Today’s homily by Prior Joel.
Nehemiah 8:2–4a, 5–6, 8–10
1 Corinthians 12:12–30
Luke 1:1–4; 4:14–21
Every image or symbol used to unpack a spiritual reality deserves our careful attention. Within that image there is a truth that cries out for our understanding. We are used to this with the parables of Jesus. Today it is Paul who offers us the clear metaphor of the human body. Our body is not something we can easily escape or set aside. Today Paul puts it forward as an image for our understanding the community. He unpacks for us the meaning of the human body in a way that invites us to move through and beyond our body to a related body, namely the community in Christ. Paul wants to have the Corinthian community understand itself better and so he chooses the physical body that each member of that community is aware of to stretch their understanding of life together in Christ. Paul links the human body to the body of the community to the Christ-Body. It is to the body that is Christ that the human body and its functioning points. We are meant to look beyond the material functioning of our human body to the profound working of the Body that is Christ himself and of which each of us is a member.
Paul draws out three aspects of the body that characterize the Christian community. The first aspect is that of unity. There is only one body not many bodies. The unity in the body of the community is based on baptism. We were all baptized into one body in the Spirit. It is the Spirit and baptism that all share and hence form a single body. This implies that distinctions that seem clearly visible before baptism are transformed into a common life through baptism. Paul chooses ethnic and religious distinctions like Jew and Greek to make his point; he also makes the point that social categories and classes like free and slave cannot be invoked for identity. While these categories may work in the society as a whole, they are not a defining factor in the Body into which members have been baptized. Baptism profoundly alters social categories as forms of distinction. Baptized Christians of all walks of life have a common basis in the one Body into which they have been incorporated. Each of us has something in common with a fellow Christian. Baptism creates a body, a community in Christ himself. Christ and the Spirit are the common denominator. All Christians belong to one another through the common Body of Christ in which all are members. This is the basis for the dialogue called ecumenism. It is not strangers somehow sheepishly talking with one another, rather it is members of one body through baptism seeking ways to acknowledge the gift that each member brings to the one body.
This leads to Paul’s second point. Just as the human body has diverse members which make up the body, so too does the community of the Body of Christ. There is a diversity among the members that is inherent in belonging to the body. No one member of the community can say they are the community to the exclusion of the other members. At the same time, there is no competition among members as though one member of the body is better or more indispensable than another. No one member of the community can say to another “I don’t need you.” In this body there is no inferiority nor is there a superiority. That way of thinking cannot be the mindset that operates this Body of the community, the Body that Paul reminds us is Christ. Pope St. John Paul II was very much aware of the need for all the members of the Body of Christ, the Church, to be recognized as needed for the Body to be whole. He often referred to the Church of the West as really a Church with one lung. We in the West forget that there is a Church in the East and carry on as though the West was the whole Body. He made it clear that we are not the whole Body until East and West are breathing together. When both lungs of the Body are functioning, then the community is manifesting its true fullness. If we were to translate Paul’s point into current events, we would have to say that when the Christians in Iraq, and their communities are among some of the oldest in the Body of Christ, are persecuted and forced into exile, then the whole Body is also suffering because one member is suffering.
The diversity in the Body of Christ that history and culture have given us is precisely the work of the Spirit. To believe in the Spirit is to acknowledge gifts that are given by God to the members of the Body. It is the Spirit that is at work bringing gifts needed for the whole into the one Body. In our small local communities it is good if we recognize the gifts that each one brings into the community. Each member carries a gift that allows the whole to be the Body. Whether it is a gift of visible leadership in the Church or lowly service of collecting clothes and food for those in need, it is all the work of the one Spirit and it is all for building a strong Body in Christ.A third point Paul makes is that of the interdependence of all members in the Body. We are a healthy Body in Christ when there is concern for the other member. The community is not made up of isolated members who happen to come together. We are an organic living whole that is activated when we turn to one another. We are a living Body of Christ when we can suffer with one another and also rejoice with one another. Such living demands humility, setting aside of self-importance, and seeing others as members in the same Body as myself. The interdependence of members in the Christian Body is a challenge in our culture which seems to lean in the opposite pole of individualism and self-reliance. But if we take our baptism into Christ seriously and the life in the Spirit that comes with it, then ours is a life far from walking it alone. The Body’s life does not come from looking away from other members but in interacting with them as a whole.
Paul was not talking idle talk. His Corinthian community was divided into cliques, its wealthier members brought food to the community meals but did not share it with those who had little or could bring nothing. There were members who thought their spiritual gifts were more important than ordinary service. There were those who used their past status to claim honors for themselves. He challenged them to be truly the Body of Christ-recognizing gifts as from the Spirit and being concerned for the weakest among them. …We will shortly be offered the Body of Christ. Let us once again say Amen to who we are and eat the Body that makes us one community in Christ, one Body in the Lord.
Prior Joel Macul, OSB