I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of knowing what you should have said — only when the opportunity to say it has long past. It seems to happen to me frequently — and perhaps more often as I get older. On this occasion it was during lunch. My friend and I were talking about the need (as I saw it) for churches to be missional, and what that might mean. Then, my friend waved his fork in my general direction and said, “Of course, you need to remember that some of us are more liturgical than missional.” I instinctively felt there was something wrong with that way of putting things. But on the spur of the moment I couldn’t put my finger on it, and the conversation moved on to other things. My friend paid for lunch, and we went our separate ways.
That evening, his comment came back to me: “More liturgical than missional.” I’d heard that kind of comment before, but the distinction had never been put quite so baldly. Why did it bother me so much? The answer came that Sunday, during Eucharistic Prayer #4 in the Book of Alternative Services, sometimes called the “Star Wars” prayer because of its reference to “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” Personally I love it, perhaps because it puts the Christian story in such a vast and beautiful context: it is (literally) awesome.
Then comes the reminder of what went wrong in our universe: “We turn against you, and betray your trust, and we turn against one another.” It is our failure to love God and neighbour. And then the comforting words, “Again and again you call us to return.” Thank God, God does not give up on us. “Through the prophets and sages you reveal your righteous law.” God’s rescue began almost as soon as sin entered our world. But then, “In the fullness of time you sent your Son, born of a woman, to be our Saviour.” Jesus, the climax of God’s mission to our world.
What was that word? “Mission!” The fancy term theologians use for it is the missio dei — the mission of God to redeem our sinful and hurting world. And there it was at the heart of the Eucharist!
I quickly flipped through the other prayers of consecration. There it was again:
When we turned away from you in sin, you did not cease to care for us, but opened a path of salvation for all people. (#1)
Jesus . . . lived and died as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all (#2)
[I]n these last days you sent [Jesus your Son] to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Saviour and redeemer of the world (#3)
In Jesus, your Son, you bring healing to our world and gather us into one great family. (#5)
In your mercy you came to our help, so that in seeking you we might find you. Again and again you called us into covenant with you . . . (#6)
At the heart of every one of the prayers of consecration is the same simple message, though phrased in different ways: God in love reaches out to a sinful and hurting world, and as the culmination of that reaching out sends Jesus into the world to redeem humankind. The verbs are revealing: send, give up, open, bring, come, call, reconcile. They are words of movement, change and hope —words of mission.
The Christian God, these prayers remind us, is a missionary. They never tire of telling the story of what this missionary God has done in sending Jesus. Today’s emphasis on “being missional” is not just the latest flavor of the religious month. It is reminder of that mission which begins in the heart of God and which swoops down to redeem a rebellious world. And the Eucharistic liturgy, it seems, is first and foremost a celebration of mission. That’s why we can’t separate the two quite as easily as my friend wished.
But then a second thing hit me: the Church where we celebrate the mission of God in the Eucharist would not exist, were it not for that mission. The story of God’s mission, which we retell at every Eucharist, is not the story of some far-off reality or an alien people; neither is it an abstract theory for theologians to argue over. The story of God’s mission is the story of every church, however remote or ageing or small, where the celebration takes place. The only reason any church exists is because it is the fruit of God’s reaching out in Jesus Christ. This is why the prayers are full of “we,” “us” and “our.” If there had been no missio dei, there would be no Church. If there were no missionary God, there would be no Eucharist. The very word Eucharist — thanksgiving — is precisely because God has reached out to save us. This is the story — the only story — which constitutes the Church and its worship. It is most truly, for the Church, “the greatest story ever told.” This is why it comes at the climax of Christianity’s most distinctive act of worship.
This means that liturgy is in one way centripetal: it is the sacrament which speaks of God’s mission to “to gather us into one great family” at the cross and at the table. God reaches out his hands to us in mission: we are drawn to respond in repentance, faith and thanksgiving.
But this is not the end. Liturgy is also centrifugal. As the Eucharist came to an end, it became clear. We say together:
Gracious God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. May we, who share his body, live his risen life; we, who drink his cup, bring life to others; we, whom the Spirit lights, give light to the world.
If worshippers are mysteriously united with Jesus in the bread and wine, there are practical consequences to that unity. If we are one with Christ, we are one with him in his work in the world. And what is that work? To “live his risen life,” “to bring life to others,” and to “give light to the world”: not a bad summary of Christ’s missionary work —which he now shares with those who have eaten and drunk at his table.
The Eucharist is not an escape from the wicked world. It is a drawing apart from the world for a time, in order to be sacramentally reminded that “God so loved the world”— and then sent us out to serve God there.
The downward swoop of God’s grace catches us up into its onward flow. John Stott has said: “People need two conversions: one from the world to Christ, and the other with Christ into the world.” And at the hinge between those two movements stands the Eucharist, to which we are drawn by the mission of God, and from which we are sent for the mission of God.
Liturgy without mission is like the Dead Sea. Rivers run into it, but there is no outlet. No life can survive in it. Mission without liturgy is like a flash flood, powerful but quickly over, not fed by permanent springs — and equally unable to sustain life.
Liturgy and mission together, however, are symbiotic, as God intended, life-giving first to the people of God, and then through them in the power of the Spirit to the world.
I think I need to call my friend and schedule another lunch. This time it will be my turn to pay.