The Body of Christ ~ Why this image?
The Christian Gospel is incarnational. We proclaim that God came in the flesh in Jesus to reconcile humanity to divinity. While Christianity is certainly filled with mystery, and the spiritual life is a mystical experience, our faith is rooted in the concrete flesh reality of individuals, families and tribes. Our God is not some far removed deity, but one who comes to live among us. We see this in the very first story – that of creation – where God comes to walk in the Garden home of Adam and Eve. We see it in the visitations to Abraham and Sarah. We see it in the burning Ark and the Tabernacle where God dwells in the midst of God’s people in the world. The pinnacle of this story is the coming of the word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth born to Mary and Joseph.
The spirit which dwelt in Jesus of Nazareth is released at the ascension, and 10 days later comes to dwell within the gathering of believers, disciples of Jesus, first called Christians at Antioch. The Body of Christ is understood by Paul to be the dwelling place of God on earth. Yes, we understand that God is everywhere, and all humanity are God’s children created in God’s image whom God loves and for whom Jesus came. Yet our faith also proclaims that there are particular ways in which God dwells in power, and that among them are the spirit dwelling within believers who together form the church.
So, the Body of Christ is a central motif for Paul, and thus for the New Testament and our faith, precisely because the spirit dwells within the church. As we hear from Ephesians 2, we together are built into a dwelling place for God. So, not only are we imaged as a building, specifically a temple, but here in Romans 12 Paul uses the image of the Body. This image of Body is used to help us understand our relationship with one another, our place in the whole. Such a dialogue would not be as effective had Paul remained with the image of the building or temple, as buildings can have a variety of designs with different kinds, shapes and uses of rooms depending on their purpose. The human body, however, is fairly uniform in its general structural design. Ideally, one torso, on top of which is one head, beneath which are two legs, and beside which are two arms. And we perceive that a body which is otherwise is somehow lacking. So the Body gives Paul the ability to tell us about how we all are related to one another within the community, and even as communities related to one another within the global church – “individually members of one another” – i.e. we belong to and are part of each other, whether we understand and embrace this idea or not. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul goes into greater detail as to how the various parts are related – ‘eye…ear…hand…foot’ etc.
Here in Romans 12 we have Paul calling us to a way of relating to one another that is rooted in humility and grace. Paul gives us 35 actions to take which are expressions
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice
Do not be conformed to this world
Be transformed by the renewing of your minds
Discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect
[Do not] think of yourself more highly than you ought to think
Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned
Let love be genuine
Hate what is evil
Hold fast to what is good
Love one another with mutual affection
Outdo one another in showing honor
Do not lag in zeal
Be ardent in spirit
Serve the Lord
Rejoice in hope
Be patient in suffering
Persevere in prayer
Contribute to the needs of the saints
Extend hospitality to strangers
Bless those who persecute you
Bless and do not curse
Rejoice with those who rejoice
Weep with those who weep
Live in harmony with one another
Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly
Do not claim to be wiser than you are
Do not repay anyone evil for evil
Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all
Live peaceably with all
Never avenge yourselves
Leave room for the wrath of God
If your enemies are hungry, feed them
If they are thirsty, give them something to drink
Do not be overcome by evil
Overcome evil with good
Listen again to how Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not
envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And now to Galatians 5:22-23 the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
You see, Paul is describing the outward expression of what John says in 1 John 4 –
God is love
And as ‘the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus’ through the spirit, likewise the fullness of God dwells in the church which is the Body of Christ. And this God is love, which in Jesus manifest the fruit of the spirit and the character of love Paul describes in his letters.
So too, as Paul describes for us in Romans 12, we the church are to express these same things, to incarnate love in the world as Jesus came to do.
Had Paul written after John, he likely would have played off John 3:16 by saying, “For God so loved the world that he have it the church, so that through the church the redeeming love of God might be experienced by the world.
This is why the church exists – as a continuation of the incarnation of God in the world.
How are we doing with that?