Theologizing Christology and Discipleship in Earliest Christian Writings: Reflections for the Context of Burma

Introduction

Drawing upon insights gleaned from observations regarding the formation of early Christian living and community amid the dominance of Rome, this study will offer theological analysis of Christians’ response to ill-treatment in the context of Burma through the lens of Christology and discipleship.

Christology and discipleship are the two variables that characterize a Christian’s singular identity, together defining what it means theologically to be Christian as individuals and in community in this world. Arguably, the earliest “Christian movement” was not a religious mobilization, as many tend to assume, but the theological exercises early Christians launched in various trajectories in response to God’s plan of salvation manifest in Jesus’ own submissive life.[1] In line with de Jonge, this paper argues that the earliest Christians’ writings, including the gospels, indicate how Jesus’ followers formed a new community to enact Christological meanings in their lives in response to the system of communal favouritism that victimized many in the first-century Roman world.[2]  The gospel writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, including the Gospel of Mary, are unique in terms of their narrative presentation of Jesus. Each in its own narrative context presents Christology and discipleship as the governing norms for theological exercises during the formation of Christ’s community. From the very beginning, early Christian communities understood that Christ is both divine and human. These primary faith-concepts are the core theological principle upon which Christian community was instituted to live as Jesus’ followers in a more egalitarian manner. Their commitment to live according to such theological principles undergirded their resolve to reflect these principles in their means of livelihood despite the excruciating and shattering circumstances in which they were victimized by conflict, both internal and external. The formation of early faith-sustaining-communities seems to have been the major goal of Jesus’ followers for the sake of keeping the mandate of the saving mission. Christology and discipleship are thus mutually co-defined and underpinned by the single meaning of Jesus’ salvation in one’s life as Christian. The integration of Christology and discipleship reveals the embodiment of the royal appointment for the salvific mission.[3] Thus, the disciples are summoned to operate this saving office through discipleship. The formation of the Christian community/gathering is thus necessary to guard one’s identity as a Christian and disciple (cf., Acts 11:26).  Here, stewardship plays a vital role by becoming the meeting point between Christology and discipleship in supporting the formation of messianic assemblies to carry out their salvific task.

The Power of Secret Christology and Suffering Discipleship in Mark

The Gospel of Mark is objective in presenting its Christology. The Marcan Jesus is uniquely human (1:1), reflected through the eyes of a suffering community. At the same time, Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ divinity as “Son of God” in his Messianic appearance and projection (8:29) seems threatening to the Romans (1:11; 3:11; 5:7), whose regime dominated much of the world. On the one hand, the messianic secrecy (4:11-12) imposed by Mark deals with the redemptive cause of Jesus’ earthly life. On the other hand, the Christological secret was necessarily hidden in a political setting and environment held under the Roman tyranny. Stephen D. Moore remarks that Mark’s Jesus has established “The secret of the Empire of God” in such circumstances.[4] In this light, Marcan Christology is open yet secret outside of the Christian community. The theology behind the Marcan Christological secrecy seems to indicate that the Kingdom of God has been established among Jesus’ disciples through his presence itself. Obviously, this ideal realization of God’s kingdom does not imply plot against the Romans, in contrast with the typical practices of the anti-Roman Jews, but rather denotes the total dismantling of the Roman claim to power in the realm of God’s kingdom, inaugurated in Jesus. Indeed, through apocalyptic (1:1) and eschatological (3:27) figures, Marcan Christology shrewdly throws off Roman rulers, as Jesus’ parable states “… plundering of the strongman’s property” (3:27). This brings one to re-imagine that the power of the secret Christology (in particular, the revealed Jesus as the weapon and agency of apocalyptic as well as eschatological language) overthrows Roman prestige and dignity, which were constructed upon the patriarchal system and power dynamics of the Roman Empire. For instance, by using the term “legion” (5:7) when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, Mark actually conveys the total elimination and destruction of Roman power, the mightiest military power in the world. Likewise, no matter how strongly political entities may foreground their power over their subordinates, the power of this world has been left in silence. Mark’s politics of the messianic secret thus restores political uprightness in the world against the politics of Roman hegemony.

At the same time, the Marcan suffering Messiah, embodied functionally in the life situation of his community, destabilizes the unjust ruling system, relieving all kinds of suffering, and also implies the messianic operation of launching those empowered by God into the mission of uplifting all those suffering under the existing evil rule (8:31). This trajectory in fact depicts not just Jesus’ embodiment of the suffering servant, but also Jesus’ embodiment of the choice that he made in fulfilling the promise of redemption received through their ancestors, rather than the false promise of redemption through Roman rule. Jesus’ messianic suffering established the theological frameworks within which early Christians might launch a people’s movement for justice and equality through following Christ’s model of suffering discipleship.[5] The Marcan model of discipleship, with respect to his suffering Christology, provided a dynamic impetus for the ethical struggle for just rule and social change from the yoke of Roman rule. Jesus’ model of suffering constantly challenges his disciples to identify their social “belongingness” and representation with him, which is the cost of discipleship in such a context.

Discipleship is about the call of Jesus, both to individuals and the community, with regard to the salvific mission. This call impels Jesus’ disciples to stand against unjust power. Discipleship is also one’s self-commitment to the Lordship of Jesus and to the new mission to be fulfilled within the life of each disciple. Thus, an essential aspect of discipleship is recognizing Jesus’ divinity, responding to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say that I am?” (8:27, 29). There are various examples of recognizing Jesus’s divinity in Mark such as the narrator (1:1), John the Baptist (1:11), demons (1:24; 1:35; 3:11-12; 5:7), the healed crowds, and Peter who declares, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). The key notion of discipleship in Mark has to do with one’s perception of Jesus and knowledge about his divinity, lived out within one’s life of discipleship in one’s own context. In this way, disciples are presented a two-fold challenge: Jesus’ anointing to the messianic office and his own ministry are to be carried out through the life of his disciples, despite ongoing threats and in all kinds of circumstances. Marcan discipleship features not only self-denial but also a self-projecting mission for the sake of the gospel (8:34-35) through the disciples’ labor of humility and suffering. In light of this, one can better understand Jesus’ scorning of Peter’s sentimental rejection (8:32) of Jesus’ suffering and death because it is rooted in Peter’s human concept (8:33). Here, Jesus locates Peter between two binary natures: the spiritual Peter who has destined himself to be Jesus’ disciple to the extent of death and, in contrast, the humanistic/somatic Peter whom Jesus rebukes by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” (8:33). The Marcan secret of Christian discipleship is not just about believers following Jesus or abandoning themselves but starts by rejecting one’s demonic natures and plots that erase the marks of Jesus’ identity within the individual and community. Marcan Christology reveals the nature of divine discipleship, in which the disciples are to recognize the kind of discipleship that Jesus refuses and to join him in that refusal. Jesus refuses such self-serving discipleship and calls us to do the same because such false-discipleship colonizes the mind of God and contaminates the attitude of Jesus’ own discipleship to God, compromising it with one’s own self. Such self-serving is utterly irrelevant to Jesus’s secret Christology.

Christology According to the Gospel of John

In contrast with Mark, Christology in John accentuates Jesus’ divinity. John uniquely presents Jesus’ divine activity throughout the gospel, based on the core concept of the Word and its incarnation (1:1-18). In light of the nature of Jewish-Christian writings, most scholars consider the Johannine gospel, written around 100 A.D, as a polemic against the Jews due to their rejection of Christian belief about Jesus, whom Christians believe to have fulfilled Old Testament Messianic prophecies. During this time, Christians may have been dismissed or disconnected from Jewish synagogues, places where they had first found religious shelter together with non-Christian Jews. At the same time, Christians were scattering to all corners of the earth and separating from the Jewish community in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.  In this context, John laid down his gospel for such a community, in despair over the loss of former connections. Indeed, John presents his “preexistence Christology”[6] in light of the Greek-stoic concept of the logos principle.[7] In contrast to the suffering Christology evident in the gospel according to Mark, the focal point of John’s Christology accentuates Jesus’ divinity. John principally highlights the spiritual as of more relevance to Jesus’ divinity rather than emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. John portrays Jesus’ divine role as “being alien to this world.”[8] This divine nature of Jesus exclusively informs the Johannine communities that Jesus is the “one who descends from heaven and ascends to heaven” (13:3).

John’s well-known logos Christology reveals the ever-existing phenomenon of power that exists constantly in the past, present, and future. Yet, John’s notion of the “word” goes beyond the concept of logos in Greek philosophy. In fact, John engages in a kind of theological-ideological war against the Greek principle of logos as the cosmic force as expounded in gnostic wisdom teachings. When tracing the genealogy of logos based on the Jewish Torah and Greco-Roman wisdom tradition,[9] John presumably reassures his readers of the legitimacy of Jesus’ divinity in connection with the logos theology. At the same time, John seems to appropriate the idea of Jesus’ preexistence in terms of the logos theology in order to create a basis for theological negotiation between Jews and Christians. Arguably, this idea of theological negotiation also means that the ultimate of logos principles prevailed against the religions of both Greek philosophers and pagans.

Daniel Boyarin, in line with Virginia Burrus, perceives John’s Christology as Christology of the “divinized logos.[10] The Word (1:1, 14) plays the role of co-creator with God in His creation (1:3a, 10). This logos idea of creation upholds Jesus’ preexistence in the form of a creative power, which is the source of all creation and controls all eternally. One might also connect Jesus’ emotional encounters in John 4:5-7 and 11:32-36 with the disciples’ spiritual pursuits within themselves. In any case, the divine revelatory act of the Word becoming incarnate serves as an existential impetus for John’s community. It was the vital power that would enable John’s readers to maintain faith in God and to embody the truth, power, light, and love of God by means of the community. In such conditions, the logos becomes the agent of God (1:1-14) to communicate with people as the creative Word in Genesis 1 and Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and as the agent of utterances (Gen. 1:3, 6,9; 3:9,11; Ps. 32:9; Zech. 5:1-4; Ps. 106:20; Ps. 147:15) and of prophesies conveying God’s will to his people (Jer. 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek. 1:3; Amos 3:1).

This divinized Christology mirrors the true attributes of God revealed to his people as Wisdom for the Jews; as the primary power, ruler, and good, for Philo;[11] and as God’s personified wisdom or Word (Proverb 8, Enoch 42: 1 and 2).  God’s revelation is for people to believe unto salvation. In the meantime, according to John’s Christology, the Holy Spirit fills the office of “Advocate which plays the helper’s role among all to prove between right and wrong” (16:8, Sirach 24) on earth in accordance with the norm of God’s attributes. One may conclude that John’s Christological writings are meant to demarcate Christian theology from Jewish theology and Gnostic thinking about the logos.  Thus, John’s logos Christology demands that believers activate God’s saving activity, accomplished through the person and work of Jesus, within themselves and the believing community.

Christian discipleship for John’s community is subjected to the particular mission of rebuilding the messianic community. Arguably, the notion of forming a messianic community was generated by Jewish and Gnostic groups in light of logos Christology amidst internal disparity and brokenness and the external antagonism of the Roman Empire. The spiritual norms founded upon the principles of Jesus’ preexistence, such as the word, creative power, the will, wisdom, the spirit, and faith served as the key qualifiers, agencies, and catalysts for building the community. Discipleship in John revolves around the ideas of establishing the divine believing community on earth and maintaining right relationship with God. For instance, Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem temple implies the mandate of discipleship to keep his assemblies always sanctified with the help of divine power (2:13-23). On the other hand, this discipleship is problematic because its internal and external intensification leads to confrontations with the world at large.

In contrast to Marcan discipleship, John’ discipleship is more inclined toward the personal or spiritual pursuits necessary for one to enter the kingdom of God (3:1-10). For example, in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, John defines discipleship as an inner spiritual experience that regenerates one’s life. One thus risks inner transformation when entering the kingdom of God. Submitting oneself to a vital rebirth is nothing less than finding new identity through regenerated life, which is a forecasting of life in the kingdom of God. Here, one’s regenerated life is the primal source of transition and change for all Jesus’ disciples who embrace the gift of salvation. On the other hand, the life-giving spirit’s work of divinization in the life of believers is a vehicle for the consummation of the kingdom of God on earth. In fact, John’s spiritual discipleship is the result of one’s spiritual unification or alliance with the spirit of God through Christ. Thus, according to John, discipleship is brought about by a unified relationship with God in a life that honors Jesus’ dignity and is lived by the help of the spirit of God and according to his will. In the meantime, the sending of the Advocate to the world denotes that discipleship is meant to establish righteousness despite any wickedness within the community itself as well as in the outside world (John 16:7-20). Solidarity within the Christian communities and unity within the world in accordance with God’s will can only be brought about by affirming Jesus’ divinity and laboring for the believing community in light of logos theology rather than logos philosophy. 

Christology and Discipleship in The Gospel of Mary

Christology in the Gospel of Mary uses more gender-neutral, language, with special reference to “The Good.” It affirms that all God’s creation is good for all humankind in the sight of God (3:1-7), whereas the system of patriarchal superiority and domination degrades the divinity of the Good (10:7-11: 6:1-7:5) as Mary taught in her Gospel in public arenas. The teaching about the Good in the Gospel of Mary unravels the male followers’ conceptualized superiority and domination, which have caused inequality, jealousy, and all kinds of sinful actions in the community. Mary features Jesus’ human and divine natures but her Christological distinctiveness draws special attention to her utilization of Jesus’ genderless figure.  The Gospel of Mary characterized Jesus using collective figures such as, the child of humanity, the perfect human, Savior, and the Blessed One.[12] For Mary, Jesus is revealed to be the reality in which all are formed and interconnected and even ended (2:22-25). In addition, Mary’s authentication of human beings (5:1-6:4) suggests that Jesus’ followers are to share his attributes by having the same mind of the Good and by enduring all circumstances with joy bestowed through the gospel. For instance, Jesus statement “Peace be with you … Acquire my peace within yourselves” (4:1-10) characterizes discipleship as an individual’s activity anointed by Jesus. Mary thus plays the role of an intercessor through whom disciples gain access to certain discipleship qualities like peace from within. In fact, Mary transformed the lives of Jesus’ disciples and established a new pattern of discipleship without any gender preference. This genderless discipleship repels against the gender injustice, discrimination, and inequality of the first century believers’ communities. Indeed, Mary’s idea of equality is related to the fundamental norm of Christian discipleship. This gospel mission is the task to which all are called, she argues, regardless of gender differences.

The characteristics of discipleship in the Gospel of Mary summons disciples to be true to their spiritual nature and seek to imitate the lifestyles found in the Good. It is the life that renounces all practices of violence in the course of spiritual development to attain freedom, rest, and eternity in each disciple.[13] The path of discipleship is beyond any gender hierarchy or androcentric politics, since the Savior’s mission transcends agency according to the will of God, not on the basis of gender (17, 10-19, 5). Essentially, the notion of discipleship is that the Good Lord himself has commissioned his disciples to go out and preach the gospel of the kingdom.[14] By contrast, in Mark and John the spiritual being (10, 10-23ff) is the main agent for gaining access to the divine spirit by visions; the divine reveals himself to human beings instead of through humanistic spirits as in Mark and John.  This Christology denotes that Jesus’ personality and person are connected to the mind of God, so that one might understand Jesus as the revealed divine spirit. In sum, discipleship is a matter of a disciple’s spiritual access to divine knowledge, truth, and will in both individual and communal life. Thus, one’s discipleship is to generate Christological activities in one’s life with the help of God’s divine will and divine rule in the Gospel of Mark, with the help of the divine spirit in the Gospel of John, and with the help of the same mind of the Lord in the Gospel of Mary.

Theological and Ethical Reflections in the Context of Burma

International media has recently brought to light the reality that, for the last six decades, Christians in Burma have suffered because of their beliefs and faith activities without any representation under Bama military rule. The Christian population in the country has been estimated to be around 6% of the total population of around sixty million, but a religious Burmanization, a Burmese form of nationalism, has been instituted exclusively in the country.  Buddhism has been characterized as fanatic and activist in the course of the formation of this homogenous national ideology. This religious-nationalistic phenomenon has become a threat to non-Buddhist others, especially Christians and Islamic devotees. This Bama-national ideology seeks domination over other ethnic/religious groups. In fact, the use of military might against non-Bama and non-Buddhist religious groups has been the root cause of political disruption in the country. On the other hand, militarism and its successive campaigns have played a major role in giving Bama supremacy in the legal system and in politics in the union.

A current democratic transition has created a political culture in which the ruling National League for Democracy (NLd) regime has tried to legalize the same Bama nationalism with the help of union military power. In this process, Christianity has been singled out as a subordinate religion. Targeted as a foreign product, Christianity is labeled as inferior to Buddhism in the country. Christianity is accused and degraded, as non-local, and as a religion for a minority not because of its beliefs and activities of faith, but because its members are less represented. The appearance of Christianity in the country is labelled strange by the Buddhists on account of its somatic image. For them, the presence of Christianity intimidates local Burmans. In this context, Christian gatherings and faith-based activities are targets for all sorts of persecution.

These Christological presentations from Mark, John, and Mary are made relevant to the needs in the Burman contexts, respectively depicting God’s salvific plan for the ransom of all from their sins. This ransom offers a new pattern of life in the church and society of Burma through present Christian suffering. Christians in Burma are challenged to define the salving activity in the life of Jesus’ disciples and to identify all sorts of injustice perpetrated by any people group. Christology undergirds Christian discipleship in all kind of circumstances. Christian discipleship provides a vital, driving force in one’s struggle for a reform within one’s individual life and in the community as a whole. Moreover, Christological principles such as just rule portrayed in Mark, the logos principle, and the concept of genderless polarity highlight the call of discipleship to create a new environment without victimization in Burma as well.

Conclusion

Christian discipleship affirms that God’s gift of salvation is accessible regardless of one’s circumstances or being yoked by unjust systems. In theological thinking, God is the initiator of God’s salvific mission, which provides assurance in spirit and life. The inner relationship between discipleship and Christological beliefs enabled early Christian communities to find peace of mind, spiritual power, the love of truth, and hatred of wicked systems despite their undergoing suffering, persecution, and hardship. Indeed, one’s discipleship means to believe in Jesus and his Christological office and to exercise Christian stewardship. It also means standing against political injustice due to the exercise of dominant systems, such as that in the Roman world. Discipleship thus plays a transformative role in realizing God’s mission. However, this does not mean rebellious actions and reactions against the powerful, since discipleship is not manufactured out of the enterprise of prejudice and hateful sentiments. Christian discipleship codifies collective stewardship and courageous initiatives to transform a communal circle by casting out all evil spirits, cowardice, and irresponsible attitudes. Christological discipleship means guarding the truth of salvation by means of the activities of peace and of the spirit of God within oneself and one’s community as a whole. Indeed, Jesus’ earliest disciples comprised various groups of peoples such as the multitude (3:1-8), the unidentified (2:15-16), the apostles, and women (3:32-35; 10:29-30). This rightly reminds us that the messianic community did not conform to the social norms of the time. This discipleship community became a force transcending all kinds of barriers in their everyday life while ministering for the salvific mission. In the same way, Christology can empower disciples to redefine good stewardship for the custody of salvific truth, peace, and justice, regardless of the political victimization presently facing the Christian minority in Burma.

 

Shawnghtoi Lahpai

PhD Student, New Testament Studies, Southern Methodist University

 

[1] See further references in David B. Capes, “Christology” in Oxford Bibliographies Online.

[2] See Marinus de Jonge, Christology in Context: The Earliest Christian Response to Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1988).

[3] See Kathleen Elizabeth Mills, The Kinship of Jesus: Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016).

[4] Stephen D. Moore, “Revealing the New Testament,” Text Book, Drew University, New Jersey, 71.

[5] Moore, “Revealing the New Testament,” 57.

[6] Moore, “Revealing the New Testament,” 237.

[7] Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, “The Letters of Paul,” (Lecture, Drew University, New Jersey, March 4, 2014).

[8] The Harper Collins, Study Bible: Including Apocryphal Deuterocanonical Books (SanFransisco: HarperOne, 2009), 1815.

[9] Johnson-DeBaufre, “The Logos Dwells Among Us,” (Lecture, Drew University, New Jersey, March 25, 2014.

[10] Johnson-DeBaufre, “The Logos Dwells Among Us,” March 25, 2014.

[11] Johnson-DeBaufre “The Logos Dwells Among Us,” March 25, 2014.

[12] Marvin Meyer and James Robinson, eds. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009), 738-739.

[13] Meyer and Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 738-739.

[14] Ibid., 737.



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