The Lilies of the Field: Jesus and the Third-Person Perspective of God

The most recent post in this series, which introduced the third-person perspective of God — meeting God in the awe- and wonder-inspiring web of life — used the prologue of the Gospel according to John as its jumping off point. We saw how over the centuries, Christian mystics and theologians have developed the idea of God’s Word, or Logos, into a rich and beautiful understanding of the potential for the created world to bear witness to God. Today, I’d like to spend a few minutes looking at how this approach to knowing God plays out in the story of Jesus.

After introducing the Logos, which was with God and was God from the beginning and according to which all things were made, John’s prologue makes a startling claim:

And the Logos became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
The glory as of a father’s only son,
Full of grace and truth. […]
From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses;
Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (Jn 1.14-17)

According to John, and the whole history of Christian thought after him, the Logos — the Wisdom of God expressed in the seasons, the stars, lakes, rivers, and the wild abundance of lifeforms from lichen to whales — “became flesh,” that is, became a human being, not as an avatar or appearance, like perhaps the encounters Abraham and Jacob had in Genesis, but fully as a human being: flesh, bone and psyche just like all of us, a man named Jesus from a town in Palestine called Nazareth.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul expresses a similar idea using the language of ‘image’ (eikon):

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Col 1.15ff, cf. 2 Cor 4.4).

The language of ‘image’ is particularly resonant in the Christian tradition because the creation story in Genesis states that humanity is created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1.26). So, while the language may differ, both the Logos and Image lines of thought in the New Testament share the belief that the human man Jesus manifests the eternal principle, or Wisdom, according to which, by which, and even for which all things were created. He is the Logos according to which everything was created. He is the Image of God in which we were made. This means that the fullness of God’s wisdom and truth is faithfully and exhaustively expressed in the man Jesus. And so, it stands to reason that if we truly want to know God, we must align ourselves as closely as possible to the patterns of his life and teaching.

So this is, for Christians, what Jesus means for the third-person knowledge of God. But can we see it in his teaching and example as well?

While it isn’t as pervasive as Jesus’ second-person, relational knowledge of God, or as striking as his first-person, unitive knowledge of God, we do see signs of the third-person perspective in Jesus’ life. For example, while he didn’t shun the Temple or synagogue, we know that Jesus more commonly retreated into nature when he wanted to be with God: The first thing Jesus did after his baptism — which took place in a river — was to retreat into the wilderness. Later, he regularly sought the solitude of the mountains to pray (see Matthew 14.23 for example), was Transfigured on a mountaintop, and before his arrest, the last place Jesus sought out of his own volition to struggle with God and what prepare for his crucifixion was a garden. It seems then that Jesus had a strong appreciation for nature and that this was his preferred place for doing his business with God.

We also see hints of a third-person perspective in Jesus’ teaching. When instructing his disciples not to worry, for example, he told them to “look at the birds of the air,” who are fed despite their lack of planting and harvesting, and to “consider the lilies of the field,” who are beautifully clothed despite their lack of spinning and sewing. He ends the discourse: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?” (Matthew 6.26-30). The familiarity of this passage and these metaphors can cause us to lose sight of what Jesus is doing here. He’s asking his disciples to meditate on the world around them and to learn something about God from what they see. This is exactly the experience of God that Brother Lawrence had in his epiphany by the tree, and is a classic example of the third-person perspective of God.

This teaching seems particularly appropriate in this present moment, when, in the midst of a global pandemic, most of us are experiencing a lot of anxiety, fearing for our livelihoods, relationships, mental and physical health, and futures. So perhaps this is a good note to leave off on today. As Jesus, the incarnate Image and Logos of God, teaches us, let us consider the wisdom of the birds of the air and the flowers in the field. As St. Hildegard saw, let us bear witness to the pervasive, insidious, all-powerful greening force of God’s Life in the world. And, as, Julian of Norwich saw in the image of something no bigger than a hazelnut,

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. … I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

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