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The Gospel of Transformation
Distinguishing the Discipleship & Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation
Section I God’s Relational Context and Process to Transformation
Chapter 4 Discipleship Distinguished Only
by Reciprocal Relationship
Those who love me will keep my relational terms,
and my Father will love them,
and we will come to them and make our home with them.
What is indeed both improbable and intrusive is that Subject God is vulnerably present and intimately involved. This news creates ambivalence, since the reality of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement is not about observing in situations and circumstances but rather involves directly experiencing in the primacy of relationship. The unmistakable Face of the irreducible Subject is the whole of who, what and how God is, with whom we are faced ongoingly—if not confronted by “Where are you?” and “What are you doing here?”
When the challenge was raised in the primordial garden “Did God say that?” God’s existence wasn’t challenged but the extent of God’s presence and involvement was questioned. Moreover, God’s presence and involvement, along with God’s words, were transposed from relational terms to referential terms, thereby keeping God’s significance at a distance and thus unable to be distinguished. This continued influence may not be apparent explicitly in our theology (except our theological anthropology) but emerges implicitly, if not explicitly, in our practice—specifically in the function of relationships. This condition is the genius of reductionism, whose prevailing influence in human contextualization has consistently permeated Christian theology and practice. Likely then, the above questions by God are just as urgent today for those who call themselves or identify as followers of Christ.
Just as contemporary theological and biblical studies demonstrate difficulty clarifying the Subject—and even identifying the Subject—of their efforts, discipleship has had problems knowing who its Subject is and thereby distinguishing what its efforts involve, and how. Discussions about discipleship commonly focus on Jesus’ teachings and examples, for example, as if Jesus’ person were past history. This narrow focus not only detaches (disembodies) those teachings and examples from Jesus’ person but it also critically disconnects (derelationalizes) the Subject from his ongoing vulnerable presence and intimate involvement—and thus also disconnects his followers from the Subject. This detachment and disconnection continues to beg the question from Jesus for each of his followers today: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15).
A confession of faith is
simply insufficient for discipleship, as Peter demonstrated. Contrary to
common belief, discipleship is not what someone engages in after
confession of faith. If it were, Jesus would not have had to make again
emphatically the relational imperative to Peter, “You, follow me!” (Jn
When our faith responds
compatibly in relational terms to Jesus, there is relational connection
with the person Jesus (not his mere teachings and
• “Such deep longing for God and…repulsed empty no faith no love no zeal.”
• “What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.”
• “I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart.”
As for her “ever-present smile” that distinctly identified her, she called it “a mask,” or “a cloak that covers everything.”
• “The whole time smiling—sisters and people pass such remarks—they think my faith, trust and love are filling my very being.…Could they but know—and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery.”
She was deeply pained by the absence of personal connection with Jesus, even after a dedicated life serving him. Those with a spiritual disciplines lens may explain her thoughts and feelings as simply the experience of a classic case of what is called “the dark night of the soul.” This limited focus, however, does not account for the nature of her discipleship and its ongoing relational consequence of detachment and disconnection.
Mother Teresa chastens our discipleship in a different way than expected. Not only her discipleship but also her confession and faith needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction in order for her, as well as any of our, theology and practice to be whole. Otherwise, we are all subject to epistemological illusion and ontological simulation in our theology and practice, composed by reduced ontology and function.
Since the primordial garden three basic views of God’s presence and involvement have evolved: (1) deism, where God is distant or detached, and its variations where God becomes everything (pantheism) or everything essentially is part of God (panentheism); and two types of theism, either (2) theism with God as Object, whose presence is observed and then shaped primarily by human contextualization in referential terms, or, from the beginning, (3) theism with God as Subject, whose presence and involvement are enacted in the primacy of the relational context and process composed only by God’s relational terms. Only theism with God as Subject is the view illuminated by the face of Jesus that connects us with God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement; and it is only this relationship of God that Jesus revealed intrusively for the vulnerable involvement of his followers in reciprocal relationship together. Theism with God as Object is not an option that the whole of Subject Jesus’ person gives us if we are to follow him on his intrusive relational path. Nor is God as Object an alternative for those wanting connection with the whole of God—that is, relational connection with God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, which an Object doesn’t engage.
Our theistic view also shapes our gospel (whole or fragmentary) and determines its outcome of salvation (only saved from or also saved to). Thus, and this is indispensable, understanding the what of salvation’s good news for whole relationship together is contingent on understanding the whole of the Who constituting the gospel. If salvation does indeed go further and deeper than just saved from, this necessitates an integral relational basis (not referential) for the new relationship together in wholeness of what salvation saves to—which includes by necessity an ongoing relational base to function in whole relationship together. The whole of God—the ontological One and relational Whole from outside the universe—composes the meaning, significance, purpose and means of whole relationship together, apart from whom relationship together lacks the meaning, significance, purpose and means to be whole, the human relational condition. Understanding the whole of God, the whole of the Who constituting the gospel, provides the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for whole relationship together. That is, only the Trinity illuminated and distinguished the experiential truth of who came and what has come. Therefore, understanding what distinguished the Trinity and how the Trinity is distinguished are indispensable for those claiming the gospel and irreplaceable for proclaiming the good news of transformed and thus new relationship together in wholeness in likeness of the triune God as Subject.
The relationship of God distinguishes specifically both (1) how God as Subject engages in relationship, and (2) how God only does relationship on this relational basis. The distinction between God as Subject and God as Object is crucial to maintain in order to distinguish this relationship of God in our theology and practice. Consider the following. If you have a relationship with someone functioning essentially as an object, that relationship becomes a unilateral relationship because an object provides no basis for mutual involvement—thus leaving you with the responsibility (or perhaps freedom) to determine the relationship on your terms, which is a desirable relationship for many people. A bilateral relationship requires parties to be subjects to engage in mutual involvement, at the very least to negotiate or come to mutual terms for the relationship—at least in theory if not always in function. A reciprocal relationship, however, by its nature (not theory) necessitates the ongoing involvement of subjects in the primacy of their relationship together in order to be whole, and not fragmented by secondary matters that reduce the persons as subjects and the relationship from its primacy. In other words, reciprocal relationship together is a function of subjects based only on whole relational terms—that which has been constituted from the beginning by the whole of God to distinguish the relationship of God for the human relational condition.
God may be present on the earth or in a situation but that does not mean that God dwells there. In the OT, David sought after a dwelling (mishkan) for God’s presence and involvement, which shifted from the tabernacle to the temple (Ps 132:2-5). This dwelling was not limited to a place but was often confused with a place—likely as we often confuse God’s dwelling today to a church. With God’s strategic shift (Jn 4:20-23), God’s dwelling signifies the pivotal point of reciprocal relational connection that the whole of God has in the human context, which is only compatible to his vulnerable presence and congruent with his intimate relational involvement. Until God has this reciprocal relationship, God has no dwelling in the human context even though the whole of God may be present. God as Subject dwells only in the relational context and process of reciprocal relationship together, and this reciprocal involvement is only on God’s relational terms (Ex 29:45-46; Jn 14:23; 15:9-11, cf. Lk 13:35-36).
God as Subject participates in relationships only in whole relational terms. God’s relational terms, on the one hand, are irreducible (e.g. to unilateral terms) and nonnegotiable (to bilateral terms); and yet, on the other hand, they are never imposed unilaterally as a template for conformity, thus making its adherents objects—as some view God’s law and postmodernists view God’s metanarrative. In spite of even the antecedent priority of God’s relational response of grace—not to be confused with prevenient or irresistible grace—to compose the gospel and its outcome, the relationship of God is never unilateral. Nor is it bilateral for those who want to account for the human agency of free will, and for postmodernists who want to be inclusive of human contextualization.
The relationship of God in whole relational terms is unique. Unique in relational terms that required the who, what and how of Subject Jesus to distinguish unmistakably for his followers to receive in compatible relational connection and to respond to ongoingly in congruent reciprocal relationship together. The whole of God’s self-disclosure communicated by Jesus the Subject illuminated how God does relationship. Not knowing how God as Subject is involved in relationship and how God only does relationship on this relational basis leaves us disconnected from the God of our faith and the Subject of our discipleship. Is this what happened to Mother Teresa? Not seeing the Subject Jesus for his discipleship happened to the rich young ruler seeking more in his life with God, which left him both detached and disconnected (Mk 10:20-22, to be discussed shortly). And this disconnection happened to two of Jesus’ followers on the road to Emmaus that left them disappointed and confused (Lk 24:13-32).
The relationship of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement was embodied by Jesus in its most distinguished relational context and process: within the whole of God, the Trinity. As noted previously, the most significant relational function in the incarnation of how God does relationship is Jesus vulnerably disclosing his relationship with his Father. Ontologically, they are one and their persons are equally the same (consubstantial in trinitarian theology, Jn 10:30,38; 14:11,20; 16:15; 17:21), and thus inseparable (never “to be apart” except for one unfathomable experience on the cross, Mt 27:46). As trinitarian persons (not modes of being) in the qualitative significance of the whole of God (not tritheism), they are intimately bonded together in relationship (understood conceptually as perichoresis) and intimately involved with each other in love (Jn 5:20; 14:31; 15:9; 17:24). In particular, the relationship between the Son and the Father reveals the depth of God’s relational nature, along with the Spirit as the relational Whole, and their intimate reciprocal relationship as the ontological One reveals the innermost heart of God—both of which composed how we are created in this image and likeness and that the Trinity has acted to restore us to. Conjoined with Jesus’ baptism revealing the reciprocal interaction of the Trinity (Lk 3:21-22), the innermost reciprocal interaction revealing the glory of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement unfolds at the Transformation: “This is my Son, whom I love” (Mt 17:5, NIV).
The relationship of God is constituted only by the innermost (“spirit” as heart) of the trinitarian persons (again, not as modes of being) in their reciprocal involvement together (hearts joined together inseparably), vulnerably revealed to us in the relational dynamic of agape—that term loosely translated as love and variably interpreted by human shaping. Agape love involves nothing less and no substitutes of the whole person, involved in the primacy of intimate relational connection for relationship together in wholeness, which is who, what and how Jesus embodied and disclosed of the whole of God (Jn 14:31; 17:24). Their innermost involvement together was disclosed further at Gethsemane (Mt 26:39,42), which is likely unexpected for us to imagine but not unexpected for the relationship of God. When Jesus said just hours before the cross, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me,” no special manifestations occurred as happened at his baptism and transfiguration. Given the significance of the situation and pending event, it would be reasonable to witness some demonstrative response to Jesus’ request. Yet, that would assume the primacy of situations and circumstances over the primacy of relationship—specifically over the primacy of reciprocal relational involvement in agape, which the relationship of God never subordinates, transposes or reduces regardless of the situation or circumstance (note the relational significance of Mt 27:46, cf. Lk 6:12).
The theological and functional implications of their intimate relationship are critical for our whole knowledge and understanding of God. What is vulnerably disclosed distinguishes the relationship of God without anything less and any substitutes of who, what and how God is. The particular interaction at Gethsemane demonstrates the relational process of family love involved in the Trinity’s relationship with each other. Consider again: what had been planned together even before creation and was now being fulfilled by the incarnation, the Son astonishingly did not want to continue; and imagine what the Father feels upon hearing the Son’s request. This is a strong contrast to an earlier interaction (see Jn 12:27-28). Despite the unique circumstances, what we need to understand about the Trinity, and thereby function in likeness in our relationships, is why this interaction even happened at all.
Jesus’ situation was certainly extreme and his intense circumstance would affect any person, and this obviously weighed on Jesus’ person. Yet, the effects on him is not the significance of this interaction. The incarnation was integrally based on the principle of nothing less and no substitutes, and accordingly always functioned in relationship on the basis of nothing less and no substitutes. Why this interaction even happened at all is because by the nature of their relationship in the whole of God such an interaction could happen, was “designed” to happen, therefore was expected to happen—an outworking of God’s relational righteousness. That is, what this interaction signifies is the complete openness (implying honesty) and vulnerableness of their whole person (not reduced to roles and performance in the Godhead) with each other in the intimate relational involvement of love as family constituted by their whole relationship together as One, the ontological One. By being completely vulnerable here, Jesus clearly illuminates how they do relationship together to distinguish the relationship of the Trinity, the relational Whole. In other words, the trinitarian persons can and need to be their whole person before each other and intimately share with each other anything, so to speak—without the caution, restrictions or limits practiced in human relationships since the primordial garden (cf. before their reduction “they were both naked and were not ashamed,” Gen 2:25). Anything less than and any substitutes of their whole person and these relationships necessary to be the whole of God no longer would constitute the Trinity (as qualitatively distinguished in whole relationship) and therefore becomes a reduction of God.
Even under such conditions, what clearly unfolds is the primacy of agape’s involvement in reciprocal relationship together by whole relational terms. What also distinguishes the relationship of God is their language as they interact; and the language we need to pay attention to is relational language, not referential language. In the Father’s expression above, his words to the Son are simple, signifying the relational language of the heart, and therefore intimate. Jesus’ language with the Father in the garden called Gethsemane (Mt 26:39,42) and on the cross (Mt 27:46) is painfully simple and disarmingly direct language—words also straight from his heart. There are no platitudes, formal phrases or “sacred terminology” in their interaction—simply communication from the heart, and thereby ongoing communion together in intimacy. Their intimate communion forms the basis for communion at the Lord’s table to be in likeness, as the relational outcome of Jesus removing the veil for whole relationship together (discussed later in this chap.). Yet, their intimacy can easily be ignored by our relational distance or even be reduced to referential language by a non-relational quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework.
The relationship of God necessitates the function of the whole person, yet never centered on oneself and therefore always as a function of relationship in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. What unfolds undeniably from the relational dynamics disclosed between the Father and the Son is that the most significant function of relationship is signified by God’s love. Their family love ongoingly constitutes the Trinity’s relational oneness (intimate communion) illuminating the ontological triunity of God and distinguishing God’s whole ontology and function from outside the universe. As the Father made evident at the Son’s baptism and transfiguration, the Trinity’s love engages only how they are involved with each other’s person. The synergistic (and perichoretic) mystery of this qualitative involvement is so intimate that though three disclosed persons yet they are one Being (the ontological One), though distinct in function yet they are indistinguishably and indivisibly one together—without relational horizontal distance or vertical stratification—the relational Whole.
And this relationship of God is disclosed not for our mere information but is made accessible by the whole of God as Subject for us to experience in whole relationship together in likeness. This reciprocal relational experience is the integral purpose of Jesus’ formative family prayer for all his followers (Jn 17:20-26). Therefore, only the relationship of God composes the integral relational basis for discipleship to be distinguished in reciprocal relationship and not be detached or disconnected.
God’s self-disclosures lead persons to follow the unmistakable face of the Subject of the Word—not to direct persons like a GPS—so that they will be “where I am” (Jn 12:26). This relational condition involves not merely occupying the same space or participating in the same activities (cf. Lk 13:26-27) but to be involved relationally with him (agape, Jn 14:23, cf. 21:15) ongoingly in intimate reciprocal relationship (“dwell in me,” Jn 15:5, 9-10). John interrelates those texts to provide us the depth of understanding the significance of following Jesus in his improbable theological trajectory and intrusive relational path—as John focuses on throughout his Gospel for complete Christology—with the relational outcome of truly knowing the whole of God (Jn 14:9; 17:3,26) and, therefore, being transformed to wholeness (beyond expectations, Jn 14:27, to be “completely one,” 17:23) in relationship together as God’s family. Following Jesus’ whole person in this relational progression is the only involvement that distinguishes discipleship.
This raises vital issues for our theology and practice. It is insufficient for us to be impressed with Jesus’ actions (or teachings) as the basis for our discipleship and overlook his whole person. That would expose a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function for a fragmented person (both ours and Jesus’) defined by parts of what that person does or has. This points to various persons who believed and followed Jesus but whom Jesus would not respond back to. As John noted significantly, “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (Jn 2:23). They believed not necessarily insincerely but on the basis of reduced referential terms overlooking Jesus’ whole person, thus not as a reciprocal relational response. Jesus did not reciprocate (“entrust himself to them,” v.24) to such referential terms, even though their response (and others like it) would mean more popularity and stature (v.25).
The relational implications here cannot be ignored. Whatever faith is used as the basis for our discipleship, for Jesus faith is not a ‘comfort zone’ masked by a mere confession but the vulnerable relational response that entrusts our whole person to Subject God, who, in turn, further responds in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together (cf. Jn 5:44; 12:42-43). John identified this reciprocal relational dynamic at the beginning of his Gospel: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (Jn 1:12). What’s the difference in this response? Those “who received him” (paralambano, to receive near) engaged an act of intimate relations. “Believed in [eis, into] his name” only involves the relational response of trust extended into his whole person (Subject) as a relational dynamic, which referential terms merely place in a reduced person (Object) and mainly placed indirectly through situations and circumstances. The relational response of trust certainly includes situations and circumstances but they are only secondary to the primacy of reciprocal relationship with Subject Jesus. Moreover, situations and circumstances don’t determine the focus of involvement that trust extends with primacy into his whole person. Many may believe in his name but fewer extend the relational dynamic of trust into his Subject person.
As we continue to examine the person Jesus presented in human contexts, in human interaction and in public, one major issue he frequently addressed was others’ positive perceptions of him. These perceptions, however, were not the process of theaomai (to contemplate carefully in order to perceive correctly) by those who “have seen his glory” (Jn 1:14), and thus responded to his whole person. His popularity was often based on an image of his person, which he had to revise or correct, chasten or confront, even with his own disciples. This was necessary in part for valid theology (i.e. complete Christology) but mainly for reliable function in relationship, that is, the reciprocal relationship of discipleship.
While it is true that each disciple has his/her own particular perception of this relationship and responds in one’s uniqueness, this only allows for meaningful (not fragmentary) variation in the relationship but never makes the relationship relative to a disciple. The relationship is never negotiable because Jesus always functions in who, what and how he is, not reducible to human shaping; and because this nothing-less-and-no-substitutes person only does relationship on his whole relational terms—the relationship of God’s nonnegotiable and irreducible terms. This relational condition and process of discipleship not only conflict with all our attempts or substitutes on our terms but are incompatible with such discipleshipism in much church practice. And this involves the issue of our positive perceptions of him versus the whole person Jesus presented.
When we formulate discipleship, the Jesus whom we have in our perceptions to follow often tends to be contextualized by a prevailing culture (e.g., Western) as well as Christian subculture (e.g., evangelical) in our surrounding context. The positive perceptions of that Jesus become “a popular Jesus,” who, while becoming normative in our life and practice, often takes on a life of its own distinct from the embodied whole of Jesus—even inadvertently and with good intentions. The theological differences or nuances may not be apparent, that is, unless our Christology is challenged. In function, however, a popular Jesus becomes a Jesus we want to follow on our terms—one who may be more palatable or less threatening, whom we can determine or even control, and thus not have to deal with Jesus the Subject. Underlying a popular Jesus is an incomplete Christology, by which our practice perceives, for example, of an embodied Jesus going from the manger straight to the cross, though his disembodied teachings and examples are sustained. The consequence, however, derelationalizes Jesus’ person from his intrusive relational path, which many would prefer.
The complete narratives of Jesus defining who, what and how his whole person is also reveal him counteracting a popular Jesus as well as clearly defining the terms of relationship with him. The skewed perceptions of a popular Jesus are directly addressed in both would-be disciples and his early disciples. Learning from their good intentions, relational errors and being held accountable will help us account for what needs to distinguish our discipleship.
Our first look is at the popularity Jesus generated by the feeding of five thousand, who were already following him for other miraculous signs performed on the sick (Jn 6:2). The perceptions of Jesus from a group in this crowd envisioned the fulfillment of their messianic hope for Jews under the political constraints and oppression of Roman rule (Jn 6:14-15). As Jesus distanced himself from them, they kept pursuing him rather intently (6:22-25). Finally, Jesus confronted their pursuit by exposing their focus on what he did rather than on his whole person (vv.26-28). Why was this an insufficient basis for Jesus to receive these followers at this stage? Couldn’t they understand more and grow further with time?
Since they defined Jesus by what he did, they no doubt also defined themselves by what they did. This is indicated by their response to Jesus’ critique: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (v.28). While Judaism emphasized righteous works, Jesus answered with the singular “work of God” to address the deeper issue here (v.29). The significance of “work” over “works” is crucial to understand not only because it identifies how the person is defined but also for how that in turn determines how relationships are done. How we define ourselves strongly determines how we do relationships—both of which in turn greatly influence how we practice church. Underlying these three major issues (noted previously) is our theological anthropology, which Jesus consistently addressed, challenged or confronted in his intrusive relational path.
When Jesus defined “the work of God” as believing in him, he was not describing two things: (1) “believe” as merely confessing faith or a belief system, and (2) his person as a mere Object of belief. “To believe” is the ongoing relational act of trust vulnerably engaged in reciprocal relationship with the whole person God sent and Subject Jesus presented. God’s self-revelation and Truth are disclosed (phaneroo), even as miraculous signs, only for relationship. The “work” of God then is totally relational work involving further and deeper relationship with Jesus’ whole person in relational progression to the whole of God, which Jesus continued to disclose to them (vv.32-58).
In response to their quantitative focus on miracles and bread (vv.30-31), Jesus expands this limited human context—and their narrow epistemic field—to the qualitative relational context of his Father (thus the Trinity, v.32). At the same time, Jesus shifts the focus from quantitative bread (past and present) to the qualitative bread signifying his whole person (vv.33,35). Jesus unfolds the relationship of God and further distinguishes God’s relational work. Yet the significant difference of the qualitative bread from the quantitative bread continues to be the source of tension and conflict for these would-be disciples throughout this interaction. Jesus both discloses his person and exposes their persons when he shares “eats of this bread…this bread…is my flesh” (v.51), “eat my flesh and drink my blood” (v.54). Every time Jesus said this about the bread as his flesh, they only thought in quantitative terms, suggesting possible thoughts of human sacrifice and cannibalism (vv.52,60). The person Jesus disclosed, however, was not merely what he did in the flesh but, more significantly, who, what and how he is embodied in his whole person.
The deeper profile of Subject Jesus’ face is unmistakable in qualitative relational terms but lacks clarity or is elusive in quantitative referential terms. While we may not have tension and conflict with Jesus’ flesh and blood as these would-be disciples did, many still have difficulty with the relational work of God and directly engaging the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of Jesus the Subject. The whole person Jesus presented and disclosed (i.e. phaneroo over apokalypto) is only for the purpose and relational outcome of transformed, new and thus redeemed relationship together in wholeness as God’s family. This Jesus of complete Christology, then, involves his redemptive relational work of ‘flesh and blood’ that more completely involves his reconciling relational work of ‘saved to’ for salvation to be whole (not limited to ‘saved from’), composing full soteriology. The conjoint relational work of redemptive reconciliation distinguishes Jesus’ whole person, who must be received whole (including but not limited to flesh and blood) and responded to by our whole person in order to constitute the reciprocal relational work distinguishing the discipleship of Jesus’ followers. This has pivotal implications for atonement in our relational work and for the Lord’s Supper in church practice, to be discussed later.
For the above would-be disciples following Jesus, their ongoing responses (or reactions) reflected how they defined the person only by what one did or had (vv.30-31). It was on this basis from a quantitative framework that they perceived Jesus and were following him. Yet as intently as they followed Jesus, their involvement reflected reductionism (in their perceptual framework and practice, vv.41-42,52,60) and thus seeking relationship with Jesus only on their terms—which also kept them confined to the probable and thus unable or unwilling to go deeper face to face. This tension became increasingly problematic (vv.41,42b,52,60), resulting in the predictable relational consequence that many of his would-be disciples “turned back and no longer followed him” (v.66).
After their departure, Jesus asked the Twelve if they wanted to leave also (v.67). Simon Peter’s answer could be interpreted as either a traditional confession of faith or a discipleship response to the embodied words of Jesus’ whole person for relationship together (v.68). Confession alone is insufficient to “Follow me,” though it was likely part of Peter’s answer attached to his response to follow the whole of Jesus (cf. Mt 16:15-16). As we have been seeing, Peter still struggled with Jesus’ whole person and negotiating the relationship on his terms. The substantive difference between Peter and the would-be disciples was his openness to pursue the whole person Jesus presented for relationship only on Jesus’ terms. To believe from the innermost (the relational dynamic of trust “in spirit and truth”) and to follow whole-ly (the discipleship of subjects) are always relationally specific to Jesus’ whole person (nothing less), and thus they only have relational significance in the direct intimate involvement of reciprocal relationship with his Subject person (no substitutes). Nevertheless, as Peter demonstrated, the responsibility of engaging Jesus in reciprocal relationship is often circumvented by two relational errors revising the composition of discipleship.
A would-be disciple seeking a popular Jesus always has tension or conflict with the person Jesus presents. The dynamics of such encounters are seen even more notably when a rich ruler anxiously sought Jesus (Mk 10:17-22, discussed partly in the last chap.). No account is given of his previous exposure to Jesus’ popularity, yet it is unlikely he was unaware of Jesus at this later point in his public ministry. It is also likely he witnessed Jesus’ intimate reception of children preceding his own encounter with Jesus, which may have heightened his interest in Jesus.
The encounter begins as he imposes himself on Jesus with the greeting “Good Teacher.” Given the Jewish conception of God’s goodness and who, what and how Jesus is, this seems to be appropriate address to the person Jesus presented to this man. Yet, Jesus’ response—“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (v.18)—appears to indicate the rich ruler is not addressing his whole person as God, possibly suggesting at least his faux pas. His address as “teacher,” however, seems appropriate regardless of his perceptions of Jesus, that is, appropriate if he only implies a title not a function. Back then, the meaning of “teacher” (didaskolos) involved a much more significant relationship with those who called someone teacher than it does today in Western culture. To have someone as your teacher meant that you were more than a student or learner. It meant you were their disciple (mathetes), an adherent, which involved a deeper attachment to the teacher. And the specific terms for adherence were determined solely by the teacher. The rich ruler does not pursue Jesus to function in this kind of relationship, despite his humble posture (“knelt before him”) and seemingly significant address. Their interaction will confirm this person’s level of interest and engagement.
By asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (v.17), he indicates his perceptual framework and the limits of his focus—just as the earlier would-be disciples did by asking “what must we do” (Jn 6:28). Since he defined himself by what he did (keeping the commandments, v.20) as well as by what he had (great wealth, v.22), he reduced his person to these quantitative aspects. Moreover, with the lens of this reductionist framework, this is how he perceives Jesus: as a teacher only for information, as useful or profitable to advance his life. In other words, he only sees Jesus for what he does and has—nothing further or deeper. He does not engage Jesus’ person further or involve himself deeper with the Teacher as Subject for relationship together (cf. Peter at Jesus’ footwashing). This was a critical error he made, the first of two critical errors of relationship, which revises what composes following Jesus.
Jesus responds to the man’s innermost. In the content of those familiar words that come out of Jesus’ mouth (v.21), he lovingly tries to help the man to redefine his person and to free him from what reduced his whole person and prevented the relationship necessary to be whole. The discipleship of “Follow me” cannot emerge from a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function. This would require a shift in his perceptual-interpretive framework from quantitative to qualitative (cf. Lk 12:32-34)—which is what he really sought in zōē (“eternal life”). Sadly, the rich ruler separated himself from the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented to him, whom the man had already detached from his teachings. This disconnection thus clearly demonstrated his continued condition of enslavement to reductionism, that is, defining himself by what he did and had (v.22). This enslavement exposes his second critical error of relationship.
The rich ruler pursued the Teacher only to learn what to do (his first critical error) “to inherit eternal life.” “To inherit” (kleronomeo, to be an heir) something was not an end result any individual can make happen by one’s effort, which the rich ruler appeared to assume—likely given his resources and self-determination. “To be an heir” required a specific relational context involving a process that can have the relational conclusion of an inheritance. In those days, the specific relational context of an heir was the family of which one was a full member (either biologically or by adoption); a family slave, for example, would not qualify for an inheritance, only a son would. Since the rich ruler was not free from his reductionist framework and practice of defining his person and doing relationships, he clearly pursued this inheritance of God’s life functionally while in enslavement, that is, in effect from a position of a slave. This was his second critical error of relationship. Regardless of his best efforts, a slave could not qualify for an inheritance, only a son would qualify as an heir to partake and participate in the Father’s life, thus belong permanently in his family (cf. Jn 8:31-36). This was the relational shift that Zacchaeus experienced in following Jesus to belong to God’s family. Sadly also, functional enslavement (primarily due to a reduced theological anthropology) has prevented even Christians from experiencing this intimate belonging of relationship together, regardless of one’s confession of faith and referential beliefs.
In Subject Jesus’ whole ontology and function, he distinctly makes evident that the whole person—not disembodied from his teachings and derelationalized from his examples—he vulnerably presents and discloses is only for relationship in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. Discipleship of “Follow me” by this nature can only be ongoing intimate involvement in reciprocal relationship together with Jesus in relational progression to the whole of God. As the rich ruler’s two critical errors of relationship demonstrate unequivocally, anything less and any substitutes are not sufficient, acceptable or relationally significant to Jesus—no matter the sincerity or good intentions.
What also emerges from Jesus’ self-disclosures in these interactions is the simple fact that he holds persons fully accountable for his whole person presented to them. If Jesus presented something less or some substitute, he could not have this expectation—nor would we be able to expect much from him, thereby justifying disembodying him from his teachings and derelationalizing him from examples. The incarnation principle of nothing less and no substitutes, however, presents the Subject person for whom we are fully accountable. This accountability for all of God’s self-revelation is neither excused nor adjusted, whatever the situation or circumstances, the context or culture. The following would-be disciples learn the extent of this accountability when Jesus chastens their sincere intentions to follow him.
The first person is identified as a teacher of the law (“scribe”) who asserts to Jesus “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (Mt 8:19). Since he was schooled in the rabbinic tradition, he knew what it meant to be a disciple (mathetes). That would suggest an advantage in his favor as he now offers (or responds, if Jesus called) to become a disciple of Jesus. Whether he merely wants to learn a “fresh” interpretation of the law or he is expressing a deeper commitment to Jesus—likely the latter, given his “wherever you go” is in the Greek middle voice, subjunctive mood—Jesus responds in a curious way: “…the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (8:20, par. Lk 9:58). This is commonly interpreted as Jesus identifying the rigorous sacrificial life of discipleship; an alternative reading I propose is about sojourning. Thus I assert that Jesus is making a deeper response to this teacher of the law—not about what his disciples do but of who, what and how they are and whose they are.
Since “nowhere to lay” is in the Greek subjunctive mood, Jesus is not describing an existing reality. Rather the subjunctive only expresses a potential possibility and only marks contingency. While using the contrast to the reality of the animal world (foxes and birds having a place), Jesus then is not pointing to current reality of discipleship or even future discipleship in the world—though he is pointing to a distinct process of discipleship in this context. Part of this process involves being a sojourner in the world: unlike the animals of the world, sojourners have “nowhere to lay.” Yet, the reality of sojourning in this world can only emerge from the further and deeper process of discipleship inherent in “Follow me”—the nonnegotiable relational process of ongoing intimate reciprocal relationship together. While a sojourner in this world is subject to the pressures and influences of the world, that person cannot be defined and determined by the surrounding and prevailing human contexts. This is the deeper issue Jesus addresses in his response.
As a teacher of the law, this person is not merely deeply knowledgeable about the law, he is also embedded in the Judaic religious and sociocultural context. Thus, he is bringing this particular perceptual-interpretive framework with him in his assertion to Jesus, which influences how he sees Jesus as well as himself. Without specifying what his framework is, Jesus implies in his response: that as a sojourner he himself is not defined by the human contexts of the world; that who, what and how the Son of Man is can only be defined and determined by the further and deeper relational context of his Father; and that together his whole person is of this trinitarian relational context as family, in which the whole person he vulnerably presents is compatible in function only with the trinitarian relational process of family love. What Jesus also implies in all this for this person to understand about his own self is pivotal: that his framework needs to shift from a reductionist quantitative framework (in narrow referential terms) to a qualitative relational framework (in whole relational terms); that he needs to change how he is defined and what defines him; that discipleship is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus’ whole person in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together only in the trinitarian relational context and process of the whole of God—nothing less and no substitutes. And that no matter how good this man’s intentions, the de facto state (functional reality) of who and what he is will always implicitly shape how he functions as his disciple. Therefore, Jesus holds the man accountable both for Jesus’ whole person and the man’s own person. That is the nature of discipleship following Subject Jesus in reciprocal relationship together.
Jesus clarified that discipleship is this call to be redefined, transformed and made whole. Whatever this teacher of the law heard in Jesus’ response and however he perceived Jesus after this, we are given no further indication in the narrative about his response back to Jesus. I suspect that following Jesus was more to be accountable for than he expected, even with his previous experience as a disciple—radically more deep than he likely imagined. This interaction, however, provides the broader context for the following two would-be disciples, which suggests looking at these three interactions as a narrative whole integral for discipleship rather than separately (see Lk 9:57-62). These three would-be disciples exercised strong initiative and displayed considerable interest in following Jesus, yet something happened to each of them. While these appear to be describing the sacrifice and service of discipleship, the underlying accountability for Jesus’ self-disclosures exposes the deeper issue.
Prior to undertaking his discipleship, the next person requests “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Lk 9:59). It was an important responsibility in the ancient community for a son to bury his father, particularly the eldest son. Certainly, as Son himself, Jesus understands the importance of honoring one’s father. Given the role of a son, this man makes a legitimate request of Jesus to adjust to his special circumstance. Yet, Jesus appears to deny the request, counter the religious values and change the man’s role (9:60). If we look only at the man’s circumstance, Jesus’ response would definitely imply all of this. If, however, we look at his circumstance in larger context, beyond the human context to Jesus’ relational context, a deeper picture emerges. In saying “let the dead…” and “…proclaim the kingdom,” Jesus puts into juxtaposition two different realities here: (1) the prevailing social reality of the world, which includes the family of those whose essential function is spiritually dead (“let the dead bury their own dead”); while this social reality is a basic one in which we all participate, Jesus is clarifying for this would-be disciple not to let this reality define him nor determine who, what and how he is; in contrast, thus functionally in conflict, (2) Jesus brings forth the reality of the kingdom of God—not a conceptual idea (reign) or a future condition (realm) of the kingdom of God—that is, the whole of God’s family of those who truly are alive, a new creation in Christ, who are redeemed from reductionist definition, determination and control that dominate the social reality of the world; and those belonging to this new reality by redemptive reconciliation also need to share it directly with others in family love, just as Jesus discloses it, in order to experience relationship in God’s family, because every person needs the experiential reality of this family of the living.
When Jesus told him “but as for you go and proclaim,” he neither denied him his role as a son nor denounced the religious value of honoring his father. He did clarify for him in this relational imperative, however, the ontology of his person as a disciple. Who, what and how this person is by its nature then subordinates all other determination and function. Discipleship is not a hybrid of the two realities, in which the whole of one’s person and function become reduced to something less and some substitute. Moreover, Jesus is not changing his role to a missionary (“go”) or evangelist (“proclaim”). “Proclaim” (diangello) means not merely declaring the kingdom (family) of God but to declare fully, completely. By this, Jesus means “go and proclaim” not in a quantitative sense (as many view the Great Commission and evangelism) but in its qualitative significance. The former does indeed make it about a role and what he should do. This emphasis reduces the whole person and functionally deemphasizes the relationships necessary to be whole constituting the family of God, and thereby truncates soteriology with a gospel suffering from a lack of relational significance. Such a proclamation would not be full, complete, that is, whole in what we are saved to.
And Jesus clarifies for this would-be disciple that discipleship is the call to be whole, not to serve. Thus what is imperative is not to fulfill his role to bury his father. That may be necessary along with other matters in the social reality of the world but only as a function of his wholeness as Jesus’ disciple. This is the imperative Jesus presents to him—the relational imperative of the whole of God.
Following Jesus is also about more than interest, however strong. The adherence of a disciple to Jesus involves deep attachment and distinct priority for the experience of belonging as one of his true disciples. The third would-be disciple in this grouping declared his plans to follow Jesus but first wanted to “go back and say good-by to my family” (9:61, NIV). Seems reasonable, except saying good-bye (apotasso) in their cultural context connotes a lengthy process (maybe many years) and a number of duties to perform before leaving. His use of apotasso in the Greek aorist form also indicates an open-ended period of time. While this person may have had a stronger interest to follow Jesus than he had in his family, he demonstrates a stronger attachment to his family. Attachments reflect where the heart is embedded and thus would always exert greater influence than interests (which only reflect the focus of the mind), no matter how strong the interest. As a consequence of his attachment, his primary priority was still with his biological family over Jesus—a prevailing priority in the church today in need of clarification and correction.
The differences of interest, attachments and priorities disclose where the person is in the innermost. Jesus ongoingly clarifies this for persons, particularly his disciples, both would-be and real. When he talked later about the need to “give up all” (apotasso, same word as good-bye) to be his disciple (Lk 14:33), this is not about relinquishing all else and detaching ourselves from them, particularly the relationships he described earlier (see Lk 14:26). In that context and in these current contexts, this is about how the person is defined, who/what determines their lives, and thus how relationships are practiced. For this purpose, Jesus is emphatic with this third would-be disciple that anything less or any substitutes in discipleship are a reductionist compromise, which is not “fit for the kingdom of God” (euthetos, usable, suitable, 9:62); that is, it’s not relationally meaningful, thus neither significant relationally to God nor acceptable for relational function in God’s family.
Jesus held these would-be disciples accountable for his whole person presented and disclosed vulnerably by the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love. Therefore, his call continues to be clarified as the call to be redefined, transformed and made whole—to “follow the whole of me” in reciprocal relationship together as subjects in relational progression to the whole of God, the Trinity in function as family. Anything less than and any substitutes for this integral relational dynamic are reductionism of the embodied whole of Jesus (e.g. to “flesh and blood”) and the whole of God’s self-disclosure (e.g. to narrowed-down referential terms). This reductionism renders our life and practice both theologically and functionally to epistemological illusions and ontological simulations. Consequently, all who confess this Jesus are accountable—from the scholar in the academy to the teacher behind the pulpit to every person in the pew.
The Subject-person of Jesus cannot be perceived, received and responded to in relationship apart from his intrusive relational path, even though his theological trajectory may be in focus. As we witnessed Jesus’ intrusive interactions, his whole person has emerged and unfolded—clearly distinguished in deeper profile even before the cross. This necessarily composed the complete Christology that is integral for our theology and practice to be whole. We also now need to go into the cross with Jesus in order to perceive, receive and respond further and deeper to his whole person. The person seen on the cross both summarizes Subject Jesus’ whole person and gives us a summary account of the gospel of transformation to wholeness—seen not to observe or just to affirm but rather to receive and respond to the most vulnerably, and thus the most intimately, in reciprocal relationship together.
When we reflect further on Nicodemus asking “How can these things be?” and other would-be followers raising in monologue “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52), there are issues for us to address. In the skewed theological task of these would-be disciples (6:28,30,34), we see the evidence of a narrowed-down epistemic field and the hermeneutical impasse of its limits (6:41-42,52,60). What appeared improbable to them raises underlying issues beyond Jesus’ improbable theological trajectory to his intrusive relational path that converged on the cross to constitute it—issues raised for all of us. Our view of the Lord’s Supper aside, we likely would not ask “How can Jesus give us his flesh to eat?” Yet we need to engage this question in relational terms and challenge our assumptions of the cross in this context of the prevailing influence from reductionism. If not reduced to a symbol, it can be said that Jesus’ death on the cross has been grossly exaggerated. That is to say, we need whole understanding of what converged on the cross and how it was composed, in order to know the whole who of the cross and why he engaged it. Our assumptions of the cross are likely insufficient for this understanding—perhaps even on a different relational path than Jesus—and need to be clarified, challenged, if not corrected.
Whatever position we have on the atonement sacrifice, that position becomes the lens that tends to skew our view of the cross. With this lens what we associate with the cross is sacrifice and who we see is the one who made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, the atonement sacrifice is just one part of what converged on the cross. This sacrifice is insufficient to explain the full relational dynamic involved in how the cross was composed, and thus is inadequate to understand the who of the cross and why his relational path vulnerably involved it. Moreover, idealizing the cross creates a hermeneutical impasse that keeps us at a relational distance to go deeper into the cross with Jesus’ whole person, not simply affirming this cross of Jesus.
Who, what, how and why are integral to God’s relational dynamic that unfolds on the cross. This relational dynamic cannot be narrowed down to one of its parts (namely atonement) without fragmenting God’s whole relational action that constitutes that part. The consequence would reduce atonement to referential terms with the loss of its relational significance (i.e. its how and why) and thus having no relational outcome to experience in the transformed relationships together with the veil removed (discussed below). Jesus clearly defines the whole of God’s relational dynamic: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9, cf. 17:23,26). What he said next may confuse the dynamic of love if heard in referential language: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). Jesus was certainly pointing to the cross, yet his relational language for “lay down” (tithemi) signifies “to put or place one’s person” in vulnerable relational involvement with others. At times, this vulnerable involvement of love may include sacrifice but not be defined by sacrifice, which Paul’s language may confuse if seen in referential language: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Yet, God’s relational dynamic of love does not revolve around sacrifice. How the Father loves the Son is not about sacrifice but the depth of the Father’s involvement with the Son; and this is the relational dynamic of love Jesus extends to us, notably on the cross and throughout the incarnation and even prior to the embodied Word. And God’s love also cannot be idealized or this keeps both God’s involvement at a less intrusive relational distance and our response to “amazing love” at a less vulnerable relational distance.
When we think of agape love, the primary thought to emerge is about sacrifice. Then, of course, the ultimate agape-sacrifice is seen in Jesus’ death on the cross. The functional significance of agape (and hesed in OT), however, is focused on involvement in the primacy of relationship—without letting any other matter take away from this primacy (cf. Dt 7:7-9). Sacrifice tends to have the focus on that individual and what one does in the sacrifice, though intended ostensibly for the sake of others—an important distinction Jesus challenged all to learn (Mt 9:13; Hos 6:6). In contrast, agape functions in the relational significance of how to be involved with others in relationship—“as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you”—not about what “I” do, notably with sacrifice; the latter is how Jesus’ death gets grossly exaggerated. Therefore, the focus in agape must by its nature (dei in contrast to the obligation of opheilo, as Jesus acted, Mt 16:21) be involvement with others in the primacy of relationship together—neither on me nor what I do, even intended for the sake of others (as Jesus illuminated, Jn 13:34-35). Yet, this is not the prevailing understanding of love in theological discourse, nor is it our prevailing practice—both contrary to Jesus’ intrusive relational path.
Rather in prevailing referential terms, love is narrowed down to positive works that God does and an attribute that God has, thereby defining God by what he does and has. Such love essentially constrains God’s ontology and function and has relational consequences, the repercussions of which continue to have dominant influence in theological discourse today—not to mention in our practice. The results of this kind of works is certainly good but this limited outcome does not go to the depths of who, what and how God is in ontology and function; nor does it get to the relational significance of the whole and holy God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement with the reduced ontology and function of human persons. Israel often labored in their focus on the limited outcome of deliverance from their situations and circumstances rather than on the primacy of their covenant of love with God (hesed with ahab, Dt 7:6-9). Love (both hesed and agape) defines God’s relational work that determines the depth of relational involvement God has with us (including but not only on the cross) entirely for the relational outcome of the gospel of transformation to wholeness—new reciprocal relationship together as God’s whole family (Jn 17:21-23).
Relational work is clearly distinguished from referential works (as would-be disciples learned, Jn 6:28-29), which mainly focus on situations and circumstances for positive results and not the primacy of relationships in relational work. Any relational involvement that may take place in referential terms is regarded as only secondary to what happens—not the primacy of “put or place one’s person” in vulnerable relational involvement (tithemi, Jn 15:13)—and often is not paid attention to by the lover or the recipient over the positive results. Consequently, with love in referential terms, persons and relationships are defined from outer in and are thereby determined by what they do and have in their situations and circumstances. This is a critical distinction that Paul learned from his personal experience with God (2 Cor 12:7-9; Phil 4:11-13). Yet, even the positive results of such love can merely reflect, reinforce or sustain the human condition, results which our theology and practice must account for. This is not the love enacted on the cross. We need a deeper experience of agape than sacrifice, and a new view of the cross takes us deeper than sacrifice—perhaps even deeper than we want, particularly if we embrace a popular Jesus.
The nature of agape as constituted by God’s ontology and function is relationship. As disclosed by Jesus and the Father along with the Spirit, agape relationships are signified by the extent of involvement directly in the relationship—and not indirectly through a situation or circumstance (Jn 17:21,23,26)—and by this relational nature its depth necessitates increasing vulnerability by the person enacting agape (cf. Jn 12:27-28; 13:1-5; 14:9-10). The ultimate enactment of agape disclosed to us is signified in John 3:16, in which the relational significance of the incarnation was Jesus relationally embodying the whole and holy God to be vulnerably present and intimately involved with us for relationship together in wholeness. ‘God with us’ (Immanuel) is neither a mere name nor event but the relational context and process of God’s whole relational action. Agape is the integral function of both God’s grace and wholeness, nothing less and no substitutes. Therefore, this agape relationship initiated by the holy God’s relational grace is the gospel of wholeness. The experiential truth of this ‘good news’ relationship (not mere positive results) was composed by Jesus in his agape involvement with us on the cross—the vulnerably embodied extension of the Father’s love for him (Jn 15:9). What the cross signifies entirely in relational terms, hence, is the depth of relational involvement Jesus engaged conjointly with us and the Father (along with the Spirit), and not about what Jesus did even though by necessity it involved the sacrifice of atonement to remove the veil.
What the cross composes theologically in terms of atonement must by its nature be understood in the relational dynamic of love to distinguish Jesus’ involvement in his intrusive relational path. That is, Jesus’ whole person vulnerably involved himself with the whole human person, thus he involved his person with persons’ sin (namely as reductionism) as well as human creation in the image of God. His involvement with persons’ sin was fully vulnerable and intimate (tithemi of love, Jn 15:13) such that he took on and incurred the consequence of that sin—which also involved the relational consequence of separation from God the Father (Mt 27:46)—and integrally prevailed over the human condition by removing the veil to make whole human ontology and function (as Paul clarified for theology and practice, 2 Cor 3:16-18; Eph 2:14-18). The wholeness of persons and relationships together is the relational outcome that unfolds from atonement, which is integrally determined by Jesus’ relational involvement of love. If this is not the outcome from atonement, then atonement has been fragmented from God’s whole relational action for a reduced outcome in a truncated soteriology of what persons are saved from: sin, yet without sin as reductionism, which, if it were included, would require the above relational outcome of saved to wholeness. Simply stated, if what we get from the cross is just salvation from sin, we are being shortchanged; and either God needs to be held accountable or our theology and practice are incomplete. In the theological task, as Jesus declared unmistakably in his defining statement for his followers (Mk 4:24), “the atonement you use is the salvation you get.” And “the cross you see is the outcome you get in theology and practice.”
Therefore, what the cross represents is no mere event (even idealized), as many refer to it, albeit a salvific event; and it cannot be represented in these terms without representing God in salvific action. What converged on the cross is entirely Subject God’s relational dynamic of love extending throughout the incarnation, and how the cross was composed unfolded from the relational outcome of the whole of God’s involvement with us. This was Paul’s direct relational experience and therefore his major emphasis on the cross, yet only on God’s relational terms and not as mere event in referential terms. While the cross as event likely presents the body of Jesus such that the cross is not disembodied from Jesus—for example, as his teachings get disembodied—the Jesus presented on this cross is disengaged, that is, not relationally involved in agape relationship, but only love as sacrifice at best. This becomes the ultimate de-relationalizing of Jesus’ person, with the consequence to maintain the veil that limits both knowing the whole who of the cross and experiencing the relational outcome of why he engaged the cross.
This provides us the refocused and new view of the cross and the Jesus on it for the what and who, how and why that converge congruently with Jesus’ intrusive relational path to fulfill the whole of God’s improbable theological trajectory. The lens from the relational significance of agape enacted by Jesus on the cross necessarily shifts our focus from Jesus to his relational involvement with others. To only see Jesus on the cross (e.g. a crucifix) also reduces Jesus’ whole person, consequently to truncate the salvific function of the cross without what Jesus saved to, and to render John 3:16 and the gospel without its relational significance. With this consequential lens, such a narrow view of the cross and of agape fragments God’s relational dynamic to mere sacrifice, not relationship together in wholeness. If the cross is not whole and the who on the cross is not whole-ly embodied by the whole ontology and function of God (pleroma of God as Paul made definitive, Col 1:19; 2:9), then the salvific outcome cannot be the whole relational outcome but at best a truncated soteriology in referential terms limited to only saved from—and still without being saved from reductionism. Such a cross is detached from the embodied whole of Jesus and disconnected from the Subject on the cross, leaving us with no person to embrace in relationship.
Jesus does not in fact give us such a reductionist view of him on the cross that fragments his relational action and diminishes his agape involvement. There is no legitimate option to represent him in other than the terms Jesus presented in his whole person. God’s thematic relational action of grace and dynamic of love are intimately communicated and vulnerably consummated by Jesus’ ultimate discourse on the cross. Again, this certainly included atonement but is not limited to it, so that the relational outcome of complete soteriology unfolds with Jesus’ ultimate salvific discourse.
This discourse is understood as his seven statements integrated with his actions on the cross, though each of the Gospel narratives provides a different part of the discourse, with Mark and Matthew including only the most important fourth statement to formulate a structure somewhat analogous to an OT chiasm (two halves framing the key point placed between them). Taken together they evidence the thematic relational message of God, and this composite message’s theological interpretation constitutes it as the ultimate salvific discourse consummating the whole of God’s thematic action for the new covenant relationship together as family. Thus, no aspect of this discourse can be fully understood separated from the context of the whole; nor can any aspect be reduced and still constitute its relational significance in the whole of God’s thematic action.
This was Jesus’ discourse on the cross, in which the language of his words and actions communicated with the ultimate relational clarity and significance—nothing less than relational language.
First Statement: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34).
In his initial words, Jesus clearly established his full relational context with the Father, thereby pointing to the source of salvation. His initial action also disclosed the full relational process of grace necessary for salvation: forgiveness (aphiemi, to remit sin, dismiss indebtedness toward God, cf. Mt 26:28; also its function in Lk’s emphasis on salvation, Lk 5:20-26; 7:47-50; 24:46-47). How Jesus engaged aphiemi was less about the situation and full of relational significance, which was constituted only by God’s relational grace.
As they killed Jesus, this destruction was the paradoxical relational process necessary for new relationship with the whole of God (cf. Lk 22:20). That is, it is ironic that aphiemi denotes, on the one hand, the forgiveness for their sin and broken relationship with the triune God, which in this moment led to the necessary cost for redemption fulfilled by his death on the cross (cf. Mk 10:45). On the other hand, aphiemi signifies the transformation to the new covenant relationship together constituted by the Spirit, who is Jesus’ relational replacement so he would “not leave [aphiemi] you as orphans” (Jn 14:18, NIV). In other words, Jesus enacted aphiemi entirely for relationship together and completely fulfilled the whole of its relational significance by his relational work of grace.
Jesus’ discourse was interjected with challenges to his salvific claim (Mt 27:40; Mk 15:29-30), as well as with mocking of his salvific authority and power as the Messiah King (Mt 27:42; Mk 15:31-32; Lk 23:35). Another detractor was one of the criminals executed with Jesus, who demonstrated a prevailing messianic expectation of salvation in existing quantitative situations and circumstances (Lk 23:39). His derision was about deliverance from his circumstances, not about relationship together; thus, he represented a majority position of those with a reductionist reaction to Jesus.
The other criminal looked beyond their own circumstances and made a qualitative shift to see Jesus’ person (though also as King) and to pursue him in his relational context, despite Jesus’ situation (Lk 23:40-42). Thus, he represented those with the qualitative relational response necessary to receive the vulnerable self-disclosure of God in Jesus for salvation. He received the following relational response from Jesus.
Second Statement: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).
In the relational clarity of his family love, Jesus clearly made definitive the relational outcome and conclusion for anyone and all who relationally respond to his vulnerable relational work of grace for new covenant relationship together. This relational response necessitates reciprocal vulnerability in engaging Jesus in his relational context and by intimate involvement with him in his relational process, as signified by the second criminal’s relational response of trust in Jesus.
The relational conclusion of being “with me in paradise” should not be reduced. Paradise, despite images and notions, is not about a place, that is, about aspects of bios; Jesus’ statement here should be compared to his statements with the churches in Ephesus
and Laodicea (Rev 2:7; 3:21). Rather, paradise is about sharing together intimately in the ultimate relational context of God, and thus complete involvement in the ultimate relational process of participating in the zoe of the Trinity. “With me” is only about relationship together at its ultimate (“Paradise”)—to which Jesus could have added “nothing less and no substitutes,” yet was absolutely definitive in prefacing his statement with “Truly I tell you.”
In the next part of his discourse, Jesus points to what he saves us to, which the first criminal was predisposed to ignore by reducing salvation merely to being saved from bad situations and circumstances.
Third Statement: To his mother, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, Here is your
mother” (Jn 19:26-27).
With the relational significance of his family love communicated in this statement, Jesus gives us a partial entrance into what he saved us to by opening the functional door to salvific life and practice.
There are many aspects for us to reflect on here: circumstances, culture, family, Jesus’ promise to his disciples (viz. Mk 10:29-30). All of these factor into this extraordinary interaction, the outcome of which forms the experiential roots of what he saved us to and the functional roots for the development of his church as family. Building with the persons who truly constituted his family (see Mt 12:47-50), Jesus demonstrated the functional significance of being his family in what should be understood as a defining interaction, yet is often underemphasized or overlooked.
Apparently, Mary had been a widow for a while. In the Mediterranean world of biblical times, a widow was in a precarious position (like orphans, cf. Lk 7:12-15), and so it was for Mary, particularly when her eldest and thus primary son (culturally speaking) was about to die. Their culture called for the eldest son to make provision for parents when they could no longer provide for themselves. The kinship family (by blood and law) had this responsibility. Though a widow, in Mary’s case she still had other sons and daughters to care for her (Mk 6:3). Why, then, did Jesus delegate this responsibility to someone outside their immediate family?
Though circumstances, culture and family converge on this scene, they do not each exert the same amount of influence. We cannot let contextual considerations limit our understanding of this defining point in the relational progression of his followers. In relational terms, Jesus was neither fulfilling his duty as the eldest son nor bound by the circumstances. As he had consistently demonstrated throughout the incarnation, Jesus was taking his followers beyond culture and circumstances, even beyond family as we commonly view it. As the embodied whole of God, his intrusive relational path (including on the cross) was composed by his ontology and function beyond reductionism, which he expected also of his followers in order to participate in his new covenant family (Mt 5:20).
Jesus’ whole relational context of family and relational process of family love was made evident in his painful condition yet sensitive relational involvement with Mary and John, which should not be reduced by the drama of the moment or the obligation of the situation. Though Jesus was in anguish and those closest to him were deeply distressed, this unimaginable interaction took place because Jesus functionally embodied the family love of the whole of God. This dramatically demonstrates the inseparable relation between theology (of the cross) and function (in the relational involvement of love). In the most touching moment on the cross, Jesus teaches us what being his family means: how to see each other, how to be involved with each other, and how the individual is affirmed in submitting to him for it.
For Jesus, family involvement was based on agape relational involvement, so being his family cannot be understood from our conventional perceptions of family involvement or by our conditioned feelings of obligation. Despite his circumstances, Jesus focused on Mary and John with the deepest agape involvement and affection (phileo, cf. Jn 5:20, ahab, Dt 7:7): “Here is your son,” “Here is your mother.” How was he telling them to see each other? How was he saying to be involved with each other? How was the individual affirmed in submitting to him?
Jesus gave his followers new eyes to see each other from inner out—beyond circumstances, culture, blood and legal ties, social status. He redefined his family to be relationship-specific to his Father (Mt 12:47-50). This is how he wants us to see each other, and how he saw Mary. It seems certain that Mary was not merely Jesus’ earthly mother but increasingly his follower. She was not at odds with Jesus (though she certainly must have had mixed feelings) during his earthly ministry, as were his brothers. She was always there for him in her role as mother but more importantly she was now there with him as one who did the Father’s will—thus, as follower, daughter, sister. This was the person Mary at the crucifixion.
Just as Jesus didn’t merely see Mary as his earthly mother, a widow, a female, he didn’t merely see John as a disciple, a special friend. They were his Father’s daughter and son, his sister and brother (cf. Mt 28:10; Heb 2:11), his family together in the relational progression. This is the nature of agape family love that extended from the Father to the Son to his followers, and how he wants his family to be involved with each other in likeness (Jn 15:9; 17:23). This deeply touching interaction clearly distinguished Jesus’ relational involvement with and response to his family. It was the beautiful outworking of family love in the reciprocal relational process together of being family and growing it from these relational roots. Nothing less and no substitutes, just as Jesus lived and went to the cross, whom we need to embrace in whole. This is the function of salvific life and practice in the present, what Jesus saved us to.
On this relational basis and unequivocal relational purpose, Jesus’ action was just as much for John’s benefit as it was for Mary—both in provision and opportunity. In response to Jesus, John acted beyond being merely a disciple, even a friend, and took Mary into “his own” (idios, one’s own, denotes special relationship, v.27). He didn’t just take her into his house; he embraced Mary as his own mother (or kinship sister). She must have embraced him also as her son (or kinship brother). Earlier in response to what each of his disciples let go of in order to “Follow me,” Jesus promised them an even greater family (Mk 10:29-30). True to his words as ever, he partially fulfilled his promise to them. This is the relational outcome ‘already’ for each person who submits to him to participate in his family. No greater satisfaction of being accepted, no fulfillment of the person’s self-worth, no certainty of one’s place and belonging can be experienced by the person from inner out without the relational significance of his new creation family in reciprocal relational involvement without the veil (cf. Jn 15:11).
As the functional key, Jesus’ action here demonstrated the relationships of love necessary to be the whole of God’s new covenant family with family love (both agape and phileo)—extended from God’s covenant of love (both hesed and ahab, Dt 7:7-9)—and this initial experience composed the roots of his church as family. Moreover, this experiential reality signified the ongoing fulfillment of his covenant promise to his followers (i.e. Mk 10:29-30, which becomes functional in the present as his church family), and thereby established the experiential truth of the whole gospel for all to experience (cf. Jn 17:21-23).
And as the hermeneutical key, Jesus used not only relational language but also his family language to compose his words as the whole of the Word from God embodied vulnerably for just this new covenant relationship together. This scenario statement, therefore, must be understood in the whole of his salvific discourse and made definitive for the function of his church in its ongoing life and practice.
Keep in mind that his first three statements happened while he was dying a physically painful death. Thus, having clearly and vulnerably communicated God’s thematic relational action of grace in the first half of his discourse, Jesus continued in the second half to intimately consummate his salvific work for the new covenant relationship together of God’s family. The cost for redemption to complete this salvation to the new creation was immeasurable. In unsettling contrast to his previous statement as the most touching moment on the cross, his next statement is the most heartbreaking—while also the most important statement disclosing the relational significance on which the whole of God’s salvific action hinged.
Fourth Statement: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).
Familiarity with these words must not predispose us to minimalize Jesus’ relational language, and thus to diminish the depth of relational significance involved here. Such reductionism can only have a relational consequence of promoting relational distance (however unintentional) from God or of reinforcing the relational condition “to be apart” (however inadvertent) from the whole of God. This commonly results when we disembody and/or derelationalize Jesus from his Subject person (the Subject of the Word) and thereby have no person as Subject to embrace for relational connection with the whole of God. Moreover, I affirm, nothing will help us understand the distinction between the qualitative (e.g. element of zoe) and the quantitative (e.g. aspects of bios) more than this pivotal relational statement by Jesus.
Beyond the prolonged physical pain (nearly in its sixth hour), Jesus’ words vulnerably exposed his relational pain—which was initially experienced in the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:37-38) in anticipation of this ultimate relational pain. The Son’s relationally painful scream not only further expressed his honesty and vulnerableness with his Father, but now even more significantly demonstrated the relational wholeness by which their life together is constituted (Jn 10:38; 14:10,11,20; 17:21). Therefore, we are exposed intimately to what is innermost to the zoe of God: the whole of the relationship of God.
Since God is the Trinity, the whole of the triune God is constitutive of the Trinity’s relationships, while the Trinity’s relationships together constitute the whole of God—apart from which the zoe of God does not function. It was the zoe of the Trinity, the whole of the relationship of God, which was the issue in Jesus’ statement (relational scream).
While Jesus’ physical death was necessary for salvation, that quantitative death of bios was not his ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate was his apparent loss of the qualitative relationship of the whole of God. As a consequence of absorbing our sin, in that inexplicable moment the Son was no longer in the Father nor the Father in him. In this nothing-less-and-no-substitutes action of grace by the whole and holy God, the mystery of the “brokenness” of the relational ontology of the Trinity in effect happened. We can have only some sense of understanding this condition by focusing on the relational reality in distress, not the ontological. With this qualitative focus on Jesus’ pain, we become vulnerable participants both (1) in the painful relational consequence involving any degree of the relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God, and (2) in the fullness of God’s ultimate response to redeem us from this condition as well as to reconcile us to the whole of the relationship of God, the zoe of the Trinity.
For this wholeness with God to be experienced, however, the relational barriers “to be apart” have to be removed. When the Son screamed out in relational pain, all those barriers had converged on him to evoke the Father’s separation. I assert that it was also the moment the Father cried, and the Spirit grieved. This was their relational work of grace; and nothing less and no substitutes could have consummated this relational consequence, which was necessary by its nature to overcome the relational consequence of sin, most notably as reductionism. Furthermore, nothing less and no substitutes can constitute the family love involved in the relational process and relational conclusion of salvation. Therefore, though in a figurative sense the whole of God was broken, nevertheless the relational significance of this paradoxical moment was functionally specific to wholeness, that is, in order that we (necessarily both individually and corporately) will be made whole in new relationship together with the veil no longer between us—which Paul later clarified for persons and the church, 2 Cor 3:16-18; Eph 2:14-18).
This is how the whole of God indeed “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Nicodemus apparently would understand this more deeply from this ultimate salvific discourse than he understood from Jesus’ first discourse with him about salvation (see him after Jesus’ death, Jn 19:38-39).
If we understand whole-ly the relational significance of the Son’s relational pain from being forsaken by the Father, this goes beyond relational rejection to the deeper relational condition of being apart from the whole of God. In this sense, what is taken away from the wholeness of the Trinity affects the wholeness of each trinitarian person. Not only are they no longer in each other but they are not one—whole. To be forsaken or to forsake is to be separated from this dynamic whole. Certainly the mystery of this pivotal moment has no ontological understanding; God never stopped being God. And there is also the paradoxical aspect of the Son declaring he will not forsake us as orphans apart from the whole of God’s family (Jn 14:18), who is now himself separated from this whole. Yet, the relational significance of this both signifies the dynamic whole of the Trinity as well as establishes the means for relationship necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. This is the whole of the relationship of God that Jesus not only prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:20-23), but also paid the cost for the redemptive change necessary to be adopted into his family, and further provided his Spirit to help us grow in this experiential reality and ongoingly function to mature in his new creation family in wholeness together.
As the whole of God’s salvific action nears fulfillment, Jesus’ qualitative relational involvement remained fully embodied in the historical context of the cross. What transpired necessarily involved his whole person, just as indicated in Hebrew Scripture (Jn 19:24,28,36,37). After the heartbreaking interaction, Jesus made this evident in his next statement.
Fifth Statement: “I am thirsty” (Jn 19:28).
John’s Gospel began with the eternal state of Jesus the Christ as the Word who was always God (Jn 1:1-2, contrary to Arianism). When the whole of the Word became flesh also, Jesus the Christ became fully human while still fully divine to constitute his whole person (Jn 1:14, contrary to Apollinarianism). In this expanded Christology (beyond the Synoptic Gospels) the evangelist’s narrative included this part of Jesus’ salvific discourse. With the words in this statement, we are reminded that Jesus’ person was also human. This brings us face to Face with his full humanity and the human toll involved in his action necessary for salvation. This “I am” is the counterpart to the other “I am” statements the evangelist developed in this Gospel for a more complete Christology (see Jn 4:26; 6:35,51; 8:12,58; 9:5; 10:7,11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). In conjoint function, these “I am” statements are his relational work of grace fulfilling God’s thematic action and the Face’s definitive blessing for new relationship together in wholeness.
Jesus’ thirst was not merely the dehydration from physical exertion and trauma, but more importantly points to the depletion of his full humanity completely extended in intense vulnerable involvement in his relational path. This thirst signified that his relational work of grace was both the divine action of his deity disclosing the whole of God and also the relational involvement of his full humanity; and this conjoint function cannot be diminished in either function without reducing Jesus’ whole person for an incomplete Christology. Any reduction of Jesus’ whole person has theological and functional implications for soteriology, resulting in fragmenting what Jesus saved us from or saved us to, or both, thus a truncated soteriology. Such reductionism is always consequential for relationships, whether it is relationship together with God or within Christ’s church as family, or both.
In these fourth and fifth statements of his discourse, we are openly exposed to (even confronted by) this functional picture of Subject Jesus’ whole divine-human person: He who was vulnerably present, intimately involved and completely fulfilling the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace only for new covenant relationship together.
Thus, “when he had received the drink, Jesus said….”
Sixth Statement: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30).
“Finished” (teleo, complete, not merely ending it but fulfilling it to its intended conclusion), that is, his relational work both for redemption to free us from the old and its relational significance “to be apart” from the whole of God (ultimate death), and for reconciliation to God’s family—completing redemptive reconciliation. With these words, his ultimate salvation discourse was being brought to a close. Essentially all had been said and done, except for the concluding chapter in the history of salvation by the whole of God’s thematic relational action responding to the human relation condition.
As Jesus completed his redemptive work for the original covenant (cf. Ex 24:8 and Mk 14:24), the transition to the new conjointly begins. In Luke’s Gospel, the evangelist is concerned about a gospel accessible to all, thus he narrated the temple being reconstituted for the new covenant (Lk 23:44-45). Mark and Matthew’s Gospels also included the temple curtain event (Mk 15:38, Mt 27:51), yet they appeared to include this only as part of the narrative detail of events during the crucifixion without pointing to its relational significance (cf. Ex 26:31-33, Heb 10:19-20). Luke apparently changed the order of this event to precede and thus directly connect with this closing statement in Jesus’ salvific discourse—no doubt in further emphasis of Luke’s concern for an accessible gospel for all, which the relational significance of the torn temple curtain constitutes and Jesus’ next and last words both point to and will consummate.
Seventh Statement: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
With his final words in this ultimate salvific discourse, Jesus engaged the furthest and deepest in the trinitarian relational context and process. This relational cry to his Father contrasted with his earlier scream from relational pain (fourth statement), yet these cries for relationship were also conjoined in the mystery of the relational dynamic enacting the Trinity’s salvific work of grace.
Jesus said, “I commend” (paratithemi, to entrust, i.e. to relationally entrust) “my spirit” (pneuma, signifying the very innermost of his person), yet his relational language did not compose a dualism here implying he did not entrust his body; rather, he entrusted his whole person. His last words evidenced the submission of his whole person for relationship together in the transitional journey to complete the redemptive reconciliation work of the old and to raise up the new. By his intimate involvement in this vulnerably present and ongoingly involved relational context and process of the Trinity, Jesus was fully constituted in the final salvific action necessary for this ultimate relational conclusion: the resurrection and the birth of the new creation in the new covenant relationship together as family constituted in and by the Trinity, which the Spirit ongoingly transforms from the old to the new and brings to maturity for the eschatological completion.
Immediately after Jesus’ discourse, various responses from those who witnessed his death were recorded (Mk 15:39-40, Mt 27:54-55, Lk 23:47-49). By the nature of his ultimate salvific discourse, however, compatible relational response back to the whole of Jesus is necessary (dei) for the experiential truth and relational reality of this new covenant relationship together. This nothing-less-and-no-substitutes relational response is thus irreducible and nonnegotiable, just as Jesus vulnerably embodied and intimately involved his whole person only for this reciprocal relationship together to be whole with the veil removed—the new wine relationship of God’s whole family. His ultimate salvific discourse is a summary of the relational words that the Father makes imperative not only to “listen to my Son” but also to relationally respond to the whole of the Word embodied for nothing less and no substitutes. In other words, or further relational words, our response must embrace the whole of Jesus’ person in reciprocal relationship, both vulnerably and intimately.
The whole of what we hear and see from this cross is more inclusive and extensive than being only about Jesus and sacrifice. This view of the cross cannot be distinguished through a narrow lens that reduces the complete context and process of Subject Jesus’ involvement. Such a narrow lens was used by the first criminal to see Jesus in a reduced way and consequently to seek salvation (deliverance) merely from his negative circumstances. As Jesus further involved his whole person in the third statement, he defined what he saves us to, which the first criminal ignored and could not understand because he was predisposed by his reductionist lens. Yet many Christians are also predisposed with a similar narrow lens and thereby can only view the cross essentially as the first criminal did without whole-ly understanding what they are saved to. There is no forgiveness in relational terms (statement 1), however, unless it emerges from the relational consequence of the depth of Jesus’ agape involvement (statement 4) to constitute the relational outcome for statements two and three to be the experiential truth of this relational reconciliation in God’s whole family.
The Lord’s Supper cannot partake of this view of the cross without participating in this view from the cross. The Lord’s Supper, on the one hand, celebrates Jesus’ agape involvement, which cannot be narrowed down to partaking of quantitative symbols of the quantitative aspects of Jesus’ sacrifice as Object. More deeply significant then, on the other hand, the Lord’s Supper participates in the qualitative relational involvement of Subject Jesus’ agape action, and therefore in having communion (intimate relational connection) together person to person, heart to heart as God’s family—the relational outcome ‘already’ of statement three. Anything less and any substitutes for engaging Jesus’ whole person in his deep relational involvement is to engage merely in ritual flashback of Object Jesus’ sacrifice, and therefore not to be involved with Jesus the Subject in his vulnerable relational path on the cross. When Paul instructed the church on its communion practice, his relational language focused on the relational distance in their gatherings; the relational consequence simultaneously fragmented the new wine communion instituted by Jesus, and countered the relational involvement embodied by Jesus to compose the new covenant relationships together necessary to be his church family (1 Cor 11). For Paul, to have relational distance in the Lord’s Supper is to participate “in an unworthy manner” that nullified “the new covenant in my blood” (11:25-27).
The set of words and actions communicated in relational language by Jesus on the cross define the whole who and determine the what of the cross, and how it was composed and why—all of which challenge our assumptions of the cross. Only the irreducible Subject of the Word fulfills the challenge of the Face’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement on the cross. The depth of God’s whole relational action and dynamic of love constitute the integral relational context and process for sacrifice and make conclusive the relational outcome of atonement for persons and relationships together to be the whole and holy God’s family. This new view of the cross, however, makes relationally imperative Jesus’ intrusive relational path in the new wine relationships without the relational barriers-distance signified by the veil, and therefore holds us accountable—the who and what God seeks—for this ongoing vulnerable involvement in our theology and practice in order to be congruent with this view from the cross. Our relational distance is no longer acceptable and cannot distinguish the ontology and function unfolded on and from the cross. Who and what did not end with the cross but rises to be followed in compatible reciprocal relationship in nothing less and no substitute of whole ontology and function.
Since the whole of Jesus fulfilled the challenge of the unmistakable Face, those who follow him must address and fulfill the challenge for our face in the same intrusive relational path.
Embracing the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented makes inseparable the challenge for our face from the challenge of his face, notably evident on the cross. To meet this challenge, Jesus’ relational work of atonement requires further understanding for the gospel’s relational outcome to be whole in new relationship together. From the beginning, the whole of God’s relational response of grace has been to the human condition—to restore the whole that emerged in the primordial garden (Gen 2:18,25) and to transform to wholeness what unfolded from that pivotal context (Gen 3:7). This distinction between whole ontology and function and reduced ontology and function is immeasurable in its significance and is indispensable to expose the contending and contrary dynamics between them. These dynamics converge in the inescapable issue symbolized by ‘the veil’.
The veil represents a twofold condition:
Until the incarnation, the heart of God’s presence and involvement revolved around the tabernacle/temple (Ex 40:34; 1 Kg 9:3), namely vulnerably present and directly involved behind the curtain in the most holy sanctuary (Ex 26:33; Lev 16:2). Thereafter, with God’s strategic shift (Jn 4:20-23), the new temple of qualitative and relational significance would be the heart of God’s presence and involvement (1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:19-22). This outcome, however, emerges only when the embodied Face’s theological trajectory vulnerably completes his intrusive relational path to transform the old temple. This relational dynamic unfolded while Jesus was on the cross and during the outcome witnessed in the temple (Mt 27:50-51, cf. Ex 26:31-33; Heb 9:3,6-8). If we interpret God’s action in the temple to a narrowed-down event in referential terms, then it has lost the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel. The embodied Face’s atonement sacrifice behind the curtain transformed the ‘old’ and brought forth the outcome of the ‘new’ without the curtain whereby to constitute its qualitative and relational significance (Heb 10:19-20; cf. 6:19). This provides the essential view of the cross with the curtain torn open and veil removed, whose Subject can now be directly responded to and fully embraced. This relational outcome composes the ultimate intrusion enacted by Subject Jesus both of the Face and for our face.
In his theology, Paul made the significance of this outcome functional for the church in the experiential truth of the new covenant relationship (2 Cor 3:16-18). No doubt, this outcome emerged from the complex theological dynamics converging on the cross. These dynamics, however, cannot be narrowed down to traditional doctrines of atonement—namely the classic view of Christus Victor (i.e. Christ’s victory over sin, death and the powers of evil) or the Latin (or Western) view of penal substitution (i.e. Christ’s sacrifice to satisfy God for the consequences of sin)—and expect to have the same relational outcome. In one way or another, these doctrines have taken a more probable theological trajectory or a less vulnerable relational path than Jesus’; and the consequence for those maintaining and giving primacy to these beliefs is to be detached from the whole of Jesus in an incomplete Christology and thereby to be disconnected from the whole of God in a truncated soteriology.
The outcome of new covenant relationship with the veil removed integrally unfolded from the distinguished Face’s theological trajectory extended from the Face’s definitive blessing to bring change for a new relationship (siym) together in wholeness (shalom). This new relationship together in wholeness is constituted only vulnerably behind the curtain, that is, to be congruent with the embodied Face’s theological trajectory and compatible with his intrusive relational path in order to remove the veil for vulnerable face-to-Face relationship together in wholeness. If the ‘old’ condition is not understood with the sin of reductionism, that sin remains in front of the curtain in a truncated response of atonement insufficiently enacted behind the curtain—essentially then keeping the curtain in place in the condition of the ‘old’ for an incomplete atonement that maintains the relational distance/separation to prevent being new and whole (Heb 10:1). Historically, this relational condition has been kept in place or maintained by the doctrines of Christus Victor and penal substitutionary atonement, thereby indicating the influence of the veil on their interpretive lenses that constrains the whole embodied by Subject Jesus to an incomplete Christology. These theological re-forms always truncate soteriology, thus unavoidably leaving us detached from the whole of Jesus’ person and disconnected relationally from the whole of God and God’s whole.
The ‘new’ cannot take place in front of the curtain and does not emerge in theology and the church until the relational barrier (or distance) signified by the curtain is destroyed—as Paul made functionally conclusive for the wholeness of the church (Eph 2:14-22). These dynamics may appear to be only technical, yet they are essential for the theological anthropology intrinsic to God’s creation, the human condition, the gospel and its outcome. The persons God created whole and who were then fragmented by reductionism are not defined sufficiently by a reduced theological anthropology skewed by a weak view of sin ignoring reductionism (and the veil); nor are they restored (saved to) adequately by a gospel whose lens of the person is less than whole (e.g. as practiced by Peter, Gal 2:14).
Theology and practice without the qualitative and relational significance of the whole gospel are then formulated only in front of the curtain in the limits of referential terms, with a constrained view of persons and relationships. The curtain obscures the theological lens epistemologically, hermeneutically, ontologically and relationally from what is distinguished entirely behind the curtain with the Face in relational terms—resulting in theological fog. Theological discourse in front of the curtain speaks only in referential language, which constrains what we see and how we think, for fragmentary discourse (cf. Jn 8:43). The relational language behind the curtain opens up the whole and the new (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-18). If our theology does not clearly distinguish the whole, then we have not connected with the Face behind the curtain for our theology and practice to be whole-ly significant. The distinction between in front of or behind the curtain may not be apparent in our theology, but a distinction evident in our practice emerges with a lack of clarity (even elusiveness) in our discipleship.
Whole theology and practice is the outcome of vulnerably receiving and responding to the Face behind the curtain to have the veil removed for the intimate heart-to-heart communion of face-to-Face relationship together (Heb 10:19-22); this relational outcome is distinguished in qualitatively understanding and relationally knowing the whole of God, thereby being transformed to the new creation in the image and likeness of the Face (2 Cor 3:18; 4:4,6; 5:17; Col 2:9-10; 3:10). Whole theology and function are constituted entirely in face-to-Face-to-face relationship solely in relational terms only without the veil. Therefore, wholeness in theology and function demands both our vulnerable engagement into the Face’s theological trajectory behind the curtain—and then to have the curtain torn away—and our vulnerable involvement within the Face’s relational path with the veil removed. And our theological anthropology can no longer legitimately define anything less of the person or acceptably determine any substitute for relationship together.
From the beginning, the reality of God’s dwelling is the relational location and connecting point with the whole of God. This has radically shifted with Subject God’s intrusive relational path. The only relational connection with Subject God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement takes place with the curtain torn away and the veil removed. Therefore, by the necessity of Jesus’ relational work of atonement, we emphatically “must follow my whole person” in reciprocal relationship without the veil (which Peter often kept), in order for our discipleship to be distinguished with the relational connection of intimate involvement and thereby have relational significance both to God and to us.
The curtain is no longer available for us to be in front of, though this can be simulated by living with the veil. When, or if, we embrace the whole of Jesus’ person, we must by the nature of his whole ontology and function fulfill the challenge for our face “in spirit and truth,” that is, vulnerably and intimately in reciprocal relationship with Jesus the Subject without the irreplaceable veil.
The reciprocal relational nature of discipleship ongoingly presents us with both the challenge of the intrusive face of Jesus and the challenge for our face to be vulnerably involved in face-to-face relationship together. Anything less and any substitutes for either face decompose the reciprocal relationship distinguishing discipleship. Would-be disciples learned the hard way from Jesus that the composition of discipleship is nonnegotiable and irreducible.
The fact of God’s dwelling without the curtain is no mere theological notion that can be reduced to referential information. Indeed, complex theological dynamics converged behind the curtain to make God’s improbable theological trajectory more improbable and the Face’s intrusive relational path more intrusive. This cannot be reduced or fragmented to referential information without incurring major relational consequences. The whole gospel depends on the integral dynamic unfolded in the temple that illuminated the qualitative and relational significance of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition and its outcome to be made whole. The gospel and its theology and function cannot be whole in front of the curtain, that is, without the constraints of the veil removed—as Peter learned the hard way (Gal 2:11-14). As the theological and functional keys to the whole of God, Jesus opened the door (curtain) to the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of God to be whole-ly Face to face in relationship together. No more relational separation in the sanctuary, no more cloud to distinguish the whole of God within the limits of God’s earlier relational response to Moses and the tabernacle. And being vulnerable in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes is the essential nature of God’s complete relational response constituting the qualitative and relational significance of the gospel; and this inseparably includes the same vulnerable nature of its outcome of wholeness for persons and relationships and their function and theology. There is no way to avoid being vulnerable in these areas; the only alternative is to replace the veil and remain as if “in front” of the curtain to signify relational distance or separation. In other words, the lack or absence of being vulnerable is to stay in the ‘old’—the relational condition ‘to be apart’ that has become normative and collective—which accordingly includes the lack or absence of wholeness for persons, relationships, their function and theology. In relational words, the veil is irreplaceable.
The alternative for our face is always easier than the relational work of being subject persons. When Jesus qualified “whoever serves me” by making antecedent the priority “follow me” (Jn 12:26), he established a problematic condition for all of us. This paradigm for serving and imperative for discipleship make our life and practice more difficult. Serving is more difficult now both without the option of reductionist substitutes and with the nonnegotiable priority focused on the function of relationship in the primacy of relational work. Following Jesus is now made more difficult because the terms of discipleship are not only relationship specific with his whole person but also relationally specific only to God’s terms.
Once we understand that the ongoing function in relationship together must precede and be the priority over serving, then we have to come to face the face of Jesus. That is, we have to deal directly with God’s relational response of grace embodied in Jesus and relationship with him on God’s terms. Jesus made his whole person accessible to persons in their human context. This never meant, however, that Jesus functioned in relationship with them in their relational context and by their relational process—in other words, that relationship with Jesus could be on our terms.
“Follow me” is about both relationship and relationship with him on God’s terms. “Face to face” with Jesus involves a specific relational process involving specific persons. This means the “me” Jesus makes imperative to follow has to be the whole person Jesus vulnerably presented in the incarnation. The face of Jesus cannot be our image of him shaped by our own predispositions and biases—especially from a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework—which certainly involve our interests, desires and needs. The challenge of his face inescapably involves the challenge for our face. This further composes the discipleship of “follow the whole of me” with the conjoint challenge to “follow me whole-ly.”
This is the problem Peter had in coming face to face with Jesus. As we revisit some of his interactions with Jesus, we can understand the difficulty he had with the “me” of Jesus’ whole person as well as presenting the significance of his own person in face-to-face relationship. Moreover, Peter illustrates what is problematic to the theological task and a common tendency to formulate a hybrid theology. Like many engaged in the theological task, Peter operated within the limits of the human context (notably his tradition, culture and human roots) and thus remained within the limits of what he knew (the probable), which engaged a process of reductionism either intentionally or by default. Epistemologically, hermeneutically, theologically, ontologically and/or relationally, this necessitated dividing the improbable theological trajectory of the Christ embodied in whole ontology into fragments that can be shaped and aggregated down to the limited understanding of his knowledge (cf. Job). In other words, if those of us engaged in the theological task do not receive “face to face” the improbable Subject vulnerably present and relationally involved, we have to turn to a default alternative: an interpretive framework from outer in that is the basis for human shaping and construction in referential terms, which are limited to self-referencing theories and conclusions. This default alternative also provides us with a basis for not being relationally vulnerable to the improbable whole of Jesus and his intrusive relational path defined and determined on his relational terms. The lack of vulnerableness signifies a self-consciousness that includes a decrease in qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness. This is evident in our practice of faith, our discipleship integral to faith, and in our theological task that should be integrated with our discipleship.
The theological task may not always start out with a focus on discipleship—which is unfortunate since this puts ‘the cart before the horse’—yet discipleship is how this task needs to be engaged if its outcome is distinguished with theological significance. In this age prevailing with the influence of reductionism, for the theological task to be in relational terms it must by the nature of its relational epistemic process be engaged in the relational context and process of discipleship. That is, to be distinguished the theological task follows the whole who of the cross in his intrinsic relational path of vulnerable involvement; this is inseparable from the theological trajectory distinguished fully in its process. If not on this basis, the theological task is engaged by default down to referential terms, the limits of which render theology and practice fragmentary, in reduced ontology and function of both God and us.
This default position and epistemic limits were evident in the struggles of Peter’s theological task, despite having started out with discipleship—at least based on his narrow understanding of who to follow. Hence, Jesus made conclusive in his last words to Peter implied in his relational language: “your discipleship will be determined by the depth of your agape relational involvement with me and my family—in the primacy of relationship together and not the secondary of serving and sacrifice” (Jn 21:15-22). The primacy of discipleship could be confused with the secondary since earlier Jesus identified himself as “the good shepherd who lays down [tithemi] his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). Yet, as in John 15:13, tithemi defines putting one’s person in the vulnerable dynamic of agape involvement; in the shepherd metaphor this explains why the sheep know him (Jn 10:2-16). To follow Jesus is to be agape-relationally involved with him on his vulnerable relational path (“where I am,” Jn 12:26). Nothing less and no substitutes unfold in the relational outcome of whole theology and practice, which Peter eventually learned, not without difficulty, in the early formation of the church.
In their time together even leading up to the cross, Jesus clearly defined for his followers who to follow, what to follow and how. When he disclosed the imminence of his death, his relational language was not focused on sacrifice but distinguished between what was primary and secondary (Jn 12:23-27). It was in the primacy of relationship with his Father that Jesus made definitive his discipleship in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together—contrary to discipleship in the rabbinic tradition—and thereby conclusively distinguished this relational involvement from the secondary of serving (v.26). Though serving is not unimportant, the servant model illuminates neither Jesus with the Father nor his followers with him (Jn 15:15). What determines this involvement in the primacy of these relationships is entirely by the depth of agape in relational involvement, not in sacrifice and serving. The immeasurable depth of agape involvement intimately manifests between the Father and the Son, “As the Father has loved me,” and then proportionately overflows between Jesus and his followers, “so I have loved you” (Jn 15:9). Only agape involvement flowing from the whole of God in the primacy of relationship together constitutes his followers (“that they may be one, as we are one…and have loved them even as you have loved me,” Jn 17:22-23), and on this relational basis alone distinguishes his followers (“Just as I have loved you…by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have agape relational involvement with one another,” Jn 13:34-35). Note also that even as Jesus makes definitive the vulnerable relational process of the relational path to follow him, Peter asked for information to process in his theological task (v.36, cf. 21:20-22).
It is also crucial to understand that love is not some substance Jesus gives us and thus we possess it and can dispense it; love is also not something Jesus does as an example and thus we can do. Agape is relational involvement, the relational context and process of which is engaged by those who have this relational experience. Agape is what his followers ongoingly share together in intimate relationship; and through obedience they submit their whole person to him for this reciprocal (not unilateral or bilateral) relationship. Just as for Jesus with the Father, obedience for his followers is their ongoing functional posture with him submitted to the Father, and agape is their ongoing relational function and experience in reciprocal relationship together composing the whole of God’s family—thus distinguishing his disciples.
Jesus used the metaphor of the vine and the branches to describe this relational process (Jn 15:1-17, the context for his relational statement earlier). We tend to perceive this metaphor as a static structural arrangement that is necessary for quantitative results (“fruit”). This one-way framework shifts the focus from the dynamic process of intimate relationship together that Jesus is describing. Three times he mentioned the need “to abide” in each other (vv.4,5,7). “Abide” (meno) means to dwell, remain, and when applied to another person it denotes relational involvement. With meno, Jesus defined the reciprocal effort involved in the relationship necessitating relational work by each participant as subjects, not objects. Jesus dwells in his followers with his ongoing agape relational involvement, as he defined about the relational work of the vine’s extension (v.9). But conjoined to his relational work is “abide in my love.” In other words, in the reciprocal function of relationship together, neither “the vine” (the whole of God) does all the relational work nor do “the branches,” but his followers have their necessary reciprocal part in the relationship—which is not really about “fruit” as commonly perceived. Our relational work includes obedience, that is, the relational act of submission by our whole person to be agape involved with “the vine”—thus having ongoing congruence with the intrusive relational path of his whole person and thereby experiencing ongoing relational connection with the whole of God.
When there is this reciprocal relational involvement, there are distinct relational outcomes experienced in this process. One outcome is to know the whole of God intimately, which Jesus noted is not a servant’s experience but from the relational involvement of a friend (15:14-15, cf. 17:3,26). A further relational outcome is the experience of agape involvement not only from Jesus but also from the Father as family together (15:9; 14:21,23; 17:26). These experiences are the joy of wholeness (made complete, pleroo) directly from the experiential truth of sharing his joy in the relational whole of God (15:11; 17:13). And these relational outcomes underlie the fruit his followers bear. This fruit does not reflect the quantitative results of what we do—in spite of alignment to “the vine.” This fruit is congruent with and witnesses to these relational outcomes of being intimately involved with Jesus in this reciprocal relational nature and functional significance of discipleship, thus distinguishing his disciples (15:8; 13:34-35)—even for the world to witness, receive and respond to (17:21-23).
In contrast and even conflict with the limits of serving and sacrifice, therefore, Jesus definitively distinguished his followers by two relational imperatives of discipleship that can only be whole-ly understood in relational terms: (1) “follow my whole person in the primacy of reciprocal relationship” (Jn 12:26) based entirely on (2) “remain, dwell, abide (meno) vulnerably in the intimacy of my agape relational involvement with you that flows from the Father” (Jn 15:9). These relational imperatives make unavoidable the primary engagement of the theological task in the vulnerable relational path of Jesus, and not just with his theological trajectory. The relational outcome in intimate reciprocal relationship that distinguishes discipleship is the emergence ‘already’ and the ongoing unfolding of whole ontology and function in relational likeness to the whole and holy God—which is based not on mere knowledge about God but on experiencing his agape relational involvement (Jn 17:23,25-26). Likewise, the relational outcome of whole theology and practice is based on just this agape relationship composed face to face without the veil.
The experiential truth of relational involvement with the whole and holy God is distinguished only when discipleship is unambiguously distinct from the influence and shaping from human contextualization (the common or ordinary usage distinct from the uncommon, holy). When his followers receive the Subject of the Word from God in relational language, they are distinguished from the world and its prevailing referential language, “just as I am not of the world” (17:14). This discipleship is crucial for the theological task to have the relational outcome of whole theology and practice. The whole and holy God’s communicative word in relational language is the experiential truth that makes Jesus’ followers distinct from the common and ordinary of human contextualization, and thus distinguishes them in the world as they follow him with their whole ontology and function “just as you Father sent me into the world, so I have sent our family into the world” (17:17-18). And with the relational outcome ‘already’ of the whole theology and practice of his family in relational likeness of the Trinity, also “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (v.23).
Without discipleship in the primacy of agape relational involvement together in the whole and holy God’s family, the relational outcome of whole theology and practice does not emerge and ongoingly unfold. Anything less and any substitutes in the age of reductionism are insufficient to distinguish theology and practice from the common shaping of human contextualization, and are unable to prevent their fragmentation by reductionism and its counter-relational work. This default position in referential terms yields only a referential outcome in reduced ontology and function of both God and us. Theological discourse in referential language can be rigorous, eloquent and profound, but by contrast in relational language there is a qualitative distinction of the relational messages it communicates (without the quantity of words) in significance to the whole and holy God and for the whole ontology and function of God’s family—the critical difference between the quantitative outer in and the qualitative inner out. Theological discourse in referential language speaks to “the wise and learned” whom Jesus critiqued consistently for their narrow epistemic field and limited engagement (Lk 10:21; 17:20-21; Jn 5:37-40). Theological discourse in relational language speaks to the vulnerable heart of a “child”; this is not just about the relational nature of faith but integrally also involves what is human ontology in the qualitative image of God and human function in God’s relational likeness. This is the only basis that composes qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness in the practice of our faith, our discipleship integral to faith, and in our theological task that always needs to be integrated with our discipleship.
“The discipleship you use will be the ontology and function you get, both as a person and persons together as church,” to paraphrase Jesus’ defining statement for his followers, “the measure you use will be the measure you get” (Mk 4:24)—which is directly connected to his relational imperative “listen to the relational words you hear from me.” Therefore, “Follow me whole-ly!”
‘Follow the whole of me whole-ly’ composes the discipleship distinguished by reciprocal relationship of subjects involved face to face without the veil (or using a face-mask). This meets the challenge of the face in the deepest profile of Jesus’ person and fulfills the challenge for our face both compatible to Jesus’ and congruent with his intrusive relational path. It was on this relational basis that Jesus magnified Mary’s discipleship to help all of us distinguish the gospel’s whole relational outcome. Therefore, we are accountable ongoingly to the unmistakable Face for intimate involvement with the irreducible Subject of the Word, and responsible for the subject of our face in reciprocal relationship without the veil. The veil is simply irreplaceable for the relationship to be whole that Jesus saves us to.
Anything less and any substitutes detach us functionally from the whole of Jesus’ person and disconnect us relationally from the whole of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement—as experienced by Mother Teresa. This fragmentary condition cannot be made whole by confession of faith or would-be discipleship. On this relational basis and for this relational outcome, both on his whole relational terms, Jesus emphatically makes the relational imperative: “Follow the whole of me whole-ly!”
Discipleship is neither optional nor what someone negotiates after confession of faith—contrary to popular belief and practice. From the beginning, we are accountable for “Where are you as whole person?” and responsible for “What are you as subject doing here?” That’s why the Father persists in his relational imperative to Jesus’ followers: “Listen to him!”—integrally composing the relationship of God “in spirit and truth.” And for those who respond vulnerably with intimate involvement in reciprocal relationship without the veil, “my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (Jn14:23), and “so that they may all be whole, as we are whole…may become completely one family, so that the world my know that you vulnerably responded with me and have loved them as family together even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23).
 Quotes from Associated Press, “New Book Reveals Mother Teresa’s Struggle with Faith,” Beliefnet.com/story/223/story 22353.html. Accessed 8/27/2007. The Beliefnet article came out on the occasion of the release of the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light—The Private Writings of the ‘Saint of Calcutta’ (New York: Doubleday: 2007).
 Quoted by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM CAP, in “The ‘Atheism’ of Mother Teresa,” National Catholic Register September 9-15, 2007.
 For an in-depth study of mathetes, see Michael J. Wilkens, Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995).
 While some early manuscripts do not include this statement, it is important to include this to establish the relational flow of the discourse.
©2015 T. Dave Matsuo