St Paul: The Original Theology of the Body

Frank - crucifix

Frank - crucifix

Of all the books of Scripture and of all the writings of the early Church Fathers, it is St. Paul who first uses the concept of and writes about the “body of Christ” in those specific words. Although the various gospel narratives of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper recount Jesus’s declarations that “this is my body” and “this is my blood,” the gospels do not include the phrase “the body of Christ.” St. John, in the Last Supper Discourses, reports Jesus as saying several things about unity with Him and remaining in Him, but there is no mention of “the body of Christ”. John includes these passages:

“ . . . you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me.” (Jn 14:20)

“Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (Jn 14:23)

“I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (Jn 17:20, 21)

In the order in which they appear in Scripture, St. Paul’s use of “the body of Christ” or reference to the Church as the “body” of Christ appear in several Epistles:

“For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” (Rom 12:4)

“As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” (1 Cor 12:12)

“ . . . the church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22; also Col 1:24)

“He is the head of the body, the church.” (Col 1:18)

This “body of Christ” idea as it appears in St. Paul is not an easy concept to understand – how can my physical body be “in Christ” and all of our bodies be “in each other”? I can see two clouds flow together and you get one cloud. But two bodies? Or pour a glass of water into a glass of wine and you get one glass – a glass of water in wine – one glass of watered down wine. How can my body be in Christ’s body? How can I be “in” someone else’s body?

As is often the case, C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity has a way of explaining things that make them easily understandable:

“…let me make it quite clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean simply something mental or moral. When they speak of being ‘in Christ’ or of Christ being ‘in them’, this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts – that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body.”

Lewis has echoed how St. Paul tries to explain this to the early Christians: “Now the body is not a single part but many . . .Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:14,27). “Rather living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love.” (Eph 4:15,16). “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another.” (Rom 12:4,5)

In a long discussion in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul refers to many parts of one body – foot, hand, nose, ear, eye – and he says that each has its own particular, and necessary function. He then goes on to make his point that we are, each of us, an individual part of Christ’s body, but each of us has a particular, special, unique function, as do parts of a physical body (1 Cor 12:27-31).

Every student of English Literature is familiar with a work of John Donne’s –often given the title “For Whom The Bell tolls.” This piece is usually quoted beginning with the words “No man is an island” and ending with the words “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it told for the.” Although this is part of a meditation of Donne’s is clearly about the body of Christ, Donne’s introductory words about this “body” are usually omitted. These usually-omitted words help to explain how we can be “in” Christ, how we can be part of Christ’s body:

“The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and engrafted into that body, whereof I am a member. “ (Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions).

Donne’s notion of being “grafted into” the body of Christ conveys much more about being “in Christ” than the analogies of two clouds combining or two glasses of liquid poured together. A graft continues to grow, produces new life, and, eventually, can be the cause of the production of good fruit.

So how can we grow the body of Christ? What does St. Paul mean when, in Ephesians, he refers to us bringing about “the growth of the body”? Put another way, we cannot create anything and we cannot add anything to Christ. What can we do to grow Christ’s body that He cannot do?

Going back to the comparison with fingers, each finger is unique, no two fingerprints are the same, and each of us – although we are all made in the image and likeness of God –has been made unique by God. St. Paul says each of us should realize “that Jesus Christ is in you,” but he goes on, “unless you fail the test.” (2 Cor 13:5).

In telling us how to pass the test, St. Paul tells us how to grow the body of Christ. You fail the test by doing evil; you pass the test by doing what is right (2 Cor 13:5-7). And this brings us back to each of us as a unique creation of a loving God. In passing the test, in doing right, each of us can grow the body of Christ. And this growth which each of us can bring into being cannot be provided by anyone else, as discussed in a previous article of mine:

“In making you special and unique, God has chosen you to reveal Him to others you encounter – as His instrument, as His messenger to shine His light, to show His life, to reveal Him to others, and to illuminate the way to Him. The personal revelation of God that only you can provide does not happen simply by God willing it so. This cannot occur unless you, made in His likeness with a free will, choose to accept the mission.” (Each Person Is A Divine Revelation, Catholic Lane, Nov. 11, 2014).

Near the end of his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis addresses the question of how it is that each of us, in Christ, is still unique and un-usual:

“…if Christ is one, and if He is thus to be ‘in’ us all, shall we not be exactly the same? It certainly sound like it; but in fact it is not so. . . The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.”

Out of respect for the divinely-inspired word of God, it is altogether fitting that St. Paul, the Apostle responsible for the “theology of the body,” have the last word on the body of Christ, “ . . .it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.” (Col 1:27,28).

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