Audio is available here: Christ’s Three Bodies
The Apostle Paul is writing to a church in trouble. A church riven with disagreements and strife. They are fighting over Paul. They are fighting over teachers. They are fighting over sex. They are fighting over spiritual gifts. They are fighting over food. They are fighting over how best to celebrate the Eucharist. They are even fighting over the resurrection of Jesus. All of this is, of course, wrong. And Paul is rightly angry and hurt about it.
He is angry not because these actions are sinful (though they are). He is angry because these sinful actions have become a barrier to the Corinthians engaging evangelically with their city. Their witness to Christ—their pointing to Christ—is bring hindered by their refusal to live as though, through Christ, everything has changed.
Paul’s solution, repeated in various ways is to direct them back to the source of their unity—to Christ. Preached in the word of the Cross that calls all to repentance regardless of station. A word that is foolishness to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews, but to those who are being saved, the wisdom and power of God. Christ, who is, in our Epistle today, made present with them in the bread and wine of their Eucharistic celebrations:
“I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
We repeat those words during our Sundays in Ordinary Time—do you remember? We break this bread; though we are many, we are one body for we all share in the one bread. Something pretty powerful is happening, as far as Paul is concerned when we present ourselves at the altar to receive the Blessed Sacrament.
This morning, I want to reflect for a few moments about what that something is.
That something is the unifying of the three bodies of Christ. For Paul in 1 Corinthians, the Risen and Ascended Lord has three bodies. Each is treated separately as a point of conflict in the Corinthian Church.
Let’s begin with the third body Paul speaks of—the resurrection body of Jesus as Paul talks about it in 1 Cor 15.
The first body that we probably think of is the body that was raised on the third day. The body that was not merely resuscitated—it was, to quote wildly out of context, a former Bishop of Durham, no mere magic trick with a pile of bones. It was a body transformed into an entirely new mode of existence. Here was human being rendered fit for full life with God.
And the Corinthians were fighting about this body. Some could not bring themselves to believe that God had, in fact, done this thing to Jesus. Bodies were, in their minds, the very things we were to leave behind if we were to be rescued by God. To be “saved” was to be delivered from the material world. And Paul says no. There is a resurrection of the dead. We know because Christ has been raised. He appeared to Peter. He appeared to 500 people at one time. He appeared to me last of all. If Christ is not raised, we Christians are the most pitiable of people.
This human body, the body that was crucified, dead, and buried, insists Paul, was reanimated and raised into a new and transformed existence so that he who was crucified now reigns over all creation. And is now, by the power of the Spirit, subduing its enemies, reconciling all creation to itself, and in so doing displaying the true end of human history.
The body of Christ is the human body of the Risen Lord. The exalted Son of David. God’s human champion who has defeated sin death and the devil and has showed himself alive to his followers to prove it.
In denying the resurrection, the Corinthians were denying the very event—the very body—on which their faith was founded. And that made them pitiable, in Paul’s eyes.
Now, consider Paul’s second body: the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. It is the Corinthians themselves. Paul insists that theCortinthians’ divisions were entirely nonsense because they were the body of Christ, composed of different parts and united under one head. Their strife, their divisions, their infighting was on a par with a person hating their own body, and trying to dismember it. And that is not only irrational, but also truly horrific.
They were abounding in spiritual gifts, gifts that marked them out as different from each other that were yet gifts of the same Spirit that united them to Christ, that made them his body.
And here they were, this gifted and dynamic and knowledgeable congregation, dismembering the body of Christ, tearing themselves apart, because they lacked the greatest gift. The gift of Love.
The Church as the Body of Christ, we need to recall, is no mere metaphor, no picture to express an otherwise bland organizational theory, for Paul. It is not a picturesque way for Paul to say, come on, guys, let’s all pull in the same direction. After all, we are following the same Lord.
It is a fact. It is an organic reality. The Corinthians were, by the presence of the Spirit, united to him who is the head. United to him who is the Source of their common life. They were the Body of Christ in Corinth. They were the ongoing presence of Christ in their city.
Understanding this, I think, helps us go a long way to making sense of Paul’s utter exasperation with them. Through their behavior, they were denying the reality of that which they already were.
Now, finally, to Paul’s first mention of the Body of Christ, the Eucharist. It seems that the Corinthians were even divided here. The wealthy members were turning the Eucharist into some sort of party at which some even became drunk. They consumed all the bread and the wine they brought and left none for poorer members who could not afford to bring their own.
To eat and drink in this way, says Paul, to celebrate in such a self-centred manner, was to eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ. It was to eat and drink judgment instead of salvation. So it was that for some of the Corinthians, the medicine of immortality had become a source of weakness, illness and even death.
Three Bodies of Christ—The Risen Lord, the Corinthians themselves, and the Eucharistic Meal. And in our Epistle for today, the site at which all three come together is the meal.
Here, we commune with Christ. Here, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ’s body, his blood, his human life in other words, into our own lives. Here, at this place, we are drawn upwards into the life he shares with his Father. Such that his eternal self-giving to the Father becomes our offering, and our offering of ourselves as incomplete and indeed sinful as it is, is made complete by his offering.
Here, we are united by the Spirit not simply to Christ, but to each other. Because there is one bread, says Paul, we who are many are one body, because we all share in the one bread.
The Corinthian church is a riven church. A broken church. A partitioned church. A church which pit teachers against each other. A church which ranked spiritual gifts. A church which contended over food both everyday and sacramental. A church, if we can push Paul a little, that seemed intent on dismembering the Body of Christ, to the horror and shame to the city in which they were to be that Body.
And Paul’s remedy is to remind them of their future—they would rise and reign just as Christ as already done, of their present—they were the ongoing presence of Christ in their community, and of the site where future and present met—the Eucharistic feast in which the many were made one.
Now what does that have to do with us?
It is, it seems to me, a powerful reminder to us of the source of our unity.
Anglicans—at least today—tend to want to locate their unity in one of two places. Some of us are drawn to doctrine. All our problems would be solved if we could just get the jots and tittles of our teaching right. Once we get our doctrines sorted, everything else will follow suit.
Here, I am reminded of an observation made by one of my examining chaplains when I was being evaluated for ordination. The Anglican Church, he said to me, has no doctrine. Then he winked. What he meant was we had no doctrinal distinctives. The Lutherans have justification by faith alone. The Reformed have Scripture alone. And Anglicans have, well, what do we have? What we have is the Creeds. We have no doctrine that is not found in those great ancient documents that we confess together as part of our regular worship. And both in what they say and don’t say, the Creeds, even on the most traditional of readings—and I am as you know, very traditional—leave lots of room for Christians of good conscience to disagree.
So, we are not going to find our unity in getting all our doctrinal ducks in a row. Another place where Anglicans are tempted to look for unity is in our politics, our social action. The Duke University ethicist and theologian—and Episcopalian—Stanley Hauerwas pokes a little fun at this perspective and those who hold it. You have to imagine this being given in a scratchy Texas drawl through a huge grin. Now that we’ve given up on the Christian faith being true, we need to show that it is at least still useful. But what do I know? I’m just a bricklayer from Texas.
Hauerwas’s point is, our politics cannot serve to ground anything. Our social action is to flow out of our unity—our being as church—not ground it. Conservative Christians are learning that lesson to their cost these days. I had thought Liberal Christians had learned it in the 60s and 70s, but I’m not so sure today. Both sides run the risk of becoming just another political pressure group, albeit one with an odd vocabulary. I fear that some politically active Christians on the right and left both have found an ideology they believe to be true, and they are using Christian faith to further it. Whatever that is, that is not the source of the Church’s unity either.
So what is the source?
Paul tells us that Jesus is the source of the church’s unity. The unity of the church is Christ’s life flowing into us at the Eucharistic meal and living through us in the world. It is not anything we can manufacture. It is not a programme or technique. It is not a secret that we can discover. It is a gift that we can only receive. Though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread.
The real question to ask at Lent is, Why, like the Corinthians, are we so adept at finding ways to evade, avoid, and refuse a gift that the Lord gives us every week when we come to the table? Let’s narrow that question a little. Why am I? I could also answer this question fully and well for myself. But I won’t do that.
Lent is not a time to answer questions. But a time to ask them. A time not to be sure, but to be penitent and repentant. So, we all reflect on this question over the weeks ahead, let’s begin them with a simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”