The Relational Progression
A Relational Theology of Discipleship
5 The Life of a Disciple
Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.
"I have come that they may have life . . . ."
Following Jesus in the incarnation and its relational progression helps us to understand clearly that Jesus didn't come to establish a new religion, and that he didn't create a new belief system or even a new way of living (code of conduct). He came to bring a totally different life for relationship which is unlike anything we are used to and is also contradictory to all else around. This life of qualitative difference is distinct only to the Uncommon and distinguishes the identity of his followers.
The life of a disciple more than mirrors the life of Jesus Christ. It partakes of his life in relationship and becomes an intimate part of it. It is involvement not so much with his teachings but with his words, it's not about his deeds but his relational acts which make it possible to partake in his life and become a part of it. His words and relational acts both reflect the relational work of the heart of his person seeking the heart of our person for intimate relationship.
As the Life (Jn 14:6), he pursues us in order that we may have life. We tend to fragment this life into elements which we then perceive from prevailing predispositions and biases. As disciples we need to understand more deeply what this life is that pursues us and that we pursue with our discipleship.
The life Jesus came for us to have is zoe, not bios (another Greek term for life). Bios involves the quantitative elements of life related more to what we have and do; it refers to duration, situation, manner and means of life, subject to observation and may be recorded, for example, in a biography. Zoe is a qualitative term (somewhat metaphysical) which denotes the very life force itself, the vital principle animating living beings. Jesus used zoe for eternal life (Jn 3:16; 17:3) and for the relational outcome of "the narrow gate" from its relational work (Mt 7:14; Lk 13:24-27). As noted earlier, this life is eternal relationship with God shared intimately together in love as his family (Jn 17:3,26).
Zoe is the qualitative difference which is only attributed to God's life and, therefore, that which is uncommon and eternal. The life we can have, partake in and be a part of is the very life of God himself. This is the life of the incarnation and what Christ came to give us--"and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10). "To the full" (Gk. perissos) means over and above, that is, that which is beyond--beyond common, ordinary and temporal. This verse is usually rendered with a quantitative term like "abundantly." But that usage appraises perissos in a comparative process and thus only focuses on the quantitative elements of life. Bios should not be confused with zoe, nor should the distinction between them be obscure. The perceptions and expectations of a disciple depend on it, as demonstrated by the difficulties the early followers of Christ had in their discipleship.
Bios is not what Jesus came to give us. Disciples need to understand the specific life they are pursuing in discipleship. Jesus came so we can have God the Father, to have him in the quality of intimate relationship together in order to partake in his life and thereby become a part of it, that is, transformed into his very qualitative difference--that which is beyond common and ordinary and is the more of eternity. This life is who pursues us--no substitutes for his own life and nothing less than the very life of God. This life is what he recruits his disciples for, not for doing something. This is the life of a disciple and how they need to live.
Throughout redemptive history God has specifically identified giving of his self to his people, which was given "to the full" in the incarnation. It began with Abraham when God specified that he, his own self, was Abram's portion, reward, wages (Gen 15:1). Abram was quantitatively very rich but he shifted from the quantitative to the qualitative presence of God, thus identifying the process of change for the rest of us. When Israel went into the promised land, eleven of the tribes received land from God for their inheritance. But the priests and Levites didn't get any land. Aside from some practical provisions for their needs, their inheritance was God, his own self--God alone was their share. "Share" (Heb. hoq) means legal right and cut, allotment, and "inheritance" (nahal) means to take into permanent possession as one's acquisition. God was theirs, not land. Though they struggled along the way with other quantitative elements, they and Abraham represent those closest to God. Any apparent distinction of who gets the qualitative substance of God (and who only gets "land") is dissolved with Christ when he established the priesthood of all believers. God is now ours--"to the full," nothing less.
This life is further distinguished for disciples in "how to live' when Jesus extended our understanding of his life (Jn 10:11ff). Using the analogy of the good shepherd, Jesus lays down his life for us (vv.11,15,17). Our focus on this usually is his bodily death on the cross. "Life" here is a different term (Gk. psyche) which involves the soul or inner person. It denotes breath, the vital breath of the soul as the seat of desires, affections and passions which strictly belongs to the person. In other words, psyche refers to the whole inner person with the various aspects of the soul. It is with soul (psyche) that Mary expressed her song to the Lord, in contrast to the outward elements of lips and speech (Lk 1:46). This all points to heart as the seat of one's life.
However we define the inner person, it goes beyond the quantitative elements (like our body or the workings of the brain) to involve the qualitative aspects strictly belonging to our person, for which there is no substitute. Mary lifted her song to the Lord with her whole inner person. That's what distinguishes this song, not the outward expressions. Likewise, in his death, Jesus gives his psyche to us, not just his body; he lays down his heart as well in order to distinguish what love is (see 1 Jn 3:16).
We cannot adequately perceive the incarnated Jesus from a quantitative reduction which merely puts his body on the cross. Christ gave his heart for us on the cross as well (cf. Mk 10:45), and even more importantly, he did so throughout the incarnation. Jesus laid down and gave all of his person, just as he came with all of him (God)--nothing less and no substitutes. He didn't come to give us quantitative parts of himself--only him, wholly him.
This is the life Jesus came to share with us, and the life he expects his disciples to join him to live as well. The life of a disciple is to share our heart, to give me, not merely quantitative parts of me but me and my heart first and foremost. Yet, how to operationalize this life for authentic experience is problematic to the extent that the function of our heart is influenced, entangled or controlled by substitutes, lies and other reductionist practices. Peter demonstrated this difficulty in his discipleship.
Peter pronounced in the same terms as
Jesus that he would lay down his life (psyche) for Jesus (Jn
13:37). Along with other pronouncements (see Mt 26:33; Lk
22:33), Peter didn't back up his words with action. His good
intentions were there but his main focus was on what he could do
because he depended on that to define himself. Peter didn't,
however, take into account two key areas in his life: first, how
circumstances/situations influence him (which includes the influence
of culture) and, secondly, his limitations, weaknesses and sin which
reflected his true humanity and what he was. Certainly, the
unique circumstances surrounding Jesus' passion could not
have been anticipated. Yet, avoiding the second area by Peter
reflects a misguided boldness to establish in effect some sense of
equality with his Lord, as opposed to the inequality of grace (see
the interaction leading up to Peter's declaration above,
Both of the above areas influence discipleship, making it problematic to operationalize this life. They both affected Peter and kept him from following through on his intentions. That happened because he didn't focus on his whole person, only on what he did. That is, he wasn't aware of his heart (despite his pronouncement to lay down his psyche) and didn't attend to his heart during Jesus' passion. This counters the relational function of grace and God's involvement.
In the actual function of relationship, Peter was often missing Jesus' person and not really connecting with him (cf. his other pronouncements, Jn 13:8; Mt 16:22). This is the relational consequence of functioning at a distance from our heart and with a lower priority for intimate relational connection. Doing something for Jesus was more important to Peter than being with Jesus relationally. This relational consequence is an occupational hazard for all his followers. His relational act of grace does not function nor does it prevail in the process--no matter how good the intentions of our commitment or the dedication of our service.
The life of a disciple shares in the very life of the holy God. On this basis and from this ongoing base, disciples extend their hearts and give of themselves for intimate relationships. To withhold heart is not to give one's self; to withhold self is not to experience this life. Hearts still old yet changing to the new, hearts weak yet being transformed, hearts incomplete yet becoming whole--this is the relational outcome of the life received only in ongoing intimate relational involvement with the Life. A disciple's life has no other authentic identity.
Unlike other rabbis who had a reputation to maintain, Jesus' call to discipleship broke through religious, cultural and social barriers separating the clean and the unclean, the so-called obedient and the sinful, the dominant and the subordinate. Depending on where you were coming from, his call was either a burden and sacrifice (e.g., the rich young guy) or a blessing and opportunity (like Matthew). Whatever their circumstances it was a call to abandon their old life for discipleship. Their identity was to be changed.
While disciples of other rabbis studied in order to become a master or rabbi themselves, Christ's disciples did not enroll in a learning relationship from which they could depart as a master, a teacher. They engaged a deeper relationship involving grace which paradoxically emphasized the inequality with the Teacher while necessarily equalizing with all others (Mt 10:24; Jn 13:13-17). Such adherence went well beyond any disciples' mere learning of teachings, imitating of behaviors or practicing a code of conduct. As Matthew in particular emphasizes--undoubtedly from his personal experience with radical change--Christ's disciple involves relinquishing attachments (its priorities and hopes, not their involvement) to all other identities in one's total life (e.g., as represented in Mt 10:37-39); the intimate relationship of discipleship is now their complete vocation, adhering to his person and words and the will of the Father in the new identity as his family (Mt 12:46-50). Vocation is not what disciples merely do but vocation is the life of relationship, which engages intimate relational work.
This is what makes Peter's denials so painful for Jesus also (see Jn 18:15-27). Peter denied not only being a fan identified with Jesus, a groupie associated with him but also denied direct relational involvement with him as one of his. As much as Peter struggled in relationship with Jesus and angered him (Mt 16:23), hurt him (Mt 26:40), frustrated him (Jn 21:22), nothing was more painful than relational denial from one's own. Yet, the relational function of grace did prevail in their relationship; Peter was being transformed such that others soon knew he was with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
When our identity reflects the life of Jesus Christ, this is the outcome of a relational process that comes from being intimately involved with him. This relational work cannot be engaged at a distance from the heart or through shallow involvement in secondary matter but only in trust, intimacy and submission.
We don't have narratives of Peter's transformation between John 21 and Acts 4, but the narrative of that interim time does reveal practices in his discipleship reflecting significant change in Peter. Just prior to his ascension Jesus passed on a command "to wait" (for the Spirit, Acts 1:4). Waiting was not easy for Peter; for example, he didn't even wait for an answer from Jesus whether to defend him with swords in the garden of Gethsemane--Peter just struck (Lk 22:49,50). Yet, now Peter waited (Acts 1:12-14). He also embraced words from God to guide them (Acts 1:15ff), not his own predispositions and biases (though not yet free from all his biases, as noted in Gal 2:11ff). What these now reflect more significantly in Peter's discipleship is submission to his Lord and God. Furthermore, when people were astonished at his healing of a crippled beggar (Acts 3), he said in effect that it was no big deal (v.12); this was the relational outcome of his trust, intimacy and submission to Jesus (v.16). This seems to reflect that Peter turned the corner in how he defined himself--not by what he did but by his intimate relationship with Jesus.
The relational work of submission functionally interacting with our trust and the honesty of our heart is fundamental to discipleship's vocation and its process of intimate relationship with Jesus. It is somewhat ironic that Peter was with Jesus after his ascension more than when he was physically present. Certainly, we have to factor in the arrival of the Spirit (which we will discuss later) but he came as Jesus' relational substitute to extend the relational work Jesus started. As noted earlier, God doesn't do all the work in our relationship; we are each accountable for our part of the relational work. Peter's relational work in Jesus' physical absence--despite all his relational struggles during his physical presence--is an encouragement to our discipleship. Together with the relational work of the Spirit, we can expect to experience more with God and anticipate greater outcomes in our discipleship. It's an expectation Jesus had for Peter and he has for us (Jn 14:12).
God made us for relationships and the alternative to that is independence--that is, doing our own thing and doing relationships only on our terms. Western democracy has come to mean this independence and being free to do our own thing more than free to be a people. This condition is compounded by a global economy which, for example, increasingly blurs Western boundaries and loyalties. This kind of environment has many subtle influences on Christian thinking, if not beliefs. Democracy is not the ideal of God's kingdom, nor should the independence of democracy be the Christian norm.
Freedom could be used either to pursue our independence and thus "be apart" (with degrees of distance) in relationships; or it could be used to open us to others to connect more and to be involved for intimate relationships. The former in effect abuses freedom for oneself, however socially acceptable that practice may be; globalization of the economy has had this kind of repercussion, as does the use of personal relationships on one's own terms. When freedom is used to open us to others, this effectively shares freedom with others for relationships together; and it also exercises freedom as an opportunity to submit oneself to others for their sake as well as for one's own.
This issue is of huge proportion for discipleship. Paul dealt with the abuse of Christian freedom in 1 Corinthians. Yet, we have to understand this issue more fundamentally than just a situation, a behavior or even a belief. Independence counters the relational design and purpose of God. In the relational progression of the incarnation from servant to friend to family member, it is crucial that the process of discipleship not get stuck in the servant stage. Practices of independence frustrate this progression.
When "servant" remains our primary identity for discipleship and our focus becomes imbalanced with serving, relationship with Christ increasingly becomes about what we do rather than being together. This happens because that is the nature of a servant-master relationship. By definition and structure there are limits to how close the relationship can get and how much can be shared between them. That restricts the relationship from experiencing the qualitative difference of God, leaving a servant essentially with a quantitative focus on secondary matter. The relationship may seem good on these terms but that is as far as it goes. This, however, is not God's terms for our relationship as the relational progression reveals.
The structured distance in a servant-master relationship parallels the relational distance many Christians experience with God--either intentionally as a comfort zone or inadvertently from a lack of awareness or understanding. Such distance is not God's desire for our relationship, nor is it characteristic of a relationship between friends. It is this progression to friends which is important in discipleship.
A friend is not a title or loose association as it is used widely today. Friend is a relationship with a deeper function. In the world of biblical times, the main ideals of friendship included loyalty, equality, mutual sharing of all possessions, but most notably an intimacy in which a friend could share everything in confidence. Moses was considered a friend of God because "the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend" (Ex 33:11). David gives us a sense of the process of being friends: "The Lord confides [Heb. sod signifies a conversation among friends] in those who fear [trust] him" (Ps 25:14); the relational outcome of this, as the verse continues, is they will truly know (yada) him and his covenant love and faithfulness.
As Jesus said about authentic friends, sharing everything with one another (even deep secrets) is characteristic of being friends (Jn 15:15). A servant (Gk. doulos, indentured servant, slave) might be loyal but would never experience intimate sharing as friends. In the process of discipleship the functional change from servant to friend is not automatic, even over time. Such intimate relationship from God is contingent on those who rightfully trust him (as David said) with honesty in their heart--no other terms or masquerade accepted (as Jesus shared). This trust from the heart involves the relational work of submission of our true self and our whole self.
Intimacy doesn't grow unless we're sharing more and more of our true self in the relationship. Such sharing cannot avoid or mask our true humanity: our weaknesses, inadequacies, mistakes, sins. To keep this from him prevents the intimate connection of experiencing each other, knowing him and thus being healed, liberated and changed. Ironically, submission is characteristic of a servant, but in the process of discipleship such submission is only partially given if it remains in the servant stage. The key indicator for this is how vulnerable we make our self in the relationship.
Extending trust from our heart also involves submission of our whole self, as opposed to giving what we do (no matter how dedicated) and/or what we have (no matter how sincere). Our whole self does not mean parts of me or things about me but self without reduction. No amount of quantitative service by a servant will make up this qualitative difference. The primary significance of friend is not what we do or have but what we share of each other in relationship--that what we share of our self we know we can count on as authentic to intimately experience together.
This trust between friends which submits our whole self expresses itself in obedience (Jn 15:14), yet not out of obligation (as biological family relations tend to become, cf. Prov 18:24b) but from love (Jn 14:21; 15:9,10). This is what friends do--at least what Jesus did. Submission was a distinct function Jesus practiced in his relationships. He himself described his submission to his Father as obedience out of love (Jn 12:49; 14:31; 15:10); Jesus also submitted his self to others to serve (Mt 20:28). When Paul outlined Christ's submission throughout the incarnation, he said in relationship with others "your attitude should be the same" (Phil 2:5-8). "Attitude" (Gk. phroneo) means to have a mind-set whose actions include will, affections, conscience. Jesus made himself vulnerable to us through submission of his true and whole self; this is how we are to submit ourselves to him and to others as his friends. A servant may obey and do some really good things. Serving Christ, however, is not merely doing good in situations; it is the function of the relationship of following Jesus and intimately being with him (Jn 12:26). A disciple stuck in the servant stage does not make one's self vulnerable for relationship; they are focused primarily on the work of serving. An authentic friend gives priority to the relationship. Obedience only serves this relational purpose, obedience in love functions only for relationship--relationship with God and relationship with others.
While Jesus was physically with Peter, Peter had difficulty being with Jesus relationally. He did in part submit his true self to Jesus in various situations, notably when he stepped out on the water (Mt 14:28ff). Yet, these situational submissions did not involve consistent relational connection with Jesus because for the most part he did not make himself vulnerable in the relationship by submission of his whole self--self without reduction.
The importance of submission both of our true self (in the honesty of our heart) and our whole self (without reduction) is fundamental to the ongoing relational work involved in discipleship. Like Peter, we can get by in part with submitting our true self in situations while serving. This will focus us on the situation more than the relationship and essentially preoccupy us with secondary matter. That would characterize a servant's life with little expectation, if any, of more. Discipleship, however, as the relationship of following the person Jesus necessitates submission also of our whole self in order to be open, to be extended and vulnerable for intimate relationship. This leads to the experiential reality of being friends, with the basis to functionally experience more relationally. Lacking or limited submission prevents this relational outcome.
First and foremost, such vulnerableness to intimate relationship makes us vulnerable to love (agape mainly but also phileo, affection). This love unfolds in the relational progression of the incarnation. The experience of this love is limited for a servant, open for friends and "to the full" in family love together.
Jesus said the most distinguishing characteristic of his disciples is love for one another (Jn 13:35). Yet, love is not something we do; love is what we ongoingly share together in relationship; agape is how we are to be involved with others. This involvement is not understood merely from teachings, nor based on following a code of conduct or formula. This involvement is first the relational reality experienced from Jesus in relationship together. Without experiencing his involvement of agape in ongoing intimate relationship, disciples can only generate love by what they do, not by relational involvement based on their own relational experience. That's why it is important for us to define Christ's love not merely by what he did on the cross. These are the quantitative reductions of love which minimize the qualitative difference of God. Agape is relational involvement, the outcome of which is a qualitative relational experience.
Jesus used the metaphor of the vine and the branches to describe this relational process (Jn 15). We tend to perceive this as a static structural arrangement that is necessary for quantitative results ("fruit"). This shifts the focus from the dynamic process of intimate relationship Jesus is describing. Three times he mentions the reciprocal effort "to remain" in each other (15:4,5,7). The word "remain" (Gk. meno) means to remain, dwell, abide; applied to another person it denotes relational involvement. This is the same word Jesus used to describe his authentic (Gk. alethes) disciples intimately involved ("hold," meno) with his "teachings" (logos, his essence, his person, Jn 8:31).
When there is this kind of relational involvement, there are distinct relational outcomes experienced in this process. One outcome is to know God intimately, as we noted earlier that only a friend can experience. A further outcome is the experience of agape involvement, not only from Jesus but also from the Father (Jn 15:9; 17:26). These relational outcomes underlie the fruit his disciples bear. This fruit does not reflect the quantitative results of what we do; this fruit witnesses to the relational outcome of being intimately involved with Jesus as his disciple (Jn 15:8). The specific relational outcome witnessed to is the experience of God's qualitative difference in his agape involvement. This fruit of the vine, therefore, must be seen as the agape involvement with others which Jesus said clearly distinguishes his disciples (Jn 13:35).
"To remain" is a reciprocal effort because it is a relationship involving relational work by each one. Jesus remains in us with his agape involvement, as he further shared about the progression of the vine (Jn 15:9). But he also said, "Now remain in my love." God doesn't do all the relational work, nor do we but we have our part in the relationship. Our relational work includes obedience--the relational act of submission (15:10). This may seem like a contingency to experience his love or to be his friend (15:14). Yet, it is crucial for discipleship to grasp that these really are not conditional statements but relational statements. What comes first in these verses is his love, not our obedience (15:9).
Obedience is the relational way we submit our true and whole self to him for intimate relationship that has the outcome of further experiencing his love (Jn 14:21,23). Love is not some substance he gives us and thus we possess it; love is what we experience from him in how he involves himself with us and treats us. Love is not a feeling; it is what we relationally experience of him in our heart that increasingly transforms it and conducts it. Love is not something we do, or even he does; it is what we ongoingly share together in intimate relationship. Through obedience we submit our self to him for this relationship. As noted earlier, Jesus defines his own obedience to the Father for the purpose of this relationship and remaining in his love (15:10b).
Along with our obedience, it's important to embrace in this relational work the fact that God delights in those who intimately count on him and always put on him the expectation to love them without failing and without limits (Ps 147:11). Such relational work engages his intimate relational nature and his ongoing agape involvement. Though God doesn't do all the relational work, nevertheless he is always making his effort in the relationship--never passive nor detached. Even when we think he is silent or distant, he is always doing relational work with us. We need to affirm him in how he is and trust him for the relational outcome.
Agape is how Jesus, and now also the Father, is involved with us. Agape is what functionally distinguishes him and his qualitative difference. When we express agape with others, then we witness to him who is agape with us. That's why such loving involvement with others clearly distinguishes us as his also. This is the substance of being his witnesses to the world (Acts 1:8). Witness (Gk. martys and its verb, martyreo) denotes one who has knowledge of something and can confirm it, in this case not as an observer of facts or information but one who experienced Jesus as a participant. To witness to Jesus is not merely to share the propositional truths of the gospel. God cannot be put in a quantitative box. To witness to Jesus is to confirm intimate participation in his life and the experience of his qualitative difference.
In his closing prayer to the Father for all his disciples, Jesus shifted from the vine-branches metaphor to the relational reality the metaphor symbolized: the intimate relationships uniting them together in family love (Jn. 17:20-23). The bond of these intimate relationships, which is rooted in the relational process engaged in agape involvement, witnesses to the world of the experiential reality in the relational progression of the incarnation (vv.21,23). Jesus redefines our quantitative reductions of what witnessing involves; and he radicalizes our common notions about evangelism by deepening our focus from merely what he did to the qualitative substance of his intimate relational presence.
Obviously, to be this level of witness necessitates remaining in his love. We cannot underestimate this relational issue in discipleship because a great deal hinges on it: the experience of complete joy for the individual disciple (Jn 15:11), the integrity of the corporate life of his followers as the church, what the world can expect from his witnesses. Despite our struggles with secularism, modernism and postmodernism, I suggest we give greater focus to this relational issue. (More on these issues in the next chapter.)
I don't think the church faces more difficult times today than the early church of the NT, though the environmental influences certainly are more complex today. In the apparent struggle with false teachers in the church, Jude urged them "to contend for the faith" (Jude 3). The term for contend (Gk. epagonizomai) is an extension of "make every effort" (agonizomai) that Jesus (Lk 13:24) and Paul (1 Tim 6:12) used earlier for relational work. Though Jude does focus on the integrity of objective truths in this situation, his main focus goes deeper than that. In these difficult times what he prescribes for them to do is essentially centered on one imperative supported by three complementary (or modal) participles (Jude 20,21).
Imperative: "Keep yourselves in God's love." "Keep" (Gk. tereo) means to maintain as opposed to leaving. This signifies relational work, not what one does alone or passively as the three complementary participles indicate.
Participles: "Build yourselves
up in your most holy [Gk. hagios, separated from the common]
"Pray in the Holy Spirit." Prayer as relational communication in the presence of the Spirit (Christ's relational substitute) who helps us intimately connect with the Father.
"Wait for the mercy [compassion] of the Lord Jesus Christ. "Wait" (Gk. prosdechomai) means to receive or take, not a passive mode in the context of a relationship.
Jude also adds further relational work for them in relation to others (Jude 22,23). Yet, in these difficult circumstances their central effort was to keep, remain in God's love. Such situations, past or present, for the church are not only about issues of diluting, distorting or denying the truth and therefore maintaining doctrinal purity. As important as this is, we lose our primary qualitative focus when we get preoccupied with doctrinal purity. Despite the church in Ephesus' rigorous efforts (including maintaining doctrinal purity) in difficult circumstances, this was the rude awakening for this church when held accountable by Jesus for relationally distancing themselves from their first love (Rev 2:1-4). In effect, they witnessed to being Christians but they did not witness to the person of Christ and the experience of his qualitative difference in agape involvement. Relationship was missing.
Whatever the situation, our top priority as Christ's witnesses must (Gk. dei, by its nature) be about ongoing intimate relationship with God and remaining in his agape involvement. The outcome of this relational work needs to be the experience both of each disciple as well as the corporate gathering of his disciples, otherwise known as the church. This is Paul's appeal to the Father for the local family of God (Eph 3:14-19).
The life of a disciple is able to witness to the life of Jesus Christ because his disciple is not in a traditional learning relationship in which one only gains knowledge (albeit truths) about Christ. To be his witness is not the transmission of such knowledge or propositional truths. The authentic disciple witnesses to being Jesus' own by sharing the God person experienced in intimate relationship, the qualitative substance of which functions with agape involvement. The witness of his disciple develops from being with Jesus and is a function only of this relationship.
This is the relational nature of the God of the incarnation and the Jesus of the gospel. If we follow this Jesus and involve our self with his person, we will follow him all the way to the Father. This is the relational outcome of discipleship rooted in the relational progression of his incarnation.
Unlike disciples of other teachers, the responsibility of Jesus' disciples did not consist in maintaining and passing on particular teaching about Christ. After his ascension, discipleship of Christ did not get reduced to the traditional character of other prevailing discipleship. A set of teachings is not the substance of what he left them. John develops in his Gospel that the disciples' relationship is no longer limited to Jesus' physical presence (see Jn 13-17). Through involvement (meno) in the Word (Jn 8:31) and "in the Spirit" (Jn 14:15-17; 15:26ff), his disciples remain in full relational connection and intimate involvement with him. Followers of Jesus still focused primarily on their relationship with him, not reducing him to teachings. Discipleship further constituted fulfilling their responsibility to be a witness of his God person in their entire life.
In this so-called information age the accumulation of knowledge (through formal or informal education) is a top priority for "survival." The main forum for the social transmission of information is relationships. The individual's pursuit of knowledge refocuses relationships primarily to sharing information with one another. T his happens when the quantitative elements of life (bios) become more important than the qualitative aspects of life (zoe). Teachings, for example, about the life (bios) of Jesus take priority over his person and his qualitative difference. This often inadvertent shift in discipleship changes the function of a disciple from a witness of Jesus' God person to a conveyor of Christian information (however true this information may be). This is not the purpose of truth, which is discussed in the next chapter.
Such reductionism of the whole person and of the primacy of intimate relationships does not allow us to fulfill the responsibility and purpose of authentic discipleship. It doesn't allow it because the transformation necessary to experience the reality of the relational progression of the incarnation is lacking. This lack of transformation keeps us essentially enslaved to specific areas of our life (e.g., defining ourselves by what we know and do) from which we need to be freed (redeemed) in order to functionally live in the new creation not as servant, not only as friend but as his very own family member.
Any discipleship rooted in reductionism becomes at best the good intentions of a servant and at least one's self-serving effort. This precludes experiencing relationship with the Father because such relationship requires being free to live functionally as son or daughter--not a title but a relationship. This relational consequence of reductionism should not be lost on us because a quantitative focus ultimately involves a self-focus. These constraints on our person and our relationships make discipleship very tenuous.
If we truly experience God's qualitative difference, a change takes place in us that involves going from a quantitative focus on ourselves to the qualitative focus on others and involvement with them. John describes this process as the intimate experience of love from the God of love (agape involvement); the authenticity of that experience (of knowing God and being changed by him) is validated by extending agape involvement to others (1 Jn 4:7,8). This reflects a relational process that makes this change a function of this intimate relationship.
This change from a self-focus is not the mere change of outward form and behaviors (as in metaschematizo). This includes deeper involvement with others, agape involvement as the Father is involved (as indicated by the word "perfect" in Mt 5:48, and based on our own experience, 1 Jn 4:19). Furthermore, this deeper priority for relationship is not made at the expense of one's self. Indeed, unlike the tendency of many well-intentioned servants of Christ, the self is not ignored but more deeply seen in its qualitative needs. John informs us of the relational outcome of this process: God lives (meno, remains, abides, dwells) in us and his love is fully realized in us (1 Jn 4:12). Failing to make the distinction between the qualitative and quantitative tends to entangle us in pursuing quantitative means which then minimizes the qualitative fulfillment and satisfaction of our whole self.
In our Christian practice it is important to distinguish, for example, between discipline and agape. Whether it is in practicing the discipline of obedience or the discipline to love--even spiritual disciplines with God--discipline tends to give too much focus to what we do, whereas agape focuses on others. When we try to love on the basis of what we do, then by definition the focus is on the act because the doing is necessary to accomplish one's objective. This is Jesus' point in the Sermon on the Mount about being unaware ("don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing") of our acts of helping others (Mt 6:3).
Agape focuses on the other person and the relationship, thus how to be involved with them. Agape is how Jesus loves us and involves himself in our relationship--likewise how the Father is. Jesus' life reflects the relational work of submitting his true and whole self to others. This is the relational significance of agape--the submitting of self. Agape is pure relational work, not a deed to perform. Yet, we can't really submit our self without subordinating our self-concerns, without letting go of our self-interests and being vulnerable with the honest reality of our heart. Agape does this and involves self with the other person. Anything less is a reduction and becomes a substitute in relationships.
Because of its nature, agape is also not an act we can merely exercise our will to produce. We cannot love with agape without first experiencing agape involvement; God doesn't expect us to, nor wants us to. How we do relationships reflects significantly what we experience in our relationships, past and present, especially with God. At the same time, we need to grasp the nature of relational work with God. It is never unilateral; the relational process with God is always reciprocal. No dimension of our relationship experiences the reality of reciprocity more than the process of love. The awesome relational outcome of this process is the further intimate experience of both the Father's love and Jesus' love (Jn 14:21), plus their ongoing intimate presence ("make their home," mone from meno, 14:23), indicated for us not only in the future but now.
Experiencing relationship with the Father, as noted earlier, presupposes functioning freely as his child. This relational progression presupposes ongoing transformation from those controlling quantitative elements of being a servant. Yet, the dominant focus of individualism practiced in the Christian life today is an issue of freedom. Individualism and freedom are interrelated; when they become norms of practice it also opens the door to include relativism in practice (though not necessarily in theological beliefs). This obviously affects submission and obedience in how we fall into relational distance and serving, for example, on our own terms. But it also leads to our enslavement to secondary matter in how we define ourselves, do relationships and church.
Here we encounter an important paradox in discipleship. We can use our freedom in Christ to pursue independence with the relational consequence of essentially becoming enslaved to some element of quantitative reductionism; like the West's intoxication with freedom, this is the enslavement of freedom. Or we can use our freedom to submit our self with the relational outcome of fundamentally becoming interdependently bonded in intimate relationships unique to the qualitative difference of God.
In this sense, discipleship cannot be about what we are in Christ without being how we are with him--in relational practice. As Jesus incarnated, this involves following him in relational submission to the Father. Nothing else is to define the responsibility nor substitute for the purpose of his disciples.
Submission in the process of this relational progression concludes with the Father, with being one of his very own, permanently belonging in his family. This was the relational purpose of John 3:16 and the relational responsibility Jesus engaged by extending the Father's love to restore us to his family. This then becomes his disciples' relational responsibility to extend his family love to others for the relational purpose of building his family. In authentic discipleship Jesus not only calls us to be disciples but also to make more disciples--that is, those who follow him in the relational progression to the Father. This is our commission (Mt 28:19).
The conflict between submission and relational distance, between being the Father's child and serving on our terms is a critical juncture for discipleship. What direction our discipleship undertakes depends on distinguishing these two; yet, there can appear to be a very fine line between them. In qualitative function they are clearly distinct in their relational significance. Essentially, one cultivates and builds intimate relationships while the other minimizes them, though often inadvertently.
Submission and serving are not synonymous in today's practice, though for Jesus they are inseparable. To submit to others (including God) is the relational process of extending our true and whole person to another's person, in deference to the priority of their welfare and for the sake of their well-being. In relation to God, of course, submission further includes the relational response to the natural inequality between us. As the outcome of submission, the relational connection is intimate (if honest) and loving (if genuine). And this relational process always includes service: to submit is to serve, to serve is to submit. This is how agape involvement works.
The alternative to submission is relational distance. This is a frequent alternative because of misperceptions about submission being the sacrifice of self, or the expression of weakness (an object, passive, wishy-washy) or an indicator of being less (a subordinate, inferior). Serving from a relational position of strength becomes the substitute, in what turns out to be paternalistic love and spiritual one-upmanship--not the vulnerability of agape involvement and the humility of a child of grace.
A position of strength is not how the God person came to serve. Yet, Jesus extended to us the favor of our only Superior in what remains a paradox of relationship. His grace can only be received in the context of this natural inequality. This requires affirming God in his true self and being nothing other than our true self. In other words, grace doesn't allow us to be anything but what we truly are with no reductions and no false elevations. Grace demands me--nothing less and nothing more. The relational experience of his favor necessitates the submission of me. What makes this experience possible as a relational reality is Jesus' submission of his Me. Furthermore, without his ongoing submission of Me, the relational progression of the incarnation stops at servant.
Jesus redefined strength in relationships from power (influence) and power relations to vulnerability (submitting me) and intimate relationships. Being vulnerable is the inner strength and quality of a person who is loved (1 Jn 4:18); this strength and quality of one's true and whole person is extended vulnerably to others in agape involvement.
The submission of the person who is loved is a contradiction for Christian practices maintaining comfortable or safe relational distance. The latter is characteristic of independence (not interdependence) which indicates the presence of relational fear or comparative pride. Submission is also a contradiction for those self-focused Christians whose service becomes essentially self-serving because they are not vulnerable to others. The person who is loved also becomes, like Jesus, a paradox of relationship. They are truly loved by the Father only as a free child of God in the relational progression (1 Jn 4:9; 3:1); yet, they submit vulnerably to others in agape involvement (1 Jn 4:16,18).
This is what distinguishes the authentic life of his disciple. In discipleship it's not how hard we work but how deep we work. The fundamental relational work of discipleship necessitates such vulnerability to intimate relationship, which makes us vulnerable to love. Remaining in his love is a critical practice for discipleship as this love unfolds in the relational progression. Submission in the relational work of agape involvement underlies everything we do. This is what distinguishes Jesus Christ and the Father, and why it distinguishes his disciples. As John said, this is how we know we are of him ("the Truth") and that our hearts are further convicted of the Father's continued intimate presence (1 Jn 3:19).
This life of his disciples is lived only on his terms. It cannot function in a quantitative box, approach or focus, and it must (dei, by its nature) be operationalized in the relational context of the Uncommon and the Big Picture of the Eternal, not the common and the temporal. This is the very life of the Father and his qualitative difference made functional in the incarnation of the Word, as well as operationalized for us in his relational progression by the intimate relational experience of God's grace and agape involvement. The sum of this is the relational outcome of his family love--the relational responsibility engaged by Jesus and undertaken by his followers to build his family.
Zoe and bios define two distinguishing operations of daily practice. How do they affect our perceptions of discipleship?
Freedom (and related issues of independence & individualism) is a crucial issue for us to address. What is the significance of freedom in our relationships (both with God and others), and how does submission constitute Christian freedom rather than constrain it?
Outline the relational progression and discuss the implications of its various aspects for our practice.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.