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The Relational Progression

A Relational Theology of Discipleship

 

Discipleship  Study

8         The Discipleship Transition

printer-friendly pdf version of entire study


Subsections:

 

In Transition
A Brief Note on Tradition
Roots of Family
Post-Resurrection Dynamics
The Transformed Church
The Church's Shared Life Together
The Vulnerable Process of Confidence and
      Conviction

Post-Resurrection Transition
Consider

 

Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.

Chap. 1
Chap. 2
Chap. 3
Chap. 4
Chap. 5
Chap. 6
Chap. 7
Chap. 9
Chap. 10
Chap. 11
Chap. 12
Chap. 13
Chap. 14

Table of Contents

Scripture Index

 

 

"May they be brought to complete unity."

John 17:23

 

Discipleship cannot be an individual or unilateral effort, no matter how sincerely it is practiced or how many are gathered to practice it, since it is only a function of relationship.  At the same time, following Jesus cannot be about the relationship of only following Jesus.  That is, any authentic relationship with Jesus Christ involves following him in the relational progression to relationship with the Father as a part of his family.  Just as discipleship cannot survive this relational process without the Spirit, following Jesus has no valid relational progression without the Father. Without the distinct relationship between the Father and his adoptees as family, discipleship becomes following some limited perception or notion of Jesus, not the full incarnation of the Son of God.  To stop short in this relational progression in effect is to stop following Jesus.

In his farewell prayer, Jesus asked his Father that all who believe in him may be one, just as his Father is in him and he is in his Father (Jn 17:20-21).  This one cannot be limited to the spiritual realm but must be understood in its relational function for our practice, just as Jesus incarnated of his relationship with his Father along with the relational progression. What this one is and how it functions in our daily practice is fundamental to the completion of discipleship and the wholeness of those who follow Jesus.

 

 

In Transition

John's Gospel has already been noted as the transition to the rest of the NT  In John, mathetes expands to refer to the Christian community (e.g., 8:31 refers simply to all Christians); mathetai (pl.) comes to stand for "the gathered community" in the absence of any word for church.  This transition is operationalized in the narratives of Jesus' farewell words. When he prayed for our "complete unity" (17:23), "complete" (Gk. teleioo) means to complete by reaching the intended goal.  "Unity" is the one (Gk. heis), or the whole--the "goal" of the Father.

As we move into the Acts of the Apostles, we need to focus on reaching this intended outcome, which is not limited to our usual notions of spreading the gospel and witnessing to Christ.  Since the Spirit is not given for the individual agenda, discipleship is about to undergo its major transition: the transition from the individual to the corporate process of community, to the corporate nature of church, to the corporate function of family.  The Father's design and purpose for this whole, from which and for whom the Spirit works, emerges in dramatic ways in the book of Acts.  So much so that the drama often tends to be observed only as early church phenomena than as the corporate relational process by which all disciples can and need to live.

Next to intimacy in relationship with God, the transition to the corporate level creates the most tension and struggle for the individual disciple. This transition historically has been problematic for the individual whether the corporate aspect is community, church or family. Let's briefly touch on some of this before these corporate aspects are developed throughout the remainder of this study.  They certainly are not mutually exclusive and overlap in crucial interaction to influence the corporate process.

As we examine these corporate aspects of community, church and family, we need to keep clearly in focus the intended relational outcome Jesus prayed to the Father for our completion.  If we lose sight of this, then we easily subordinate the relational purpose of the corporate whole of the Father and become distracted, controlled or distorted by secondary corporate elements (such as type, place, activities, statistics).  A related issue to understand for discipleship is how the individual is influenced or affected in the relational progression by the presence or absence of these corporate aspects.

Community: The broader context and setting of the NT certainly was neither only Jewish nor only religious. Roman rule dominated the whole Mediterranean region and Greek culture permeated this Empire.  When we consider associations of persons in this Greco-Roman context, Robert Banks identifies two main types of community: politeia, the public life of the city or state to which persons belonged; and oikonomia, the household order of which they were a part by birth, adoption or otherwise attached.[1] What characterized these communities, however, was exclusion.  Access to participation in them was not available to just anyone, particularly not to the socially disadvantaged.

This led some (Greeks, Romans, Jews) to formulate the idea of and to attempt to practice a more inclusive social order, society and community.  On the more practical level of such ideals, the social condition led to the formation of a variety of voluntary associations in which the less advantaged could participate.  They apparently operated on the principle of koinonia (voluntary partnership) and created relationships between persons of different backgrounds, though that did not always mean access was open to all.

Exclusion was not the only major issue about community. Dissatisfaction presented another source of motivation to seek other alternatives for more. This involved the individual in their deeper needs (even spiritual) as well as in their access to opportunities previously denied them (e.g., because of nationality, gender, slave
status).  A cosmopolitan mind-set led, for example, to dissatisfaction in the religious community among stricter Jews.  Like multiculturalism today, a more inclusive worldview and approach can be a threat to the stability of one's belief system, or it can result in ambiguity to one's identity.  This was instrumental to the development of more rigid communities like the Pharisees and to the formation of separatists like the various Essene communities, including the Qumran community.

This is a simplified overview of the NT climate and how the individual was influenced and affected by community. It provides us with a further basis by which to understand the responses and the reactions seen in the book of Acts and the early church.

If we fast-forward to the latter half of the 20th century, we can observe similar tensions and conflicts between the individual and the prevailing forms of politeia and oikonomia communities, which included the established religious community.  This social movement converged in unlikely places and detonated the so-called countercultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s.  Individuals formed all sorts of associations and collectives, the most distinct of which was the pursuit of a utopian community in the form of communes.  Established communities (institutions), like the church, were the constraining contrast, as well as the focus of their conflict of dissatisfaction.  In these new communities everyone basically had the opportunity to do their own thing, as it were, but under such conditions with little constraint relationships inevitably broke down and tore apart the community.

Research comparing those nontraditional communities with traditional ones showed an important distinction for us to reflect on for the church.  Traditional communities, groups, organizations, institutions tended to be strong in group constraints but weak on opportunities for its participants to grow and develop.  The constraints were significant to maintain group cohesion, stability or unity but were also the reason for the dissatisfaction of its members--not only in terms of opportunities but also in the quality of relationships.  As you can anticipate, nontraditional communities were strong in providing opportunities for its members but didn't have the necessary constraints in place to build their relationships--due mainly to the absence of a common truth base to which members would adhere.  Individual freedom ultimately was more important than relationships, despite the emphasis on community and love.

The tension and conflict between the individual and community are important for us to understand and to address in the practice of discipleship.  Exclusion, constraint, dissatisfaction and opportunity are issues which involve all of us, individually and corporately.  When we think of what Jesus wants his followers to be, this becomes imperative to deal with.

Church: As a voluntary association, the emerging early church was not necessarily unique in the broader social landscape, given the variety of associations which existed or that came and went (cf. Gamaliel's advice in Acts 5:34-38).  But its purpose and function soon set it apart from other associations.  On the one hand, this was attractive to anyone wanting more, particularly the excluded, the dissatisfied, the enslaved.  On the other hand, it was threatening to those with a vested interest in the existing religious, social, economic and political order, and whatever related associations would be in conflict with this new community.  Maintaining the status quo was a dominant concern, while the emerging church was about change.

Yet, within the emerging church itself there was this ongoing tension and conflict between the individual and the corporate body.  This new community was not just about opportunities for new life for the individual, it included the responsibility and accountability of a shared new life together of relationships with God and with each other.  These relationships are defined by God on his terms, which qualify individual freedom and participation.  So, for example, Ananias and Sapphira did not have liberty to define their relationships on their terms (Acts 5:1-11); Simon was not able to participate for his own agenda or self-interest (Acts 8:18-21); even Peter himself was not allowed to maintain his bias (culturally conditioned) to exclude others from access to and participation in this new community (Acts 11:4-17; Gal. 2:11-14); Paul ongoingly dealt with this tension and conflict throughout his epistles.

The tension and conflict between the individual and corporate community have existed historically in the church from its inception.  Whether due to external pressures (e.g., from persecution or competing ideologies) or in response to internal conditions (e.g., maintaining doctrinal purity or church discipline), or a combination, the apparent focus on unity by the church seemed to lead eventually to the static structural (increasingly hierarchical) condition of institutionalism.  This certainly developed more constraint than opportunity, less access and less satisfying participation.  As a sweeping generalization, the church had become a stark contrast to its NT roots and the dynamic relational process inherent (by God's design and purpose) to the nature of community and family.

The Reformation represents the prophetic critique of the constraints and abuses of the institutionalized church. I don't know if it was also a critique of hope because while it clarified what Christ saved us from, the magisterial Reformers didn't clearly define and practice what Christ saved us to with a transformed ecclesiology.  Thankfully, the Reformation once again opened up direct access to God, but it also opened the door for the radical Reformers.  This release (at least ecclesiastical if not spiritual) led to freedom which swung the pendulum too far in its reaction to Roman Catholicism.  This effectively opened the door to individualism, left emerging churches susceptible to the controlling influence of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and modernity; essentially, this led to the development of the so-called Protestant work ethic and the legitimation of the spirit of capitalism.

The Reformers rightfully rejected the constraints of Roman Catholicism but many of them discarded its emphasis on unity in the process.  The Roman Catholic Church represented a unity of structural institutionalism (hierarchical and patriarchal) supported by false and misguided practices (such as indulgences) which served itself, not the nature and purpose of the unity that Jesus prayed to the Father for.  We cannot lose focus of the intended corporate relational outcome Jesus defined for our completion.  Yet, I suggest that how we do church today is a relational consequence of having thrown the baby (unity of the Father's whole) out with the dirty bath water.  In a definite sense, churches have become an artificial representation of the whole Jesus started and what the initial church experienced in being one.

Jesus didn't start this with his farewell prayer but he practiced it as early as age twelve (Lk 2:42-49) and vulnerably taught it for others to experience (Mt.12:46-50).  It is to this relational context that all Christians and all churches need to return.

Family: Based on our redemption and adoption, God's people only adequately represent the Father in the relational unity of his family (the church) as his sons and daughters.  Access to God the Father comes only in the context of this family relationship--a relationship which cannot be experienced functionally under the condition of enslavement, nor while under controlling influences constraining our person and practice.  The Reformation has resulted in releasing us from the enslavement of certain constraints (though it has cultivated others like the individual work ethic), while inadvertently discarding, discounting or distorting the relational unity of the Father's family for which our release (redemption) was made--that is, adoption as his children in order to share in his life, represent him and extend his family. Individualism is contrary to this purpose and functions in conflict with building family.

The individual in the broader ancient context didn't have nearly the prominence the individual has in a modern Western setting, particularly in the United States.  A kinship system defined, determined and essentially dominated the individual (especially females).  While it would seem natural and easy for the early followers of Christ to transition from one kinship network to a new one, the tensions and conflicts of the individual still raised issues needing to be addressed, not to mention the competition of old kinship ties. The balance between individual opportunity and relational responsibility and accountability was always an ongoing process needing to be defined.

As a dominant norm in the Mediterranean world, kinship (by blood or by law) demanded primary (if not total) obligation to the family network where brothers and sisters experienced the closest bonds of loyalty and affection.[2]  Anything outside the kinship threshold was considered in competition or conflict with kinship welfare.  Family honor-shame was a critical value each individual member was bound to practice.  In addition, characteristic of the kinship system was patriarchal dominance.  It is within this prevailing kinship context that we see the new kinship of the Father's sons and daughters in Jesus' family developing together as his brothers and sisters.  Yet, just as Jesus revolutionized the prevailing disciple-teacher relationships, he and his Spirit transformed the prevailing kinship tradition with a new family which redefined the individual and deepened the relationships between brothers and sisters, along with transforming the relationship with their Father.  This was not about the usual kinship obligation upon the individual to do something but the privilege and prestige of his adoptee to be someone, who was also empowered to extend his family.

Historically for the biological family, whether in the form of a kinship system (as described in the Mediterranean world of the NT), other forms of extended household (of pre-modern era) or the nuclear family (of modern Western contexts), the tension and conflict between individual vs. family is ongoing--with the individual often having been sacrificed or lost in the process.  The development of the nuclear family, however, marks a shift to more individual freedom, opportunity and relative dominance of their relationships.  Though its initial development was precipitated by the contextual changes of industrialization and the restructuring of labor in the marketplace, the nuclear family opened the door wide for individualism.

When work shifted from the family dwelling to the factory and city, the laborer naturally followed it.  This imposed change on the family unit, and gave more and more focus to the individual.  Extended families could no longer physically stay in the same household because work took them to different areas--with some members geographically so far removed that even maintaining contact became difficult.  The sense of family as a function of kinship relationships has become essentially an anachronism in modern Western contexts today.  One's particular culture of origin may still define greater significance to kinship ties, but in actual practice this is now often more form than function.

With this mind-set we now assume that family is for the benefit of the individual and on this basis the individual goes out to build one's own family.  While the individual is less defined in the other forms of family, the basic issue of who will be served remains the same.  Effectively, the biological family in all forms has become an end to serve our own self-interests, for our own self-determination, self-worth, and to extend our own "name" and extend our own family.  We forget that Adam and Eve originally were given family for God's purpose, that Abraham was given family to build God's family, that Israel represented God's covenant family, that followers of Jesus formed community, his church, with the help of his Spirit to be his Father's family and to extend the Father's family to all his creation.  In other words, the biological family is not a self-serving kinship but a means to build the greater kinship of God the Father's family.

It is with this backdrop of kinship and the function of family that we need to perceive the emerging church following the ascension of Jesus.  The narratives of what developed in the post-resurrection period are given for us to understand for our practice today because that post-resurrection period extends to our time as the Spirit continues to work to bring to completion the relational progression to the Father.  We urgently need to return to this understanding for how to do church, tradition notwithstanding.

 

 

A Brief Note on Tradition

While we definitely need to learn from tradition (especially to enhance our understanding), we cannot look to tradition (pre- or post-Reformation) for the basic determination of how to do church, but we need to depend on the full scope of Scripture with all available contextual considerations.

Likewise, tradition cannot determine our perception of the church as family.  Unlike kinship systems, which use tradition to define position, roles and obligations of its members, the church cannot turn to such tradition for these definitions.  As noted in the last chapter, the Spirit distributes these responsibilities from the whole, not according to tradition but in accord with the Father's desires for his family.  Tradition tends to put artificial constraints on this relational process and, for example, precludes opportunities for certain individuals.

At the same time, in the absence of tradition many modern churches have established nontraditional traditions not only in how to do church but in how church is seen.  Reliance, for example, on methods and techniques unique to generating products, profits, information and virtual experience have emerged increasingly in how churches function.  The results for the church are more about how to do something efficiently than how to be relationally involved as family.  This is a quantitative dominance of reductionism which functionally redefines the person, relationships and what church is as a substitute for the qualitative difference and substance of God the Father revealed in Christ the Son definitively in Scripture.

Tradition needs to be respected, though not necessarily by its observance.  Our traditional antecedents may be informative but ultimately we need to return to our Scriptural roots.

 

 

Roots of Family

Following Jesus' farewell prayer to the Father for us to be brought to complete unity, Jesus shows us how this will be experienced among us.  In order to establish his disciples in the new kinship relational process, Jesus demonstrated during his crucifixion what it means to be his family, in a pivotal scene usually overlooked.  The pain and agony of his crucifixion do not obscure this relational reality but highlight the experiential truth of being his family.  While on the cross, Jesus teaches us what 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, kinship involvement is based on agape involvement, so being his family cannot be understood from our usual perceptions of family involvement or feelings of obligation.  In the most touching moment on the cross occurred the most beautiful example of the corporate process of family.  While Jesus was in anguish and those closest to him were deeply distressed, an unimaginable interaction took place which embodied the family love to be practiced by his church.

We know that despite his pain and agony Jesus was not controlled by self-focus or even influenced by reasonable self-concern--he took the initiative to forgive others.  But with even deeper agape involvement, he focused on his mother, Mary, and the disciple he loved in a special way, John (Jn 19:25-27).  Then, remarkably, he said to each of them with love and affection: "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?

Keep in mind the relational progression of the incarnation.  In response to Jesus' words, John acted beyond being merely a disciple, even a friend, and took Mary into "his own" (Gk. idios, one's own, denotes special relationship, v.27).  He didn't just take her in his house; he embraced Mary as his own mother (or kinship sister).  She must have embraced him also as her son (or kinship brother).  There is a lot for us to reflect on here: circumstances, culture, family, Jesus' promise to his disciples.  All of these make this a truly remarkable moment in Jesus' life and in the development of his church.  The narrative represents undeniable roots for the function of his disciples.

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), 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).  So, why did Jesus delegate this responsibility to someone outside their immediate family?

Though circumstances, culture and family converge on this scene, they don't each exert the same amount of influence.  We cannot let contextual considerations limit our understanding of this pivotal point of discipleship.  I suggest that Jesus wasn't fulfilling his duty as the eldest son, nor bound by the circumstances.  As he has consistently demonstrated throughout the incarnation, Jesus is taking his followers beyond culture and circumstances, even beyond family as we commonly view it.

Jesus gave us new eyes with which to see each other--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 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 like 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--as follower, daughter, sister.  This was the 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, his family together in the relational progression.  And that is how he wants us to be involved with each other, not stopping short at any point on this progression--no matter how well we have been servants together, nor how much we have shared as friends.  This deeply touching interaction was Jesus' involvement with and response to his family.  It was the beautiful outworking of family love in the corporate relational process of being family and building it.  Nothing less and no substitutes, just as Jesus lived and went to the cross.

For this definite reason and unequivocal purpose, Jesus' act was just as much for John's benefit as it was for Mary--both in provision and opportunity.  In response to what each of them let go of in order to follow Jesus, he promised them an even greater family (Mk 10:29-30).  True to his words as ever, he was fulfilling his promise to them.  This is the relational outcome for each individual who submits to him for his family.  No greater satisfaction of being accepted, no fulfillment of the individual's self-worth, no certainty of one's place and belonging can be experienced by the individual outside his family.

Even beyond that, in this pivotal moment Jesus established them in the corporate relational process which is necessary to keep fulfilling his promise and to extend this relationship to others. This is the further relational significance of agape involvement in the corporate process. This process not only extends it to others but it also fully contextualizes it to the uncommon and eternal of God's big picture. This further redefines the individual and more strategically defines how to do church. In God's plan for redemptive history and all of creation, individuals alone are incapable of fulfilling his mission--no matter how many individuals and how much involvement.  This can only be accomplished by the relational work of the church functioning corporately as family.  In authentic discipleship, this means functionally redefining our individualistic ways to the whole of family, which certainly requires a deeper set of relationships to be discussed later.

The significance of this set of words by Jesus on the cross establishes the roots of his family--roots which also go back to the OT and God's covenant people.  His words characterize God's kingdom, what is involved to become a community of his followers and how to build his church.  With this new kinship relational process, we examine the emerging church in Acts.

 

 

Post-Resurrection Dynamics

As we transition into the book of Acts, what emerges is the corporate dimension of discipleship.  Jesus gave importance to the whole person and gave primacy to relationships.  Following his ascension these priorities are extended in practice within the relational context of his corporate body of followers.  Increasingly, the importance of the individual is absorbed into the importance of this corporate body, the church.

The first disciples had less than successful careers as his disciples at this point.  Their recent experiences during Jesus' passion were distressing.  Of course, the resurrection renewed their spirits, though the significance of his death and resurrection had yet to really take effect.  Their confidence and expectations probably were low.  Plus the fact that Jesus had just commissioned them to take over his mission to the world must have added to the ambivalence in the opening scene in Acts.
 

What does a group of individuals with an unimpressive track record do when given such major responsibility?

As individuals the first disciples of Jesus were different from each other.  In the narratives of Jesus, we don't have any sense that their differences complemented each other, except possibly reinforcing negative patterns.  Their differences probably could be described essentially as establishing them in somewhat individual approaches to a common venture.

Two approaches in particular distinguished themselves as basic models.  They are reflected in the lives of Thomas and Peter.  Thomas, as we know (from Jn 20:24-29), would not believe unless he empirically saw and touched.  For him, he had to know intellectually, in full objectivity before he responded or acted.  In his dependence on objective sight and reason, the relational trust factor we know as faith had little opportunity to function in relationship with God.  Consequently, action did not come readily for Thomas, especially involving relationships.  He can be described as the cautious, distrustful, passive or fearful individual who is involved in more than just thinking.  This person does not think in the productive sense, often resulting in his whole person effectively becoming immobilized or distant in relationships.  With a tendency to use thinking as a smoke screen, this is symptomatic of a life not made vulnerable--a life, therefore, slow to act or to be involved.

Obviously, this description did not completely control all of Thomas' life, or else he wouldn't have been a disciple of Christ.  But this approach is reflected in significant parts of his life to distinguish him in this manner (see also Jn 14:1-7) and at times in the lives of some of the other disciples as well.  Its most significant consequence is on the quality of relationship.

Peter, as we previously discussed in part, represents somewhat the opposite approach.  He was often too quick to act and to commit himself, though not necessarily to make himself vulnerable in relationships as he did in situations.  His action appeared to be based on emotional reaction or, at least, on a hastily made subjective decision, unlike Thomas.  This type of person tends to have shallower involvement of the self because one's whole person is not always behind the action. Such a person has not meaningfully assessed the situation or the cost before acting.

What we see in Thomas and Peter are basic approaches many Christians take to a life of discipleship.  These approaches counteract faith as the relational act of trust in God.  As a relational substitute for trusting God, each of these has a subtle reliance on self for their response and life action.  Luke begins the Acts narrative reiterating Jesus' words countering these tendencies by the disciples: "wait for" (1:4) and "not for you to know" (1:7).  The relational significance of these statements should not be overlooked.  For the likes of Thomas, it was not necessary to know that information in order to take up their relational responsibility.  Situations may need information, but relationship with God needs trust and to represent him requires relational work with his Spirit (1:8).  For the likes of Peter, it was necessary to wait before taking on their mission.

Jesus confronted them to trust him and his promise rather than rely on their own self, abilities and resources.  Clearly, the enablement of the Spirit was not to be forgotten but claimed first in their relationship before the disciples acted to extend his family.  In addition, they were not to misuse the Spirit but needed to fully understand that it was the relational work of the Spirit, not the resource of knowledge, which would make them adequate for any and all life actions.  This didn't preclude the place and function of knowledge in their lives, just its primacy as the resource they would depend on to act.

The relational process Jesus established with his disciples is to be fully operationalized by his Spirit for all his followers.  The relational progression Jesus constituted for all his followers is to be brought to completion in the corporate reality of God's family.
 

What does an unimpressive group of disciples do when given such major responsibility?

Given the situation, they first needed to stay relationally focused and not get distracted by the circumstances (1:10).  A key word from God helped them regain that focus: "Why do you stand here . . . ?" (1:11; see a similar question asked of Elijah in 1 Kings 19).  Reawakened to the truth of God's word, in that moment of ambivalence and uncertainty they were brought back to the relational reality of God's presence and work in their lives.

Despite the likely presence of self-doubt about their adequacy or of nagging reminders of past performance, they didn't mope, labor on their failures, mistakes and assortment of sins.  Likewise, there is no indication that they reinforced in themselves or in each other how inadequate they were.  They went back to Jerusalem with great joy
(Lk 24:52) and joined together as one (Gk. homothumadon, same mind, of one accord) continuing faithfully and steadfast (Gk. proskartereo) in prayer (1:14).  These were defining moments for them--both in their identity and their transformation.

Was this a typical prayer meeting of the missions committee?  Did they pray to do something, or be someone? Though we don't know the content of their prayers, they must have followed Jesus' lead in his prayers and opened their hearts to the Father.  I suggest that nothing mystical happened in these prayer meetings, nothing extraordinary except for the honesty of hearts coming before God and before each other.  In this vulnerable process, every feeling (e.g., of fear or inadequacy), every need for healing (e.g., from past failures, rejections or pains), every sin, every effort to be accepted and loved could be ongoingly addressed and deeply attended to.

In the dynamics of the post-resurrection period, these followers could not depend on mind-games and their beliefs to move to the next step of discipleship.  They had to apply to their hearts what their belief system defined in their minds.  God's grace could not be a concept, the resurrection had to have meaning beyond mere fact, God's love had to become an experiential reality.  And all of this had to have relational significance here and now, not in eschatological fulfillment; there was no time to wait for a future transformation.

The immediate yet ongoing result of post-resurrection dynamics for these early followers of Christ was redemption, healing, reconciliation, being made whole, stepping out as new persons in the new life order established by Jesus.  Nothing about them was indelible to the grace, power and love of God; the process of transformation to what Jesus saved them to had begun.  What started in these prayer meetings, the Spirit continued, extends to other followers and will bring to completion.

Joining together as one was also significant for their identity.  What happened from this point were not merely the dramatic changes of individuals.  Even more significant were their changes as a group.  Consider their history together up to now.  Though most of them had been together for almost three years, it's hard to get a sense of the disciples as anything more than a collection of individuals.  That is, even though they undoubtedly bonded with one another in all they went through, you still don't get a picture of them in the Gospels as really working interrelatedly as a group with a common, singleness of purpose.

Essentially, they were a collective which had yet to distinguish their corporate identity.  What they had in common until now was not sufficient to establish their corporate relational nature.  Whether this was due to self-interests or competing interests, it is apparent that self-concerns kept the disciples from coming together deeply in their life together.  Self-concerns also reinforced a self-serving comparative and competitive process among them which would stratify them more than bring them together.  For example, their concern for who was going to be first among them, about having a special seat in Christ's kingdom and about the favorite place John held with Jesus, as well as who was going to betray him all reflect the priority of the individual over the group.  And just exactly how they supported each other in a positive process, how they built up one another, or whether they experienced the synergism of being involved together as a group until then are all not apparent.

That is, of course, up to those prayer gatherings.  This marked the beginning of "being one" that Jesus had prayed for (Jn 17:21-23), the start of the whole of the Father which the Spirit was about to come to bring to completion.  From this point in Acts the changes in the character of the disciples took place dramatically in them as individuals and among them as a group.  These followers went from being a collection of individuals to an interrelated, interdependent unit called the community of faith known as the Way, the family of God's people.  In other words they were not only transformed individuals, they became a transformed people.
 

What does a transformed group of disciples do when given such major responsibility?

They become the transformed church.  Here is where we see the relational progression in the incarnation operationalized and where it converges with the Spirit of truth, transformation and adoption in order to develop the relational and experiential reality of God's family.  In the post-resurrection dynamics, it is important to grasp for discipleship that the transformed new life Jesus saved us to does not function in individuals without functioning in the community of believers which those individuals make up.  The process of this new life both for the individual and for the church are corollary processes.  They are inseparably interrelated, with the process for the individual dependent on the corporate process in order to reach the individual's full earthly promise.  Likewise, the Spirit of adoption is given to complete the whole of the Father, not for the individual.

Yet, the emphasis today is strongly skewed to the process for the individual--often even sacrificing the corporate process for the individual.  We seem to be under the illusion that the life of the individual can vitally function apart from the dynamic life of a transformed church.  When churches defer to this mind-set, however, they fail to realize that subordinating the corporate process for the sake of the individual in truth retards the individual's process of growth and development.  By necessity then, authentic discipleship must (dei, by its nature) involve a definitive biblical ecclesiology which is relationship-specific to the relational progression Jesus incarnated and the Spirit perfects, and which has relational significance to the Father.  (I seek to outline this in the following chapters.)

The local community of believers was neither another voluntary association in the Mediterranean world, nor an auxiliary group in the book of Acts.  An examination of the beginning six chapters of Acts gives us the foundational elements involved in the dynamic life of these early followers (later to be labeled Christians).  What is clearly evident in this narrative are the two primary means God gave to his people to fulfill their purpose together: one is the relational function of the Holy Spirit, the second is the intimate involvement and relational support of the local body of believers.  These two are not mutually exclusive.  Nor can we underestimate the function of either.  They both are absolutely essential to the life and mission of God's people.

With a newly formed singleness of purpose, the early disciples proceeded to build on the necessary foundation Jesus started for a shared life together.  As we expand our discussion of discipleship from the individual to the church, there are essential characteristics and elements of this corporate transformed life observed in the condensed history of Acts.  In the first seven chapters we see the church and its identity being established.  From chapter eight, the church takes a new direction, as it is forced out of its provincial context and made even more vulnerable.

Aside from valuable historical information, how seriously do we need to take our observations?  Whenever a biblical narrative gives us some descriptive account of a practice, there is always the issue of how normative does that practice need to be taken across time and context; in addition, if considered normative for practice then how literal is the practice, or is it a matter of principle?  Determining whether a narrative practice needs to be taken as normative for today has to be a function of its reinforcement or its fulfillment of what the truth (of a matter, an area or the whole) is based on in the total context of Scripture.  Such a conflict arose for the early church over the issue of circumcision.  Today we would never consider circumcision as normative for church membership, for what should be obvious reasons.  But what about those early church practices which did reinforce and fulfill the truth specifically about the church (the family of God) as Jesus and Paul defined?  This is an issue facing us as we examine the transformed church in Acts.

 

 

The Transformed Church

As we identify the characteristics of their shared life together and assess their role in the life and mission of God's people, two matters will hopefully become evident.  First, these characteristics are not restricted in time and context to a certain period of history; secondly, their application cannot be limited to fit into only certain social, cultural, economic or political conditions.  As these early disciples realized quickly in those prayer gatherings, discipleship today has to embrace the truth that transformed persons need a shared transformed life together--no matter what the circumstances are.  Having said this, we must be aware in our observations of not defining a code of practices to follow somewhat in effect as an end in itself.  Such reductionism will only constrain persons and the church, not transform them.  As Jesus clearly defined in the Sermon on the Mount, we are always accountable to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes.

Joining together, the early disciples became interrelated to one another and interdependent on each other so profoundly as to be described as having "one mind or accord" (Acts 1:14), as being of "one heart and soul" (4:32).  As deeply spiritual as this certainly means, we should not spiritualize our perceptions of how this was in function.  Their shared life together operationalized very specific and necessary characteristics foundational for the transformed life of the transformed church.

As we just discussed, the first area these followers shared deeply in together was prayer.  Here is where we need to think of prayer in less spiritual terms and in more relational perspective.  It was understandable for them to go to prayer after Jesus ascended.  Yet, we can't just focus on the situation, nor let situations control or determine practice.  Prayer was not a situational matter for them; it was a functional part of their shared life together (2:42ff).  Prayer for them was not an activity scheduled into their week or day.  "Constantly in prayer," of course, did not mean they were praying all the time, though I am sure some of them practiced "the continuous presence of God" long before Brother Lawrence (a seventeenth century French monk who learned how to operationalize this).

Whatever the amount of time spent in prayer, their involvement illustrates how prayer functioned in their midst.  Rather than just an activity, prayer involved two essential elements: (1) relationships, (2) a process.

Prayer provided the dynamic link of communication with God. Spiritually, we understand this but often come away from prayer with the feeling that we've only been talking to ourselves.  This has a lot to do with being engaged in an activity (albeit sincerely and consistently) rather than engaging in relationship.  Prayer is always relational work.  Prayer for them also was not merely an individual relationship with God but a corporate relationship as well.  Through this means for relational connection, this community of believers shared in its intimate communion with God, shared openly in its petition and intercession before him.  As they were relationally involved with God in the honesty of their heart, they simultaneously set into motion a relational process of deeper involvement with each other -particularly, for example, when they deeply supported each other in prayer.  Their relational involvement also extended outward to others beyond their immediate fellowship for whom they interceded.

Whatever was expressed to God in prayer (worship, petition, intercession), they shared it in common with him and with each other.  In relational perspective, nothing was more vital to their relationships with God and with each other than prayer.  It became, for example, not only a means to call forth the power of God but a way to love each other, to exercise compassion to others and, generally, concrete opportunities to exercise their relational responsibilities as the Father's sons and daughters as well as to experience being brothers and sisters in his family.  In this relational process for the individual and the corporate body, prayer involved all aspects of their lives; nothing was too minor, major or irrelevant to be involved together in prayer.

When prayer in the life of God's people is practiced as a function involving these relationships and this kind of process, then it's understandable why their shared life together was necessarily characterized by: ongoing relational involvement in prayer.  This became a natural part of their life that was exercised spontaneously just as much as it was scheduled or structured.

In this characteristic and others we will observe, the function common to all of them is relational work.  Two other characteristics of their shared life together also directly involved their relationships with God.  These can be defined as the ultimate priority of worship and the relational centrality of his word.

The statement "our lives are for the glory of God" is more frequently considered from what we do than how we function in relationship with God.  When the relationship is the focus, there is no greater function we can exercise than the affirmation of God in worship for who he is and what he does.  Luke identifies the disciples immediately after Christ's ascension as prostrate, worshiping him (Gk. proskyneo, Lk 24:52) and later as continually praising God (Gk. eulogeo, v.53).  Praise (Gk. aineo) characterized their daily corporate life (Acts 2:46-47).  The different words suggest that it wasn't the form of worship that was important but the relational process of involvement with God in affirming him.  This expands our perceptions of worship.

Like their relational involvement in prayer, praise and thanksgiving were not merely the scheduled and structured outworking of this community of believers.  Worship was a natural part of and expression in the ongoing life they shared together in common.  Even in tense and needy circumstances, one of the first things we see this local body do is worship God (see Acts 4).  There was nothing more urgent or of greater priority in the life and mission of God's people than worship.  And the true posture of worship together also involved submission and service to him (2:42-45; 4:32-35), which is further expressed in other ways throughout Acts.

In the post-resurrection apostolic period, worship appeared to center on the Lord's supper--communion, the Eucharist.  The term "Eucharist" is the anglicized form of the Greek noun eucharistia, which means gratitude, thanks.  Eucharist and thanksgiving are synonymous; no greater expression of thanksgiving and praise could be evoked than for the sacrificial relational work of Jesus on the cross.  No other basis for the redemption and transformation of the individual and the corporate life of the church exists.  And communion (derived from the same Greek root word koin as fellowship, 1 Cor 10:16,17) involves "having a common share in."  All persons in Christ held in common his redemptive work on the cross for them; they thus together shared in his death and resurrection (Rom 6).  It was only natural, then, for transformed persons to join together to celebrate this reality and relationally respond to their Benefactor.

Ongoing participation (relational, not ritual) in communion served two vital relational outcomes.  The gathering of believers at the Lord's table constituted: (1) their greatest qualitative expression of worship possible and (2) the greatest qualitative experience and relational dimension of their shared life together.  In participating in this relational act, nothing was to bring them more intimately before God.  In so doing, nothing was to bring them into greater commonality (fellowship) with each other than this moment.  The transformed church was at its peak while intimately partaking of the Lord's cup and bread as they celebrated their new life together in the ultimate priority of worship.

From their relational response to God in prayer and worship, we turn our focus to the special response from God revealing himself to us not only vulnerably in the Word made flesh but also in the documented form of his Word called the Scriptures.  Paul defined "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim 3:16, Gk. theopneustos, breathed out by God, produced by the breath of God), that is, as an expression of himself to be distinguished from merely human origin.  The Scriptures constitute relationship-specific revelations from God through a human medium.  As we previously discussed about the use of his Word, we have to approach this first with a relational perspective.

When Satan tried to tempt Jesus to reduce his life to quantitative aspects like the situation (his hunger) and to resources (bread), Jesus countered that: living is not merely quantitative ("on bread alone") but living is relationally qualitative "on every word [Gk. rhema, that which is spoken] that comes from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4).  Later, in his farewell prayer Jesus shared with his Father: "I gave them the words you gave me" (Jn 17:8).  It is this relational context and process which Jesus operationalized for his disciples.  After his ascension, the early disciples easily could have let their situations and the need for resources control their lives.  And it may appear that way when they filled Judas' vacancy among the apostles.  Yet, when Peter stood up in their midst to say "the Scripture had to be fulfilled" (Acts 1:16) and "it is written in the book of Psalms" (1:20), he was putting their situation into the broader context of those words from God.  Since God shared it, they responded to him, not the situation. His words established them in what they could expect (cf. Rom 15:4).

From the very beginning this community of believers looked to the Scriptures to guide them in the process of the emerging new life order.  Whether it was related to filling a vacant apostolic position (as in the above account) or involving the public proclamation of the gospel (kerygma) or sharing ethical instructions (didache) with God's people, the Word from God became the basis for authority in the transformed church.

It was upon this stable authoritative base that the life and mission of God's people were established. In his charge to Timothy for his church work, Paul defined the Scriptures as the means for authentic righteousness and making us adequate, competent, resourceful for whatever work God gives us (2 Tim 3:16-17).  Yet, the Word from God was neither a source book for theology and doctrinal creeds, nor an ethical code book; this was about the relational expressions and workings of God.

The place and use of the Word are about relational work.  It is God's special relational response that we must engage with relational work, not merely as a divine source of knowledge and information.  Some persons can't get past the human medium of Scripture to see or hear God.  Others listen to, read, even study the Word without engaging the One who breathed those words.  Because of the absolute nature of the Word from God--qualified by the context and limitations of the human medium--it is within the relational context and process that: the mind of God could be distinguished from the mind of the people, or, for example, the creative minds of false teachers; the relational messages from God's heart could be determined apart from our biases and self-serving declarations.

It is clearly understandable in this early community of believers why his Word (in its written and oral form) became central in the operation of the transformed church (Acts 2:42).  The transformed church was characterized by the relational centrality of his Word.  And the responsibility for his Word and its ministry was given one of the highest priorities within the body (6:1-4).

God relationally reveals himself in prayer and through his Holy Spirit.  But with the least equivocation God reveals himself relationally in his Word.  Whether in the individual's relationship with God or the corporate body's relationship with him, no involvement with God is complete without the relational presence of his Word.  In the ongoing, intimate communion with God all three characteristics--(1) ongoing relational involvement in prayer, (2) the ultimate priority of worship, (3) the relational centrality of his Word--are basic foundations for the transformed church's shared life together.  Further characteristics of their shared life emerge from their relationships together.

 

 

The Church's Shared Life Together

Up to now we have been examining characteristics of the early followers' corporate life which deal primarily with their relationship with God and secondarily with their relationships with each other.  Now we will consider what was characteristic of primarily their relationships with each other.  This is an area which may stir in us the most.

In the process of the new life order of the transformed church, the three characteristics above precede this next characteristic.  The actual development of this process, however, certainly doesn't always go from one characteristic to the next and move only in linear fashion.  All the characteristics of the shared life are vitally interrelated to each other.  With this kind of interconnection, these characteristics do not function separately from each other, nor are they unaffected by how the others are operating.

As we observe their relationships with each other, their intimate communion with God (the relational outcome of the first three characteristics) is seen to lead this gathering of believers to intimate fellowship with each other.  This intimate fellowship didn't just happen spontaneously by itself.

The fact that these early believers are described as one should have significance for us beyond what is commonly perceived as spiritual.  This is not a mystical process, though there is certainly mystery involving God; and this condition does not just happen by circumstance.  The outcome of this process is a function of their relationships.  In those formative days of becoming the church, they are also described as "together and had everything in common" (Gk. koinos, common, belonging to several or of which several are partakers); in addition, that "no one claimed any of his possessions was his own" (Gk. idios, "his own" denoted property or special relationship, 4:32).  When John took in Jesus' mother as his own (idios), she didn't become his property but a special relationship.  Here in Acts it refers to property ("possession," hyparcho), which we often develop a special relationship (attachment) to and become possessive about.  The significance here of who is important to God and what is secondary cannot be ignored for the priorities of discipleship.

This new practice brought out the full meaning of stewardship in the corporate process of God's big picture, not merely individual stewardship.  In the corporate context of Christ's body and the Father's whole, "they shared everything they had" (4:32)--"shared" (Gk. koinos) is the same word as "common" in 2:44.  Whether "everything" became common ownership (unlikely) or still owned by someone yet shared as if it were everyone's, the important issue is to share in it all together without individual privilege being unequal and thus benefits among them inequitable (2:45; 4:34-35).  This is clearly demonstrated when an inequity arose among them (see 6:1-5).

The terms for common, commonality, have in common, share in it and partake of it, fellowship, communion are all part of the same koin family of words.  This is the set of words used to describe the transformed church.  Obviously, this community of disciples had beliefs in common but that would not have had any significance beyond an association unless those beliefs had been exercised in their relationships--both with God and each other.

When we consider the organic structure of the transformed church--as Paul described in the metaphor of the body (1 Cor 12)--we can observe how closely connected this body of believers was.  They were deeply interrelated to one another in a process of interdependence.

This process of interdependence is vital to the shared life together.  From an operational sense, interdependence can be complex, but from a descriptive sense it is rather simple.  Basically, interdependence means covariation.  That means the members of that body are so closely involved and interrelated to one another such that when one part of the body moves, corresponding parts, if not the whole, of the body move accordingly.  To use Paul's words: "if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it" (1 Cor 12:26).  This goes beyond merely being aware of each other or exchanging information about each other.  This is a level of relational involvement with one another requiring a commitment most churches do not expect of its members--a commitment beyond merely participating in activities.

We cannot, however, minimize nor ignore the presence of covariation in the transformed church.  Without a particular predisposition or bias about its form, covariation is an essential element to the life and development of the church.  Yet, this can stir us in different ways.  The implications of covariation are such that it would threaten most Christians and churches on the one hand while appeal to them on the other hand because of their deeper desires and unfulfilled needs.  Here we encounter that ambivalence which often comes up in discipleship.

We can understand why the ambivalence as we examine this process further.  The process which results in covariation involves: (1) a certain structure and (2) a particular kind of relationship.  The structure of their shared life together is outlined in Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35, which, as noted above, cultivated a different mind-set in how they perceived each other, a new lifestyle in how they used their resources, a deeper identity in how they were one.  Variations of that structure are possible as long as the underlying principle for the structure is maintained.  That means being a part of this community of believers involved more than, for example, membership, attendance at meetings and tithing.  Essentially, the structure they established minimized, if not eliminated, the independence of the believers from each other.  Though individualism was not a part of the early disciples' culture, the kinship system foundational in their culture was given new meaning. Their shared life together would be unlike any kinship network they had experienced.  This basic structure needs to formulate our ecclesiology.

This certain structure was not to take away the uniqueness of individual believers nor to dissolve the diversity of gifts God invested in his people.  It was, however, necessary to align this gathering of believers to one another in such a way that they would be relationally accountable to each other.  Furthermore, it was vital for their shared life together that "its [members] should have equal concern for each other" (as Paul said in 1 Cor 12:25) with the relational outcome that "there were no needy persons among them" (Acts 4:34).  Independence or selective involvement determined by the individual--the norm in churches today--are at cross-purposes to this structure.  They counteract the whole process of interdependence and, consequently, produce wide variation in the relationships (from loosely connected to unconnected individuals) in the local churches rather than covariation.  Wide variation or covariation--both happen by design, not by accident.  Covariation is relationship-specific and -significant in its outcome because it is intentional.

Within this structure the responsibility and opportunity to vitally care for one another in all aspects of life (spiritual, emotional, social, physical, economic and so forth) in a total way was made a reality.  It wasn't theory, theology or merely ideals, it was experiential.  Such a structure is necessary for the process of interdependence to reach the relational outcome wherein members care for each other and attend to their needs.  What else would have been sufficient to bring this result?  Even good intentions of individual discipleship could not produce this outcome.  The argument can be raised that such participation should be voluntary, that is to say, left up to the individual to decide their level of involvement.  The church, however, is not in reality a voluntary organization, though voluntary in association; and we need to stop operating the church as if it were any other organization in society at large.  And accountability here is not the constraint of the whole to conform but the opportunity for the individual to grow to fullness by functioning as a part of the Father's whole, that is, his family.

The transformed church cannot be dismissed no matter what any other prevailing views and practices of the church may be.  Later church history and tradition do not have precedence over this and how to do church.  It was within this very structure that the early disciples went from being a collection of individuals to an interdependent unit of believers called the body of Christ, the community or family of God's people.  Yet, even though this structure of their shared life together was necessary for interdependence, structure alone was not sufficient for this unit of believers to become a vital community or family, the organic body of Christ.  Church (universal and local) was not about doing something according to a certain order but about being a specific people.

What is further required to complete the process is "a particular kind of relationship" among the believers.  To use another word for this vital involvement of believers is the term fellowship.  Unfortunately, we have developed in the church some peculiar ideas about fellowship.  We've designed fellowship as some type of group activity rather than as relational involvement and experience.  Whatever prevails, we must refer back to the root of the word and still understand fellowship as related to communion.  Fellowship is synonymous with a common, shared life.  And it is in the actual sharing of life together that "the particular kind of relationship" is identified.

To share anything in common together in a significant and sustained way is not the result of a structure, a condition or a circumstance; it is a function of relationships.  Furthermore, to share life together in common is a function of intimate relationships.  This is what Jesus revealed about the Godhead and how he demonstrated relationship with his disciples in the relational progression.  Extending this to his body, it follows that another necessary characteristic of the shared life of the transformed church is (4) the intimacy of the fellowship.

As with our ideas about fellowship, to be family together has come to mean many things in our thinking.  Many biological families are together because of a structure, a condition or a circumstance; but they don't experience ongoing intimacy among themselves in spite of being together.  More often than not what families are today, intentionally and inadvertently, sadly does not include intimacy.  We do find some covariation in these families merely because of family economic and authority structures, as well as a result of the routine family patterns established down through the years.  Fortuitous bonds happen routinely in families.  Yet, any covariation is limited because it is not based on the intimacy of their relationships.

If a unit of persons is going to be so vitally interrelated to one another as to be truly family, then the level of their involvement with each other has to be: (1) deep, (2) ongoing and (3) across the various aspects of life--listed in order of importance but not to be taken apart from the others.  This means the intimacy of relationships.  Family in name is one thing, but to be truly family in function involves so much more.  To what extent do biological families live like this?

In no other way can a unit of persons experience a common, shared life together.  In no other way can a shared life together be meaningful.  Along with the intimate communion with God, the shared life of the transformed church must include the intimacy of the fellowship.  This intimacy with one another evolves from their intimacy with God because one cannot experience and be affected by how God relates to us and cares for us without extending that life, the nature of that relationship and that treatment to others.  Agape involvement transforms as it is received and shared.

The new life order in Christ--be it of the transformed individual or the transformed church--functions with intimacy.  If this is not the experience, then "[the veil] has not been removed . . . a veil covers their hearts"
(2 Cor 3:14,15).  In today's language we would describe this as distant or detached from our heart and, likewise, in our relationships.  This is reflected in our tendency to see the person from the outside-in and thus define ourselves by what we do and have.  Relationships based on this will always have less intimate relational connection--if in fact there is opportunity for connection at all.  This characterizes the modern world today; and how much of this influence do we see in our churches?

In the dynamics of the post-resurrection period "the veil is taken away . . . there is freedom . . . we with unveiled faces are being transformed" (2 Cor 3:16-18), "[so] anyone in Christ is a new creature; the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Cor 5:17).  The person is redefined from the inner-out.  In their shared life together the early disciples lived out this truth, not as a social, economic or political necessity, nor as a historical anomaly but because that's what they now were--individually and corporately--in Christ Jesus.  The greatest impact of this transformation can be seen in their relationships.

Transformed persons by God's design live transformed relationships.  Together the intimacy of the fellowship revolutionized kinship, brought renewed reality to God's covenant people, created substance for the body of Christ.  Though certainly not perfect, the fact remains that as a unit of such believers they were community, family, the organic body of Christ.  This was the reality of their experience together.  This is what it means to share life together as the church.  As followers of Christ, is this how we need to do church today?

 

 

The Vulnerable Process of Confidence and Conviction

In knowing and living their true identity together, however imperfect, they never forgot the purpose of their shared life: to witness to Jesus Christ, to represent the Father and to extend his family. While neither segregated from the rest of the world, nor disconnected--mentally, emotionally, practically--from the needs and problems of humanity, they went forth from their "home-base" into the world (sometimes forced to by circumstances) without equivocation about whom they served.  They also knew that as much as they received, this new life was not to be lived for their own interests.

This may seem simple enough theologically.  Yet, this was not about merely proclaiming the facts of the gospel, following a system of belief, maintaining doctrinal clarity.  Their purpose was about persons and ongoing intimate relationship with these persons: the person of Jesus, the person of the Father, not to forget the working relationship with the person of the Holy Spirit.  This purpose involved the primary task of relational work with the heart.  All other tasks (theological, spiritual, ecclesiastical) must be predicated on this relational task.  Furthermore, their purpose, which also relationally extended to others, involved becoming vulnerable to not only physical dangers but also, and even more so, to the personal and relational risks for the heart.  For most persons the vulnerability of the heart is more of an issue than the vulnerability of the physical body.  In the contrary demands of everyday life, in the pressures to conform to the prevailing norms, with the pull of competing interests, relationships, even beliefs, with the seductions of the old life and the lies of Satan, there is much which comes to bear on the disciples of Christ that effectively could divert, distort or neutralize their witness in the world.  No one in human time and space was exempt from exposure to these influences of relational compromise--not even Jesus.  Many well-intentioned, strong-willed persons (like Peter) have fallen victim to such influences.  This vulnerability is an issue not usually recognized in the formation of discipleship.  It is important, however, to understand that these self-concerns minimized making ourselves vulnerable in relational work, particularly in our true identity.  This, in turn, confuses the issue of who is being served.

Yet, the early disciples, even under extreme antagonistic pressures, boldly kept extending their mission into the world without ambivalence or ambiguity about whom to serve.  Though they obviously had tensions and fears, with clarity and conviction they answered back: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).  Whatever hassles they encountered, they would not abdicate what they were in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:19,
20).  This was not about doing something but about being someone.  They lived with the growing confidence of their true identity and, thus, with the increasing conviction of whom they served.  These are further foundational characteristics of their shared life together: (5) the confidence of their identity and (6) the conviction about whom to serve.

Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus defined the identity of his disciples as being without ambiguity and shallowness.  This is an inner-out identity based on the relational righteousness which surpasses the reductionist righteousness of the Pharisees and other reductionism.  Any identity not engaged in relational work becomes ambiguous or shallow; any service rendered without relational work fails to surpass the righteousness of reductionism.

The early disciples did not, however, suddenly draw from their inner strength in order to live like this.  To believe was not a mind game, to serve was not gritting one's teeth.  Likewise, though some of them were martyred, they didn't live by the energy often generated by martyrs. Their ongoing transformation as persons really didn't turn the early disciples into extraordinary persons with a high level of self-confidence and conviction. Furthermore, they didn't live as such solely because of the power of the Holy Spirit working within each of them as individuals. What is crucial to realize here is that the relational working process of their shared life together, including with the Spirit, enabled them to grow in this confidence and this conviction.

This is demonstrated in the narratives of their life together.  We can observe this process, with the six essential characteristics discussed, come together and beautifully unfold in one particular example of their body in action (Acts 4).  In this account Peter and John had been carrying out part of their mission when they were confronted, threatened and, then, monitored intensively by Jewish leaders.

The disciples were not immune to the effects on their lives of suppressive activity or other conflicts.  Contrary to other approaches which don't attend to the heart, they didn't merely ignore it, or grit their teeth, and move on.  Being vulnerable was a necessary part of living with an open heart.  Any and all feelings resulting from such situations needed to be attended to if the heart was going to experience the well-being and wholeness indicative of God's love and peace.  So, when Peter and John were released from detention in the above situation, they immediately went back to their own community-family of believers to share all that took place (see Acts 4:23ff).  Yet, this wasn't a time of reporting information.  It was a time to share their hearts, share their lives with each other and with their God.

In the spirit of koinonia, the first thing this community-family of believers did was to embrace for themselves what had happened to Peter and John.  That is, they all shared in it together; it wasn't only Peter and John's matter, it was their matter together (4:24, Gk. homothumadon, with one mind, same as in 1:14).  Then, together, they affirmed their God--not just intellectually, but with open hearts they came together and poured themselves out to him (engaging relational involvement in prayer).  As they shared their hearts, they also praised God (the ultimate priority of worship) and further gained assurance from his Word (the relational centrality of his Word).  After sharing in all this, they prayed for comfort in how they were affected and also for greater confidence to be what they were in Christ and boldness to serve him in a contrary world.

How vital it was for them to come together in this way.  Not only did it provide these disciples with the deep experience of the transformed life of God's people, it also made a powerful witness to all others about the new kinship of God's family love.  In their shared life together they cared for each other corporately and they embraced their identity corporately through intimate relationships (the intimacy of the fellowship).  How affirming, healing and empowering this was--especially for Peter and John.  And as the community-family of believers trusted in the sovereign will and power of God, they waited on him to receive his response.

He did not disappoint them.  It is important, however, to see that God's response was to the total unit of believers, not just to Peter and John.  The Holy Spirit and the body came together (4:31); the Spirit is not here to serve the individual apart from the relational progression of the Father's family, the corporate body of Christ, the church.  Consequently, through this shared process and experience this family of believers grew even more deeply united with God and one another. With this greater confidence in their identity and conviction of whom they served, they continued forth boldly in their mission.

As we observe these six essential characteristics of the transformed church converge in this common corporate process, it is not a "sign and wonder" that in the next chapter of Acts we find them declaring unequivocally when confronted again by the same hostile group (5:28,29): "We must obey God rather than men."

 

 

Post-Resurrection Transition

What happened in this critical period was the foundation for the shared life of the transformed church, which the early disciples established by their corporate practices following Jesus' ascension.  Their redemption and transformation were set in motion from the resurrection.  In the transition from the individual to the new kinship of God's family, the observed characteristics of this foundation are all about relational work; this was in contrast to a code of practice characteristic of the pre-resurrection period.  These characteristics affirm the importance of the whole person and the primacy of intimate relationships.

In discipleship we must always account for Jesus' expectation of our righteousness surpassing the righteousness of reductionism.  Any forms of reductionist righteousness not only constrain the person from wholeness but it also works against corporate identity, the nature of the church, and the process of family.  The individual is the priority in reductionist righteousness.  This naturally leads to how we do relationships in a comparative way such that they are characterized by relational distance and stratification rather than intimacy and equality.  There is no well-being or wholeness under these conditions--both for the individual and the body.  And transformation is not an experiential reality.

Wholeness of the individual is not found only within the individual. That is, one doesn't experience wholeness by oneself nor by what one can do; likewise, reaching one's full potential is not a matter of accomplishing all one can do individually.  Wholeness defines the term for peace (Heb. shalom) which involves the well-being of a community.  Wholeness for the individual comes when the individuals in that community deeply unite together with the relational outcome of well-being among and within them.  This well-being occurs for Christ's followers when they join together as the whole of the Father and his family.

This new relational kinship process involving the identity of the new person in Christ (from the inside out and with agape involvement, cf. Gal 5:6) subordinates the individual to the whole.  More so, it directly makes the meaningfulness of the individual contingent on his/her rightful function in the corporate body.  Certainly, this doesn't mean that the individual is not significant to God.  Yet, in God's scheme of life in the big picture of his redemptive plan for all creation and history, the individual has little meaning apart from the operation of his family, the body of Christ, the church.  This reflects the being and nature of the relational God of heart to whom intimate relationships have the most significance and for whom being his family together is his only desire.

This transition to the corporate process of community, the corporate nature of church and the corporate function of family is a fundamental necessity for discipleship.  Not to make this transition is to follow a Jesus different from the incarnation and, thus, to be relationally disconnected from the Son who takes us to the Father as his family.  Jesus focused his farewell prayer on this relational outcome for all his followers.  Without this "complete unity," discipleship fails relationally to be his, no matter how much it accomplishes to do for him.

In other words, discipleship cannot truncate this relational progression and still rightfully be discipleship.  Jesus is all about his Father; and if the relational process of his Father's family is not directly engaged in our practice, our discipleship has no relational significance to God.  We may think we are following Christ, but we are not relationally functioning where and how he is (Jn 12:26).

Any tension or conflict between the individual and the corporate body are vital for us to address with the redemptive and transforming work of the Spirit.  This joint relational work is the means God provides for us so that we can experience the full relational progression Jesus saved us to.  The new kinship family of God is the opportunity of every individual disciple to be an important part of this whole as well as the opportunity to be made whole.  This remains the post-resurrection transition until it is brought to completion.

 

 

Consider

In our Western contexts it is difficult for us to formulate a functional corporate process of community, corporate nature of church and corporate practice of family which have relational significance both to God and to ourselves. This difficulty is to be expected when we are influenced, controlled or even enslaved by the biases of freedom, individualism and subtle relativism.

How does the whole of God define our life, and how has reductionism functionally redefined it in our practice?

How is the discipleship transition inherent in the relational progression and how is authentic discipleship the completion of this progression?

Is post-Reformation church practice prevailing today characteristic of a post-resurrection dynamic or a pre-resurrection period? How so?

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[1] Robert Banks, Paul's Idea of Community, rev. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ., 1994), 6-8.

[2] For further contextual considerations, see S. Scott Bartchy, "Divine Power, Community Formation, and Leadership in the Acts of the Apostles" in Richard N. Longenecker, ed., Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ., 2002), 89-104.

 

 

2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.

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