Dr Simon Perry
According to ‘the church’, the body of Christ is a way of describing the presence of Jesus here on earth. The church, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, continues the words and actions of Jesus, now that Jesus isn’t officially here any more. But of course, he is here, because the church is the body of Christ.
What this means, of course, is that this down-to-earth, all-too-human institution, is actually the manifestation of divine action. It means that what the church does – is what Jesus himself would do if he were here. As the centuries since Pentecost have passed, we know that the church itself eventually was favoured by the Roman empire – and displaced the old gods Rome. The church became the official religion – the body of Christ became an overtly political structure, and official Christianity held Western Europe together for over a thousand years. So during that time, a nation’s church leaders were indistinguishable from a nation’s political leaders. The body of Christ, gradually became a human institution that – no matter what it did – it could assume divine approval.
If a nation’s leaders go to war; if a nation slaughters protestors; if a nation persecutes minorities; controls the populace, imposes crippling taxes and endorses all manner of atrocities – you cannot ever question its actions because, the church is the body of Christ, and its leaders represent Christ. If our actions seem unfair, let’s call it ‘Tough Love’. It takes little imagination in the 21st century, to look at the history of the church over the last 1500 years, and ask what kind of a god the church has embodied? Does the body of Christ as it appears through history, bear any resemblance to the Christ of scripture? In innumerable ways, of course it doesn’t – anyone with half a brain will find in the pages of history – infinite examples of ecclesiastical nincompoopery… Once was embodied in the church, the personality of Christ underwent a disastrous character transformation – eventually morphing into the exact opposite of the Christ portrayed in Scripture!
Perhaps the creeds that we use so regularly make the point most clearly. These creeds, it must be remembered, were penned in the 4th century – as part of a process to provide the Roman empire with ideological unity. If inhabitants of all corners of the empire are busy reciting this creed– it is easier to maintain the ideologies that keep the imperial machine running smoothly. The emperor is a gift from god, Christianity preaches submission to heaven-blessed authorita, so let’s have some creeds to dictate sound belief, thank God for our leaders and everybody’s happy.
But strictly speaking, the creeds – which are still recited in churches around the world –represent a Christ that has little in common with the Christ of Scripture.
Although there is nothing in the creed that contradicts scripture, the elements which are included and excluded resulted in a document which – if taken as a summary of Christian faith – is wildly at odds with Christian Scriptures. The most gaping, and largely unacknowledged blunder, is that the creed emphasises the judgement of God but is silent about the love of God – which the scriptures portray of this God’s primal personality trait. Nor do the problems end there. The Jesus who proclaimed a God whose power is expressed in weakness, whose presence subverts the top-down dynamic of wealth and politics, who welcomed the ‘nobodies’ and critiqued the powerful, is quietly dismissed from the Imperial Creeds. The character of the God who sides with the poor, who welcomes the outsider, who reveals himself in self-giving love, is beyond the interest of the very creed that claims to outline true belief.
Between the virgin birth and the crucifixion, Jesus – according to the creed – neither said nor did anything crucial for the Christian faith. The result is a depoliticised view of God, casting him as a divinity who is happy to leave the business of politics to others while he focuses upon salvation. Whilst salvation itself had long been a political issue, with Roman emperors hailed as bringing salvation – the Creed pushes salvation away from real life and towards the afterlife so it could become a series of spiritual transactions distinct from daily life. Sure, we can recite the creeds without being unbiblical – but, as one Jesuit priest once told me, the best they can offer is a negative, corrective version of faith to safeguard us against some particular historical heresies.
Scripture, offers an alternative understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. Here is the unnerving reminder that the Christ who said, “follow me,” was on his way to the cross. In this light, the body of Christ is the tortured, mutilated corpse of a political criminal, epitomising failure and shame. If this, is the body in which Christ lives by his spirit, then the church that embodies Christ, follows this Christ into the abyss. For Eagleton, Jesus’ descent into hell was a descent into precisely this absurdity, into an alternative power dynamic.
Only through such an openness to our own finitude, our frailty, our mortality, only by preserving …steadfast fidelity to failure… can any human power prove durable. Only through this impossible, stonily disenchanted realism, staring the medusa’s head, (of… the crucifixion) full in the face, can any sort of resurrection be possible. Only by accepting this as the very last word, seeing everything else as so much sentimentalist garbage, ideological illusion, false utopia, bogus consolation, ludicrously upbeat idealism, only then may it prove not to be quite the last word after all. The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and you don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.
So – when the church celebrates communion – we are not simply remembering a gruesome and bloody death because that’s the surest route to heaven – if only we can perform the mental gymnastics required to con ourselves into ‘believing what we know ain’t true’. Instead, we are not assuming that Christ is on our side, but committing ourselves to be on his.
This is true in the readings we have heard this week: the notion of welcoming the stranger – is not simply the polite requirement to show hospitality. Jesus himself welcomed a key representative of an occupying army – a Roman Centurion – and showed how this repulsive gentile oppressor embodied more faith than any faithful, torah-reading, beard-sporting, Jew in Israel. In this sense, the stranger is someone whose very presence stands over against you – someone whose mere existence places an enormous question mark over all you thought you knew about the world. Welcoming the stranger is a theme that beats its rhythm throughout the writings of scripture, because it is entertaining such people, who embody such radical otherness, that we encounter something of the holy otherness of God himself. He who welcomes these children, says Jesus, welcomes me. He who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me. What you did for the least of these, you did for me…
To be the body of Christ, is – first and foremost – to embody this openness to the other, this readiness to welcome the stranger, this ability to engage well with that which has the capacity to disrupt and disturb who you really are. Because, by doing that – we emulate something important about who Christ is, we experience something crucial about who God is, and we receive ourselves back from that person as a different person. This attitude, is the exact opposite of the belief that our ways and our beliefs and our decisions are automatically heaven-blessed because we are the body of Christ. This readiness to welcome the stranger, the outsider, is to embrace radical insecurity, to accept the provisional nature of our belief, to recognise the vulnerability of all we treasure, and to engage with what scripture means by holiness.
Of course, the creeds are silent about this fundamental aspect of what it means to be part of the body of Christ – and to share in the body of Christ. There is a sense in which – by sharing in this meal, we not only remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, but that we enter into something of what that death and resurrection means in practical and political terms.
This meal that we are soon to share, is where we expect to experience the otherness of God, in the otherness of one another. And it is by welcoming this down to earth Christ – that we become this down-to-earth Christ to one another, and thereby become what scripture means by the body of Christ.