[Episcopal News Service] Just more than four weeks ago, I found myself dressed in a tuxedo, standing in front of the church, and clutching the hand of my new wife. The two of us had just pledged our fidelity to one another and been pronounced husband and wife. A friend of ours led the congregation in prayer: “Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.”
When the prayers were concluded, we kneeled in front of the altar, and the priest draped his stole on our heads and prayed to God words that have been prayed countless times before: “Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts, a mantle about their shoulders, and a crown upon their foreheads.” And that was it. Our relationship had been celebrated and blessed before God and before our friends and family.
In the weeks since, as we’ve begun to learn the daily joy and challenge of living fully into the vows we made, I’ve returned often to those prayers at our wedding, and, in particular, their resonance with the question in the catechism in the prayer book, “What is the mission of the church?” The answer? “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 855)
The married relationship that my wife and I share is a relationship that is to be a sign to the world. In our life of loving and forgiving, the prayers in the marriage service make clear that we are to be witnesses to the truth that the brokenness and division that is characteristic of the world is not the final word. The unity of our relationship, and every other marriage relationship, is a testament to the hope-though not always the reality-that fractured relationship can be restored. (I interpret the current debate about same-sex marriages in the church to be, in large part, about whether that same hope can be found in such relationships.) Our marriage, then, is not simply about the love we have for one another or our desire to spend our lives together. Our marriage is part of our role in God’s reconciling mission. Marriage is missional.
In the current debate about mission in the church, however, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. “Mission” has become a buzzword in the church, often linked to conversations about budget, structure, and the future of the church. If we’re not spending money on it, the thinking seems to be, it can’t be mission. If it’s not something we’re doing — running a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, purchasing a mosquito net — it must not be missional. If it doesn’t fit into one of our checklists — the Five Marks of Mission or the eight Millennium Development Goals — then, surely, there is something imperfectly missional about it.
Yet the lesson my wedding has reminded me of is that while these tasks are missional, none are at the core of mission. The core of mission is God’s reconciling action that restores the broken relationships that have so marked and marred this world since the Fall. In Christ, we are reconciled to God and made ministers of that same reconciliation, as Paul tells us in II Corinthians. At the end, we learn in Revelation, we will all be united — “people from all tribes and peoples and languages” — praising God: relationships restored between one another and between God. My marriage — along with every other marriage in this world — is one very small part of God’s loving action toward the world and one very big part of how I respond to that love.
In my experience, it’s easy to neglect the relational aspect of mission. The focus can quickly move to having enough soup and away from the guests at the soup kitchen. All Christians are not called to work in the front-lines social justice ministry that is often what is meant when the word “mission” is invoked. Nor are all Christians called to married life; the church learns much about relationship and mission from its members who are not married. But everyone, married or not, is called to respond to God’s reconciling love and work towards “unity with God and each other” in their own lives.
The prayers in the marriage service are right. Unity can overcome estrangement. Forgiveness can heal guilt. Joy can conquer despair, in married life and otherwise. It is to nothing less than this — reconciled relationships in the body of Christ — which our daily relationships are to point.
— Jesse Zink is a deacon in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and author of Grace at the Garbage Dump: Making Sense of Mission in the Twenty-First Century. He will be ordained to the priesthood on June 28.