In the previous 20 conferences, we've been discussing Christian spirituality from the standpoint of the individual's relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit. The impression that might have emerged is that Christian spirituality is an individualistic pursuit, and that relationship with Christ is a "private affair." This session puts the individual relationship in its larger, communal perspective. Originally published as part of the "Growing in Christ" Internet retreat (Lent 2004), it reminds us that there is an encounter with Christ to be found in community, and an awakening to his presence there that is quite unique and essential. The emphasis on love we have taken all along leads to that realization, but here we spell it out more explicitly.
I’m sure you’ve heard people saying they believe in God or even Christ, but don’t have any use for Church or “organized religion. Recently, I even heard well-known talk show host Neil Boortz say that he considered himself a Christian, but didn’t belong to a Church because most Christians are hypocrites who only go to church to be seen so that others will think they’re religious people (which tells us a lot about why Boortz would go to Church, if he did, I think). Other reasons have to do with the belief that organized religion imposes lots of arbitrary rules and regulations which only stifle spirituality and faith in Christ. While this is certainly true in some cases, it misses a few basic points, which we shall get to shortly. There are other justifications given, one of the most common being some kind of wrong done by a pastor to the person or his/her family. The list goes on and on. Maybe you have a few of your own.
I don’t have the answer to all these questions and objections, of course, but I do find it helpful from time to time to try to get in touch with what Jesus’ own intent was regarding the Church. Did he intend there to be a Church, even “organized religion?” Reflection on this topic is especially important to me during those “low times” in Church involvement. After all, as we noted (in previous conferences), you can develop a personal relationship with Christ through your prayer and devotion. During the down times, it’s tempting to want to just pursue the other modes of union with Christ and let the Church go on without me. But one of the things that stops me from doing so is my understanding of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, and what this means in terms of growing in Christ.
The Church as Mystical Body of Christ
To get in touch with some of the primary roots of our theological understanding of the relationship between Christ and the Church, we recall the conversion of Paul the Apostle as described in Acts 9. You know the story, I’m sure, but I’ll recap briefly. Paul (then Saul) had been commissioned by the Jewish religious authorities to “clean up the synagogues,” expelling Christians from them and even arresting them, if necessary. While traveling to Damascus (site of a very active community), he was knocked down by a bright light from heaven. A voice spoke to him, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me,” was the reply.
You know the rest of the story. Saul went on to Damascus and presented himself to the Christian community, where an elder healed him from the blindness that had befallen him with the vision. He tried for awhile to make himself useful to the Church, but the response seemed to be, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” They took their sweet time about it, too, virtually ignoring him for about 12 years, after which he was called upon to lead missions to Gentile regions.
What did Paul do during those 12 years when he had no authorized ministry?
My guess is that he reflected and prayed and came to the theological convictions and depth of relationship with Christ that we find evidenced in his writings. Surely he was also a member of a Christian community and maybe even a leader, only locally, however. I’m sure he must have thought a great deal about Jesus’ question, “Why do you persecute me?” He must have wondered about how Jesus identified himself with the community of believers so intimately that to harass them was to harass Jesus.
Out of this experience, Paul came to understand what he later expressed in 1 Cor. 12 and other places as his theology of the Mystical Body. If persecuting the Church is persecuting Jesus, then the Church must be a kind of presence of Jesus. Paul understood this to mean that Jesus was continuing his work in human history through the ministry of the Church. Where there was once this single individual named Jesus of Nazareth going about doing good in the land of Israel, now there were these thousands of individuals acting as a kind of social organism, empowered by the same Spirit who had moved through Jesus. These people of faith and their communities were like a body--a Mystical Body, living by the Spirit of Christ, carrying out the mission to be reconciled with God that Christ had manifest.
Mystical Body and Holy Spirit
Paul’s theology of the Holy Spirit is related to this understanding of the Mystical Body. The Spirit is given as the Life of the Body; individuals in the Body come to live by the life of the Spirit and are blessed by the Spirit with gifts, or charisms, which are given to build up the Life of the Body. Some are blessed with gifts of healing, some with teaching, and there are lots of other gifts mentioned in Scripture--prophecy, administration, working miracles, tongues, interpreting tongues--and no doubt many gifts not mentioned in Scripture. Individuals in the body have a role to play in building up the Body, but none can say they are more important than others. If the Spirit gives a certain gift to one person but not to another, that is the Spirit’s business, and nothing the individual can take much credit or blame for. To be a member of the Body is blessing enough; to do one’s part in building up the Body is all that is expected.
Some of the implications of this perspective are very important. First and foremost is the emphasis on the fact that Jesus identifies his work on earth now with the work of the Christian community. This is not to deny that he is also working outside the Church, but it is to recognize that he most definitely intended to continue his work through the Church. To pursue a relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of the Church would seem, then, to be in contradiction to how Jesus himself wanted to continue his work. If one has been blessed with a faith relationship in Christ, then one is a kind of cell in His Mystical Body, and just as a cell in our body has life when it is connected to the body, so it is the same with us individual cells in the Body of Christ. Apart from the Body, we cut ourselves off from the flow of Spirit moving through the Body and animating its parts. We might be able to hang in there with our faith, but we won’t know the depth of Life that Christ intends for us to know. He wants us to know this Life as members of a Christian community. That’s all part of his plan for us.
Cells in the Body
Another implication is that as individual cells, we exist *for* the Body, and not for ourselves. The old self has died and the new one lives by the Life of the Body, which is the Spirit. We are given the grace of faith for our individual salvation and spiritual enrichment, that is true. But almost more importantly, we are given faith for the salvation and enrichment of others. Every part of the Body is needed; to withhold ourselves from the Body is to deprive other Christians of the gifts we have been blessed with to minister to them.
This last point is especially important, I think. As noted above, the Spirit blesses us with gifts for the sake of the Body. Everyone who has been baptized and who has faith has received Spiritual seeds of these gifts, or charisms. It is not a question, then, of if you have been gifted, but of learning what your gifts are, and of finding ways to use them. What you discover when you do so is that the exercising of your gift opens you to the flow of the Spirit, who blesses others through your gifts. Blessings given and received, a marvelous dynamic of grace! But apart from the Christian community, we do not come to awareness of our gifts--or not very deeply, I’m convinced--and we don’t experience the blessings that come when we share our gifts.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What is your experience of Christian community at this time in your life?
2. How do you experience Christ in Christian community?
3. What have been some of your highs and lows in Christian community through the years?
4. What was your family life like? Does it seem now like it was a kind of “ecclesia domestica?”
Phil, I like what you shared about community.
My experience of community basically affirms what you say. I was raised in one denomination, and I have shared in the worship of a number of churches during my adult life.
I think I would only like to add that my own feeling and experience is that the body of Christ is so much larger than one denomination. I think generally our concept of CHURCH may need expanding in the way some think of it. Like the universe seems to be continually expanding, God seems to be always creating. I feel a growing connection with all people of God and to those God is inviting to relationship. Thomas Merton was dialoguing with eastern religions near the end of his life. When Teilhard de Chardin says the Mass on the World, or he shares his thoughts in the trenches, he takes church to the people.
Working in hospice, I was working with meeting the needs of people from sixteen different religions at one time, as well as with those who had no organized religion, and some who believed in nothing.
I experience these people as the body of Christ.
When Mother Teresa picked up the dying off the streets, she held them as the body of Christ.
Like you, I do believe our gifts are for each other as well as ourselves, but I also hope our ideas keep expanding as Love that moves our ideas of CHURCH beyond buildings and denominations and joins hands with the outreach of God as he let His story be told in His new Covenant with us.
The earth is charged with the glory of God, and I find every day is one of praise and worship and celebration, certainly not just Sunday.
I also find, like the psalmists, each day holds a time for tears and cries for help, for prayers of forgiveness, for thanksgiving,and for intercession for all.
I love that community can extend to the internet and to those who seek to continue to learn, spoken or unspoken, expressed or unexpressed in a public forum, and that we can pray for each other as the body of Christ. You asked what our own experience of community has been. I just wanted to add my own to what you wrote.
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