weidmann helps us be able to see by reframing how we look at Jesus’ life. He says that for Paul, the guiding ethical question is not “What would Jesus do?” but “What has Christ Jesus done?” When we focus on what Jesus has done, we see the depth and beauty of what Christ has done and the camouflage of the repeating patterns of life are clearly not what is important in the big picture.

Paul is already able to see the depth of what Christ has done. Remember, he is writing a thank you note to the church at Philippi – one of the churches he founded – for sending food and supplies to him in prison, where he is being held and where it is not unlikely that he will be executed. He assures them that he is at peace with whatever happens – if he lives, it will be to serve Christ; and if he dies, he will be with Christ. By maintaining focus on Christ’s life and death, Paul is able to see the depth of what Christ Jesus has done clearly. And he is able to pull the image back and look around and see prior to Jesus’ life that Christ was truly God, and chose to lay down equality with God, and to see that after Jesus’ life God exalted him so that the whole universe should confess and worship him as Lord.

We don’t know what is happening in Philippi, but we can guess that they are beginning to face discrimination or persecution for their faith. Paul encourages them to stick together. “Continue to stand, united in one spirit, single-minded in purpose as you struggle together for the faith in the gospel.” And he reminds them that they have seen him suffer and heard about what he has gone through since he left them. “Now,” he empathizes, “you know firsthand the pains of this battle.”

One of the repeating patterns of life that camouflages our ability to see and understand the depth of what Christ has done is allegiance to other powers. Julius Caesar reigned as Emperor over the Roman Empire from 46-44 BC. After his death, in 42 BC, so roughly 100 years before Paul is writing this letter, the senate legislated that he was divine god. Therefore, his son was divine. Do you hear now how “Though he was God, he did not consider equality with God something to exploit?” sounded to the Philippians. Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony. The city had been abandoned and then re-established by Rome as an outpost on the east-west trade route across Macedonia, the Via Egnatia. It was a sort-of retirement destination for Roman soldiers. They called themselves “little Rome” and patriotism was in the city’s DNA. Paul is saying that what Jesus shows us is not what it means to stop being divine, but what being divine truly means (N.T. Wright).

It means laying down selfishness and pride, and embracing extending love to others in humility. It means getting over yourself. It means surrendering your rights for the good of all. It means being more concerned about everyone else than you are yourself. This is what comes into focus for us as we intently gaze at the life and death of Jesus. This is how we follow him. This is how we are to live our lives.

Once we focus on it long enough to learn how see it, when we look to see in the midst of the camouflaging patterns of life the deeper meaning, we see Christ. It gets easier and we are able to adjust our focus more quickly and see more and more clearly, the more we practice.

And the 3-D image of Christ that has been hidden in us will be visible to others beyond all the 2-D patterns of our lives too. Desmond Tutu, who became an archbishop in South Africa, told about seeing Christ in a priest. When he was nine years old he lived with his family in Klerksdorp, South Africa, a disadvantaged area outside one of the cities in South Africa. His father was an elementary school principal and his mother worked cooking and cleaning at a school for the blind. A white priest was working there among the black people of their township. It was the 1940’s in the days of apartheid, segregation. Black Africans were denied the right to vote and forced to live in specific areas. One day, young Desmond saw the priest, Trevor Huddleston, walk past his mother, a black maid, and lift his hat in greeting. In that moment, Desmond Tutu recalls, “I knew there must be something to the Christian faith.”

“Therefore, my loved ones,” Paul concludes, “achieve your salvation with awe and worship. For the One working in you is God—both to desire and to act in order to fulfill God’s good purpose.”

If you have trouble seeing the 3D image, the creator’s instructions are to get really close to it, right up to your nose, keep your eyes focused on it, and you will suddenly see. Blink away, and you may have to start again. Over and over again, day in and day out, with every person you pass and decision you meet, focus on what Christ Jesus has done. This is how God’s kingdom comes. Amen.