We often focus so much on praying for mission that we miss the option of giving thanks for mission. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church offers precisely that opportunity in the omnibus section, “Thanksgivings,” that begins on p. 836. The third and relatively little used of those thanksgivings, “For the Mission of the Church” is found on p. 838:
Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself: We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the Gospel to all nations. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your servants call upon your Name; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever. Amen.
This thanksgiving has many of notable features. Fair warning: what follows is a close reading, really an exegesis –
– Sentness, the reality at the heart of mission – the word being derived from the Latin verb, mittere, meaning “to send” – is cited both in the recognition of how God sent Jesus and then in how that sending is replicated in the people sent to the nations.
– Reconciliation is highlighted as the comprehensive content of what Jesus was sent to do, and reconciliation is similarly center-stage in contemporary missiology’s reflection on the content of mission. The most explicit biblical text is 2 Corinthians 5.18-19: “All this [the re-creation of humanity] is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
– Praise and blessing for those sent to preach to the nations is a welcome note in an era when such religious errands, and certainly the term “missionary,” evoke mixed responses from many, which makes it just as well that “missionary” is not used in the prayer. The prayer is very clear that it is as a result of missional proclamation that there are such phenomena today as world Christianity, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the Roman Catholic Church, and all the communions, each with their global extension. It is ironic that many in the churches rejoice in this fruit of mission but disparage the emissaries, the sent ones, whose work brought it into being.
– The role of the Holy Spirit is highlighted in the manner of how people are sent out: they are sent “in the power of the Spirit.” This echoes the central role of the Holy Spirit in many missional sendings in scripture: virtually all the prophets; Jesus’ testing in the desert and then the start of his Galilean ministry (Luke 4.14); his post–resurrection advice to the disciples to stay in the city, before beginning the mission, until they would be clothed with power from on high; the in-filling with the Spirit at Pentecost; Philip’s appearance to the Ethiopian, and so on.
– The prayer is fully Trinitarian, reminding us that in classical theology before the modern era “mission” referred primarily to the sending within the life of the Trinity.
– Missioners’ primary task is stated as preaching the gospel to all nations, which is certainly the first apostolic task, both historically and theologically. Returning to the prayer’s opening, the purpose of such proclamation can legitimately be seen as reconciliation – with both God and neighbor. Both then and now such preaching and such reconciliation was understood holistically as calling for work in both word and deed.
– The scope of the preaching, to “all nations,” is pan-ethnic and global, reflecting both the frequent Old Testament references to “all nations,” especially in the Psalms, and certainly the scope of gospel preaching in the New Testament. Standing behind the phrase in the koiné Greek of the New Testament is panta ta ethne, all peoples or all nations, a phrase with also a specific reference to Gentiles, the peoples beyond God’s covenant with Abraham, to whom an invitation is extended to become part of God’s covenant people, now defined as the new covenant forged in Christ.
– Correlatively, the prayer’s actual thanksgiving is for the Christian community that has grown up everywhere, and the phrase “in all parts of the earth” echoes the “all” of the prayer’s foundation. Such community is cited as the fruit of prayer as well as labor, highlighting the central role of prayer in mission.
– “Community of love” is a striking characterization of the church globally, and it does reflect substantial reality as well as aspiration. Honest with ourselves, we acknowledge as well that many newly established Christian communities have also lived in unedifying rivalry with other Christian communities and with people outside the church.
– The closing phrase, “and that in every place your servants call upon your Name,” is certainly biblical, but it seems a bit weak as a culmination. The multiplication of new Christian communities through their own outreach might have been a good alternative. Even better would be for the prayer to close with the stress on reconciliation with which it opened, something along the lines of: “and that in every place your people share in your mission of restoring all people to unity with yourself and one another in Christ; for the kingdom . . .” etc. This would pick up the definition of mission found in the Catechism at p. 855: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” With such a revision the entire prayer would read as follows:
Almighty God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to yourself: We praise and bless you for those whom you have sent in the power of the Spirit to preach the Gospel to all nations. We thank you that in all parts of the earth a community of love has been gathered together by their prayers and labors, and that in every place your people share in your mission of restoring all people to unity with yourself and one another in Christ; for the kingdom and the power and the glory are yours for ever. Amen.
(For reference, some of the more prominent BCP prayers for mission, in the sense of intercession, are found at the close of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, among the Various Occasions (No. 16 on p. 257), and among the miscellaneous Prayers and Thanksgiving (No. 8 on p. 816).)