Our Problem with Personhood: The Face of God in the Face of Another - Reservoir Church
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An Embodied Faith

Our Problem with Personhood: The Face of God in the Face of Another

Steve Watson

Oct 14, 2018

Early this year I got an airplane to go visit a friend of mine. I took the trip afraid I’d lose that friend, but I ended up seeing the face of God.

I was nervous because there were a few things my friend and I hadn’t spoken of in years, a couple of important topics, which I knew we had come to see differently. We’re like most friends – after ten, twenty, in this case nearly twenty-five years, both of us have been learning and growing and changing. We’ve been alive, which is great, but what happens when all that life and change ruins the friendship? What if we drift apart? What happens when a friendships collapses under the weight of difference?

I didn’t think this particular friendship was at risk. I was going to see the guy who’d been best man in my wedding. We’re godfathers to some of each other’s children. We’d logged dozens of hours of phone calls in the many years we’d lived in different cities.

But then, not long before my trip, I’d heard a story from another friend of mine, of a life-long best friendship she had lost because of how their views had changed on a single controversial issue. And I thought, uh-oh, what if I’m next? What if one of my best friends will no longer trust or respect me?

So I get on the plane, I land, my friend picks me up from the airport, and we stop at a park to take a walk and catch up a bit on the way back to his house. I think his youngest kid was taking a nap or something and we had a bit of time to kill. So I said, hey, can we clear the air a bit. I’ve got something important to talk about. And I was far more nervous than I expected to be. I’m a grown man with an old friend of mine, but my hands are in my pockets and I’m having a hard time finding the words, and I think, wow, the stakes are high for me.

Eventually, though, I bring up the stuff I knew we didn’t see eye to eye on any more. And I tell him, I need to bring this up, because I’m not sure what I’d do if we lost our friendship over this.

And he says to me, well, there’s a long answer, let’s talk more about this. But the short answer is my God, no. We’re friends, right? We can handle being different.

So obvious, and yet, woah, it was like the air went back into my lungs. I was so relieved. I thought: this is a taste of some of the best in life. Loyalty, acceptance, peace that can handle time and difference. So good. I looked at my friend and thought, To see your face is like to see the face of God.

These words aren’t mine. They come from an old, old story in our scriptures – when one man sees the face of his brother and in a space of trust and reconciliation also comes to see embodied in his face the very presence of God.

This moment is from the third quarter of the Bible’s first book of Genesis. Genesis is four long stories woven into one. Each story centers around a person chosen by God. All four stories deal with loss and death. The family at the center of the story, sometimes all of humanity as well, is threatened. And the stories ask how God can be faithful to advance goodness amidst all of this mess. They ask where God can be faithful too, often with surprising answers. Each of these four sections in Genesis also includes a vivid sibling rivalry. And the rivalry at the center of the third section is between the twin brothers Jacob and Esau.

Jacob and Esau are competitors since birth. Younger brother Jacob has consistently had the upper hand. And with the help of his mother, he’s managed to steal the favored son and favored inheritance status from Esau. And then from that event until the moment when we’ll meet them today, about fifteen years have passed. Fifteen years of no contact between these brothers, fifteen years of Jacob thinking his brother Esau wishes him dead.

And now Jacob, along with his very large family, is preparing for a reunion, when he hears that Esau is coming to greet him not with his own family, but with a large group of armed men.

So Jacob plans on sending his servants and family members ahead of him with gifts, as you do, hoping to appease his brother. Here’s what happens. I’ll read a couple excerpts from the Schocken translation which we’ve printed in your programs. It’s a great modern translation by the Jewish scholar Everett Fox. It keeps the poetic feel and flavor and of the original Hebrew, so it’ll sound a little different.

Jacob here is Yaakov and Esau is Esav. Jacob says to his servants:

Genesis 32:21-22, 26, 31, 33:8-10 (Schocken)

“You shall say: Also – here, your servant Yaakov is behind us.

For he said to himself:

I will wipe (the anger from) his face

with the gift that goes ahead of my face;

afterward, when I see his face,

perhaps he will lift up my face!

The gift crossed over ahead of his face,

but he spent the night on that night in the camp….

This whole section is like a meditation on the word “face.” Yaakov thinks Esav’s face is angry. So he wants the first thing Esav sees to not be his face but his butter-up-his-brother gifts. He sends them ahead in the hopes that when they eventually come together, face to face, something good might happen. Yaakov doesn’t dare hope for peace or reconciliation or anything – he just wants to live.

And Yaakov was left alone –

And a man wrestled with him until the coming up of dawn….

This is unexpected. In the middle of the night, camping by himself along the riverbank, Yaakov is attacked. Perhaps a thief has heard of the whereabouts of this wealthy man? Perhaps his brother has found him and come for revenge? In the end, Yaakov comes to believe that the person he’s wrestling with is no man, but an angel, or some embodied presence of the living God. Yaakov hangs on for dear life, seeking the blessing of God, until it’s given to him.

Yaakov called the name of the place: Peniel/Face of God,

for: I have seen God,

face to face,

and my life has been saved….

The meditation on the word “face” continues. In this strange mystical encounter, Yaakov believes he has seen God face to face and lived. Henceforth both he and his ancestors are now renamed Yisrael – God-fighter, which is a name of power – people who are able to struggle with God, interact face to face with the divine. And it’s a name of vulnerability, because Yisrael walks with a limp. He’s wounded in this encounter, as a reminder that to be face to face with God is to be both blessed and to also be profoundly aware of your own limits and weakness. The legacy of Yaakov’s ancestors, both biological and spiritual, is this blessing of exalted, vulnerable personhood – to be able to see God face to face, to be made profoundly resilient and strong through this encounter, and also to be made profoundly vulnerable and humble.

Wild and dramatic as all this is, though, it is not the climax of this story… The climax comes when the next day, Yaakov limps away from the riverbed and sees his brother again, hoping against hope he might survive. Only to discover his brother wants peace. Esav has enough, he simply wants to be brothers again.

He said:

What to you is all this camp that I have met?

He said:

– to find favor in my lord’s eyes.

Esav said:

I have plenty, my brother, let what is yours remain yours.

Yaakov said:

No, I pray!

Pray, if I have found favor in your eyes,

then take this gift from my hand.

For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God,

and you have been gracious to me.”

I have seen your face, Yaakov says, and it is as one sees the face of God. Jacob would know, right? He has just had this profound spiritual experience – he knows a thing or two about seeing the face of God. And he looks at his brother, face to face, and thinks that is what is happening. To see you accepting me, for us to be at peace – without walls, without fear, person to person, is for me to see in your face the face of God.

For Jacob, this proves to be too much. The intimacy of full personhood, brother to brother, is somehow so unfamiliar, so threatening, that within a day, he’s moved on, perhaps never to see his brother again. We don’t know. But for a moment, he had that connection, that peace to see the face of God in his brother.

This is what I got with my good friend. For us, it wasn’t the result of reconciliation per se. It was more the relief of not losing a precious friendship, made precious by years of vulnerable trust, years of being there for one another, decades of support. But still, it was to not lose that friendship, to reclaim our peace, and in that to have God with me.

What do you think about this, that our best chance of seeing God is to see God’s love and presence reflected in a human face?

In churches, we talk a lot about our personal attempts to experience God, to encounter in some way to face of God in our personal practice. So we encourage shared worship. We encourage patterns and habits of prayer, of reading the scriptures, of spiritual practice and exercise of all kinds, which we promote weekly in our sermons. And this is all valuable. We are a faith community – we promote trust in God, encounter with God, experience of the love and power from which all of us and everything is born.

But the scriptures teach that the word of God, the one perfect revelation of the divine to humans is the person of Jesus. And they also teach that the face of God, the image of God, is seen in human personhood, on one another’s faces.

So again, what do you think about this, that our best chance of seeing God is to see God’s love and presence reflected in a human face?

And that similarly, our deepest human connection comes when we see the full glory of a human – as an image bearer of our God.

My own experience is that we’re not getting this enough these days. We don’t often enough see the face of God on our fellow human’s faces. And we rarely see the full glory of our fellow humans – that we are all image bearers of our God.

We have a problem with personhood.

I heard a talk recently by an old colleague of mine who’s gone on to big things as a speaker and an author. His name’s Andy Crouch, and he gave a talk recently entitled “Overcoming Our Greatest Affliction.” Most of the rest of my material comes from that talk – it took my breath away. So thank you, Andy. And the link to his talk – if you’re curious – will be in the sermon notes on line. I’ll quote it several times, and you can listen to it if you have time:


Andy discusses three revolutions that make the world we live in:

  • The Financial Revolution – wealth from land primarily to money.
  • The Industrial Revolution – when work shifted from labor we do with our bodies to primarily work we have done by machines.
  • And the Computational Revolution – when knowledge shifted from wisdom to information.

I’ll skip the details on these revolutions. Andy has more to say about that. But the idea is that these and other revolutions of the modern world have brought humanity great wealth – ordinary Americans have access to goods that some royalty in other ages could have only dreamed of, and a smaller and smaller percentage of humanity lives in abject poverty. Modernity has also brought us great health – longer lives, less sick lives. And by some measures, all this has brought us greater happiness.

And yet we are also lonely and anxious and depressed like never before. Because in most of these revolutions that have given us life as we know it today, we’ve traded personhood for power.

Most of the people I see each day don’t really see me, aren’t really seen by me. Most of the people I see each day don’t even know my name. And most of the people I see each week that do know my name don’t know where I come from, they don’t know my story.

In the Jacob and Esau story, conflict and pain ruptures personhood. But now the whole world does.

We live, Andy Crouch says, in a “lonely world of engines and machines and information.” “Modernity is a great place to have power. It’s not a great place to be a person.”

I think of a friend of mine, for instance, who was trained as a social worker, eager to launch a career helping vulnerable people experience more goodness and dignity in their personhood. In his first placement, though, he was overwhelmed and discouraged by the bureaucracy – by modern institutions’ habit of prioritizing abstract principles and procedures over people. And he was overwhelmed by some of the technological and administrative demands of the work.

So he quit, people called it burnout. And he sunk into depression. He found work later in wholesale supplies. But the work hasn’t felt meaningful to him. Like many people who work with their bodies, he has aches and pains that have aged him beyond his years. So he feels like a tool more than a person. He’s depressed sometimes still and he’s chronically anxious about his health and his finances.

And yet his story isn’t all that unique – this is modernity for the economic losers of the 21st century.

But all the winners – we’re pretty stressed out too. And we’re pretty lonely. We hardly go from day to day seeing the face of God in ourselves and our fellow humans, do we?

Andy, in his talk on personhood, argues this has happened before. He argues that the Roman empire experienced its own revolutions that increased power and diminished personhood. So that the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus produced incredible prosperity and abundance, for the people whose names we know. But in their society, the distribution of personhood was profoundly unequal. Very few people were fully persons, were recognized with the full standing of a person. Only the patriarchal heads of households had the full benefit of personhood.

Children, women, slaves, all were viewed as less than full people. In fact, for slaves, given you didn’t have the chance of being a person, you didn’t even get a real name.

You might just be named for your birth order – Third, Fourth, fifth… Tertius, Quartus, Quintus. Or for some productive quality you could lend to the economy. You could be named Useful… in Greek, Onesimus.

Which brings us to these remarkable lines at the very end of a letter in the New Testament. In Romans, we’ve heard from that famous faith entrepreneur, the apostle Paul, for 16 chapters, and at the very end get this.

Romans 16:22-27 (NRSV)

22 I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.

23 Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

Who is this Tertius? He’s a scribe, the one who’s written all of Paul’s other words for him. He may or may not be a slave, but he’s of very low status, there to take down the words of other, more important people. Tertius, third. Paul says – you speak, you’re a brother. Tertius, you take a turn. And then there’s Gaius, this wealthy man, the one whose household hosts our community, the benefactor of their local church – the top giver, you might say. Tertius says, my friend Gaius says hello. As does Erastus, the treasurer of the whole city. And our brother, Fourth, Quartus, maybe Tertius’ brother by birth, perhaps a slave himself, sends greetings too.

Can you hear what’s happening? Two of the most powerful, wealthy men of Rome – known to their culture, known to history by their names, share friendship and connection and meals in their home with Tertius and Quartus – known to their culture and history as nobodies, the very low status “Third” and “Fourth.”

And yet they are family. They are known to one another. Paul looks at their face and sees the face of God. This is a good news miracle. Tertius and Paul finish from here:

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

The psychologist Kurt Thompson says that from birth, we are looking for a face that is looking for us. What it means to be human is that to want to see and know someone who is looking for us.

Part of the good news of Jesus is that God has become embodied in a human face. That God is eager to reconnect us, both with God and one another. And to do the will of God – what Paul calls the obedience of faith – as we trust and follow Jesus with our lives, is in part to see the face of God in the personhood of all of humanity.

All of us, we are looking for a face in whom we can see the face of God, looking to have our face seen in this way.

We sort of have a million chances at this, and sort of have only a few. Here’s what I mean.

A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Think of the 5-10 people you are most connected to in your life. How might you be the face of God to them? Is there a relationship that needs reconciliation? Do you have room for a Tertius – to better validate the personhood of someone outside of that full experience?

5-10 people. Because every day, we encounter people. We do have so many chances to look at a human face and to believe that we can see the face of God there, to be so present, and so marked by faith, hope, and love, that they might see the face of God in our face. But we also, most of us, have precious few people whose lives we are deeply embedded with over many years. So start with those people. How for the very closest people in your life might you be the face of God? Does someone come to mind where things are estranged, where you need reconciliation?

And do you have room in your life for a Tertius – for someone outside your own band of privilege?

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

As a consumer, a worker, and a user of technology, look to see and affirm personhood. Look for the face of God in more human faces.