by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
The supreme image the Bible gives us for the life of heaven is that of a redeemed city. The conclusion to Scripture in the Book of Revelation offers us this vision: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, as a beautiful bride prepared to meet her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, and they will be his peoples” (Rev. 21:2-3).
I find this vision immensely compelling. Eternity is described not as a realm of disembodied spirits floating free like clouds across endless empty space. Rather, heaven is anticipated as a city where eternity touches down on earth. And cities are teeming with physical structures, high energy, and many peoples rubbing shoulders in day-to-day commerce of all kinds. The Book of Revelation promises a future like an urban cultural environment entirely governed by God’s rule. It is a beautiful vision that ought to inspire continual longing and hope.
As Christians await this final consummation, we anticipate it weekly in our Sunday liturgy. How so? "The Church is, or should be, never more intensely aware of the city than when at worship." This is a quotation from M. Francis Mannion, a Roman Catholic church leader and scholar of Christian liturgy. What on earth does he mean?
In an essay entitled “The Church and the City” from the year 2000, Mannion reminds us that throughout human history, healthy cities are unified around shared symbols, rituals, patterns, and vision. A vibrant city is not a mere amalgam of diverse people pressed together in a densely populated area. “The more a city at all levels has a well-defined ritual and symbol system, the more humane, noble, and beautiful it is. The great public rituals of a city are particularly important. Washington is never more Washington then when is inaugurates or buries a President. London is never more London than when its citizenry gathers for a great royal occasion.” Of course, we are witnessing this reality now with the solemn pageantry honoring the life and death of Queen Elizabeth II. The majestic ritual processions, ceremonies, and symbols around the royal funeral have shown the citizenry of London at her best.
If true of cities, this is even more true of congregations. Mannion’s point is that “if the features of the earthly city are most fully manifested in its civic rituals and symbols, the fullest expression of the holy and eternal city is found in the liturgy [of the church]. The task of the liturgy is to symbolize and sacramentalize the liturgy of the heavenly city in the midst of the earthly city. Throughout its liturgical life, the Church becomes a living icon of Heaven, an arena in which the drama of the holy city is enacted, an anticipation of the redeemed life of the New Jerusalem.”
Perhaps to say it more simply: our worship life is the “fount” of our exposure to the divine announcement of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the basis for our community formation as people called out for the sake of others. Our Anglican liturgy is the foundation of our common life as Christians wherein we gather week to week, hear the story of salvation, learn the language of our faith, appropriate its symbols, heroes, and history are our own, and find in them our communion with God, with one another, and our common cause going into the world. As such, it is a mistake to regard each Sunday worship service as a discreet self-contained moment in time. For over time, those who prioritize worship as the center of each week are formed as citizens of heaven equipped to go forth into our city as bearers of God’s kingdom.
Locally, worship forms us to be Christ-bearers for the sake of our city.
There is a saying I often share: “the end of worship is the end of worship.” This is expressed in various ways at the conclusion of each liturgical service at SJD: “Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” What are we saying at the end of worship? We are expressing the profound truth that those who love the Lord seek to participate in his ongoing mission to bless and redeem the world. And that mission continues “out there.” The end or aim of our praise of Jesus Christ is to go forth for him into all the various spheres of public life around us in this important city, bearing his name, sharing his message, and embodying his love for the sake of others.
I am not sure most Episcopalians make a straight-line connection between our worship life and mission. But it is worth contemplating that we may not fulfill our missional calling to be a light to the City of Houston if we do not ground that calling to our Sunday-to-Sunday worship life as those who trust the promise of the heavenly city to come.
You can read Mannion’s essay here.
"The mission of the church is to reverse Babel, to give a new voice and understanding to communities struggling to achieve meaning… The mission of the church is to speak the language of Pentecost, to introduce this voice into the city of Babel, to find and engage those voices in Babel that seek out and give expression to truth."
—M. Francis Mannion in “The Church and the City,” First Things, February 2000 issue
For several years I have had friends recommend to me the multi-season series, The Chosen, about the life of Jesus. Perhaps strangely, I was ambivalent about watching the show because in the past I have been critical of aspects of cinematic or television depictions of the gospel. However, this summer Susalee and I finally got around to watching Seasons One and Two (of a planned seven seasons) and found the show at once faithful, creative, as well as enjoyable to watch. I give kudos to the creators of the series and particularly to actor Jonathan Roumie who plays Jesus. I believe it is worth your time and consideration and would be interested to hear your impressions. We watched The Chosen on Amazon Prime Video.