Ite, Missa Est

Missional ecclesiology is all the rage these days, but for many being “missional” means downplaying or even eliminating concern for the “internal” life of the church, particularly its liturgical life. Missional and liturgical, mission and communio, are locked in zero-sum combat.

That cannot be right. The liturgy is a means of communion with God, the Triune God whose being is in procession and whose action in the world is missio. We cannot have deep communion with this God without being sent.

That is a shorthand summary of what Eugene Schlesinger develops in his recent Missa Est!, a “missional liturgical ecclesiology.” Schlesinger is fighting on two fronts: Against “static” ecclesiology that defines “what the church is, apart from its mission in the world”; and against any notion that emphasizing “the church’s mission to the world [is] to the detriment of its visible, institutional, sacramental reality, such that there is no ecclesial stability that would allow one to identify where the church actually is” (xvi).

The book is mostly a corrective to what he describes as “radical” missional ecclesiology, not by minimizing mission but by demonstrating that mission is inherent in the church’s liturgy and that the church cannot be rightly missional unless it is a liturgical communion.

Drawing on von Balthasar and Lonergan among others, he first works out a Trinitarian soteriology, in which “the paschal mystery of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and bestowal of the Holy Spirit is an ad extra enactment of God’s own eternal life.” Salvation involves incorporation into the Son and so “taking the Son’s place in the divine life” (xxvi).

Within the Trinitarian frame, he examines the work of the liturgy, organized around the Augustinian notion that sacrifice is any act done for the sake of union with God. By this definition, then, “‘Sacrifice’ names the return of humanity to God through the humanity of Christ,” which “takes the form of both liturgy and mission. The body offered at the altar is offered to the Father and to the faithful for the world, and the body that the church is, because it shares in Christ’s movement to the Father, is bound for both the Father and the world” (xxvii).

From an examination of different forms of the eucharistic prayer, he argues that “the church receives the sacramental body and blood of Christ by means of the eucharistic sacrifice.” Receiving Christ, the church simultaneously receives herself anew: “The reception-as-oblation of this gift can only be enacted extra-liturgically in the movement of mission.” There is no gap between liturgy and mission, no first and second stage; rather, mission “is itself part of the liturgy’s immanent intelligibility” (xxvii).

As he puts it several times, we receive what we receive in order to give: “What we receive in the Eucharist, we receive by giving it away”—precisely because we receive Christ in His sacrificial giving-away.

Schlesinger’s is a rich book, and I found several of his observations especially cogent and helpful. He starts his discussion of the church-world relation by emphasizing the obvious point that “the church exists as a part of the world” (32–33). Obvious, but neglected, as he points out.

His formulation nicely captures the perichoretic relation of church and world: “The church is part of the world, and is called upon to affect the world, even as it is itself affected by the world. . . . The church receives the gospel from God, and brings that gospel to the world, from which it discerns the signs of the times, which are to be interpreted in the gospel’s light, and the church discerns the work of God beyond its own boundaries, and thus comes to be more truly itself. At the same time, the world is the sphere of God’s activity, which means that the world affects the church, which in turn, offers the gospel whereby God fulfills, perfects, and exceeds human project. Here there is a constant movement running in both directions” (45–46).

At several critical points, Nathan Kerr serves as interlocutor and foil. Kerr offers a radical apocalyptic ecclesiology that destabilizes all ecclesial settling-in. Schlesinger cites Kerr’s critique of the “political ontologization of the church” that is often accompanied by an “instrumentalization of worship.” The church can become so concerned for her own identity over-against the world that “its engagement with the world cannot help but be conceived in a subsidiary and conjunctive way.” That concentric ecclesiology “instrumentalizes doxology” and this leads “to a direct correlation of the work of the Spirit with the Church’s practices of worship, whose primary function is to make of the Christian community a ‘habitable world’” (Kerr, quoted 160; the final phrase is from Robert Jenson).

Schlesinger shares this worry about instrumentalization of mission, since it reintroduces a gap between liturgy and mission that his entire book attempts to refute. In a long footnote (162) he asks whether Jamie Smith’s work on liturgy as formation is guilty of this instrumentalization.

He concludes that it does not: “Insofar as worship involves cleaving to God, then the formational aspect of it is perfectly goo,d and indeed part of the point. . . . Worship does form. But it goes beyond formation, because it brings us into contact with the paschal mystery in such a way that what occurs in worship goes beyond what we can account for merely in terms of cultivating ethics.” For this reason, he prefers the language of “sacrifice” to “formation.”

All of this is a salutary reminder that God is not an instrument of our happiness or self-realization. Yet, I think the worry about instrumentalization may in fact reflect the very attitudes Schlesinger rejects: After all, if the liturgy is communion with this God, then the formation that takes place is necessarily a formation in mission.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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