Posted by: Titus Presler | August 18, 2010

Church’s unity and mission yoked in Aug. 22 collect for Proper 16

The Episcopal Church collect for this coming Sunday, August 22 (Proper 16), is significant for the mission of the church:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The relationship between unity and mission is a perennial matter of discussion in circles of theology and church politics, especially currently in the discord being experienced by a number of global Christian communions as they struggle with sexuality and other issues.

Faithfulness to the unity of the church as the body of Christ is the fundamental commitment of some, with disunity regarded as a fatal fracturing of the company of believers, those for whom Jesus prayed “that they may be one.”  Others see faithfulness to God’s mission as the preeminent commitment that should engage Christians, because the church was brought into being for the sake of fulfilling God’s mission.

This Sunday’s collect brings unity and mission into the same breath of prayer, lifting both up as vital.  Unity is regarded as the work of the Holy Spirit, who gathers the people of the church together.  At the same time, the collect makes it clear that unity is not an end in itself.  Unity is important for the sake of mission, namely, that the church “may show forth your power among all peoples.”  On this reading, the church’s unity is penultimate to the ultimacy of the God’s mission in the world, which the church is called to fulfill.

The collect also makes it clear that the showing forth of God’s power is intended to be a universal manifestation – “among all peoples.”  That is, the church’s calling is to all peoples – not only to some peoples, not only those of a certain cultural heritage, but to all peoples in all the world.  The church’s mission is global in scope.  Recognizing this does not, by the way, entail any particular view of the validity of other religious paths.  Regardless of one’s view on that question, the Christian is called to show forth God’s power.

“This dog’ll hunt” – that is, this collect can preach.  In a community experiencing conflict, the preacher can emphasize that unity is not just a matter of “people getting along” for the sake of getting along.  Rather, disunity impairs the church’s ability to show forth God’s power, and unity strengthens that ability to witness.  In a community enjoying unity, one can rejoice in that harmony and emphasize that the unity must bear fruit in showing forth God’s power.  In a community vibrant with both unity and mission, one can explore the dynamics by which that fruitful symbiosis has come about.

In the macro-tensions of global communions today – Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic – many have experienced how the disunity of conflict impairs missional relationships among regional churches of these communions in diverse parts of the world.  Correlatively, the threat to mission posed by disunity has prompted many to cherish anew the continuing relationships in mission they are able to have.  (I explore this in greater detail both in my forthcoming book, Going Global with God: Reconciling Mission in a World of Difference, and in a January 2009 article in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, “The Impact of the Sexuality Controversy on Mission: The Case of the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion.”)

The Eucharistic hymn, “My God, thy table now is spread,” brings the themes of unity and mission together nicely in the sequence of stanza 3, by Philip Doddridge, and stanza 4, by Isaac Watts (321 in Hymnal 1982):

3. Drawn by thy quickening grace, O Lord,

in countless numbers let them come

and gather from their Father’s board

the Bread that lives beyond the tomb.

4. Nor let thy spreading Gospel rest

till through the world thy truth has run,

till with this Bread shall all be blessed

who see the light or feel the sun.

The Revised Common Lectionary Year C readings for this Sunday are not especially amenable to these themes, but if one were to decide to preach from the collect, there are plenty of scriptures that would amplify the themes, from Jesus’ saying, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to Paul’s reflections with the Thessalonians, Corinthians and Philippians, to John’s words to the seven churches in Revelation.

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