Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 25, 2004 – Blessed Sacrament
I teach courses on the Church at Catholic University, the discipline called “ecclesiology.” I’ve been teaching courses on the subject for, God help me, for thirty-seven years, since 1967. Since I started down that road, I have had a main concern: to try to bring students, and other people to whom I have spoken, an appreciation of the full spiritual reality of the Church. At the same time, and only apparently in contrast, I have tried to bring theologians to a greater appreciation of the human character of the Church. Let me try to illustrate with this morning’s second reading.
It gives us the larger part of the twelfth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, a letter written by St. Paul around the year 55, so about twenty-five years after the death and resurrection of Christ. He wrote the letter to a community of believers he had evangelized a year or two earlier, and in response to a letter from them in which they had informed him of certain problems and questions that were troubling them. From Paul’s epistle we learn that there were a good number of these problems: divisions within the Corinthian Church; problems of sexual morality; bringing their squabbles to civil court; neglect of the poor among them; charismatic chaos–competition over whose spiritual gifts were superior–; denials of the resurrection of the body; etc. This was no ideal community, and Paul did not hesitate to rebuke and correct them.
It helps in reading the Epistle, as also in listening to it, to imagine the group to which Paul was writing. He expected his letter to be read out at one of their assemblies; these were usually held in someone’s house. How many Christians were there in Corinth in the year 55? I’d be surprised if there were many more than 50. Fifty–think of that! What is that, one-half, one-third, of the number of us here at this Mass? And it was to this small group of people that Paul wrote this lengthy letter. This is how concrete the Church was that he was addressing and instructing, and about whom he was saying the extraordinary things that he says.
Think of this now as you hear him speak of the Church as the Body of Christ. “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. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” This is a call to remember unity, for a group of people who were divided. They have different backgrounds–Jew or Greek–; different conditions–slaves or free–; but something united them, united them to Christ, so that they were his body–baptism and the eucharist and the one Spirit of both of these sacraments. They’re not just a social body, then, they’re Christ’s body, and if they would remember that, then they wouldn’t be in spiritual competition with each other but would recognize that, as in a physical body, the health of the whole requires that the various organs perform their distinct functions, the health of one being the health of all, the suffering of one the suffering of all.
This is language which would have a great future in the coming centuries of the Church’s life, and there would develop a deep and rich theology of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. But I wonder how many Christians think of this image of the Church primarily as something that applies to something big and grand: THE CHURCH in capital letters–almost as if it were something apart from them, and that it’s about this something else that all that fancy language about the body of Christ applies. If you’re tempted to think that, consider again this chapter of this letter. Paul didn’t write it because he knew it was going to become part of something called the “New Testament;” he didn’t write it as a theological treatise. He wrote it to a community of fifty people, Jews and Greeks, slaves and freemen, newly converted to Christ, struggling to understand what this new thing was that they had embraced, what it meant for their general view of things, what it required of them in their daily lives.
Imagine it was a sermon rather than a letter, and you can see Paul standing up among them and pointing to them and saying: “You are Christ’s body,” you, the fifty of you in this place, you the ones with all the problems. You are Christ’s body, individually members of it, which means members of each other. Some of you were Jews, some of you were Gentiles; some of you are free, some of you are slaves; some of you are wealthy, some of you are poor; some of you are educated, some of you are illiterate. Well, then, what are you doing together? Why are you here in this place and time? Here is why: because you have been told about Jesus Christ, and come to believe what God did in and through him; because you were all baptized into Christ, you all drink of his Spirit at the eucharist; because, when you eat of the same bread, which is his Body, you yourselves, although many and diverse, you yourselves become, are, Christ’s body.
See how the splendid things said about the Church, about the Body and the Spirit, and all the other things in this and other epistles of St. Paul, see how all these profound things are true of that tiny assembly of people in Corinth in the year 55. If it hadn’t been for tiny communities like that, gathering for the next two thousand years, the same word about Christ would never have reached our ears and we would never have come to believe, and we would never have been baptized and been united in the eucharistic Body to become the Body of Christ ourselves. And today, in the year 2004, these things are true of that great big thing called THE CHURCH in capital letters, only if they are true of assemblies like this one, which gathers us, and are true of other gatherings also, many of them as tiny as the one in Corinth in the year 55, only if particular assemblies here, there, and everywhere gather because of Christ, in Christ, and for the sake of Christ. And because we recognize in each other the same God, the same Christ, the same Spirit, the same baptism, the same eucharist, we know ourselves to be one Body, Christ’s Body, the one Church, all those assemblies being members of the one Body, members of each other, sharing each other’s pains, bearing each other’s burdens, sharing each other’s joys. There is one big Church today only because there are all those little Churches today, including this one.
See how glorious all this is! And see how concrete it is, how down-to-earth–it applies to this assembly, to you and to me, to all of us together! And it is not glorious in spite of being so down-to earth, as if these glorious things could be said of the City of God only if it were placed above and beyond this grungy earth and scruffy assemblies like this one; it is glorious because these glorious things can be said about us. We are the Body of Christ.