Part 10 of series: Missional and Formational?
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In my last two posts, I showed how missional and formational aspects of discipleship are intertwined in John 15. When we remain in the vine, we bear fruit for the kingdom. The remaining-formational reality is inseparable from the fruitful-missional reality.
We see a similar pattern in two other chapters in the Gospel of John. In chapter 17, Jesus prays his so-called “High Priestly Prayer.” Here he speaks clearly of the missional calling of his followers: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18). Given that the word “missional” means, at core, “having been sent,” there isn’t a more clearcut missional text in all of Scripture. Even Jesus was sent by the Father, so we have been sent by Jesus to continue his work, his mission.
Two verses later, Jesus prays concerning what we might call the formation of his followers:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (17:20-23)
Notice what’s involved in the formation that will enable us to fulfill the purpose of our sending. First, we need to be one. We need to be unified to an extraordinary extent: “completely one” even as Jesus is one with the Father. That’s some serious unity! Moreover, we will be able to engage in our mission when we are in the Father and the Son, and when we have their glory.
Here we see, once again, the inescapably relational dimension of our formation as disciples. We are not formed by God as a sculptor forms a statue. Rather, our formation is more like a fetus within a mother. Our formation is essentially relational. But, unlike a fetus, we never outgrow our need to be connected to God for our growth and strength.
It’s also important to point out that the formation envisioned in John 17 is not so much individual as corporate. We who are disciples of Jesus are formed together into a community of unity and witness. We fulfill our mission together. Usually, the language of formation relates to individual Christians and our growth in Christ. There’s nothing wrong with this idea or this way of speaking. But the formation that matters for mission isn’t just individual. It includes God’s people together.
This, it seems to me, is something we must take seriously in our effort to become missional Christians. Too often, we in church leadership have focused so much on the growth of individual Christians that we have neglected the growth of the church as the body of Christ. Both kinds of spiritual growth are essential if the church is to be the missional community God has designed it to be.
John 20 records some post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. In one of these accounts we read:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21-22)
Here, once again, is the basic missional charge, the sending of the disciples by Jesus, the sent one. Yet notice that Jesus did not send his followers out unequipped for this mission. He breathed on them, giving the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit who forms and shapes us as individuals and believers. The Spirit at work in us produces the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). The Spirit at work through us produces the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12-14). The Spirit alive in us forms us to be more like Christ in our personal lives and in our communities.
The closing chapters of John underscore the essential relationship between missional and formational. In particular, the sayings of Jesus found her remind us of the relational reality of formation: we are formed in relationship with God and in relationship with each other. As we are formed together into a unified community, empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to fulfill the mission into which Jesus has sent us, even as he was sent by his Father.