January 26, 2009

St. Paul’s teachings on the Body of Christ

By Brian Pizzalato *

St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, was a man "filled with grace and power" (Acts 6:8). He endured many of the same sufferings of Christ.

Like Christ, he was accused of speaking "blasphemous words against Moses and God" (Acts 6:11). In the same way as the Lord Jesus, they "presented false witnesses who testified, ‘This man never stops saying things against [this] holy place and the law’" (Acts 6:13).

He spoke words of eloquence and condemnation to his accusers and persecutors (cf. Acts 7:2-53). His persecutors, in a furious rage, throw threw him out of the city and stoned him to death. But, like Jesus, before he breathed his last, he said, "Lord do not hold this sin against them," and "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:60, 59).

Who was in charge that day? "The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul…Now Saul was consenting to his execution" (Acts 7:58; 8:1). Saul, the Pharisee, "was trying to destroy the church…" (Acts 8:3).

Not long after this, however, while "still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord," he encounters the glorious risen Lord Jesus Christ who says to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9:1, 4). These mysterious words of the risen Lord contain an understanding of the church that Saul, now Paul, would try to teach the rest of his life. Jesus did not ask him, "Why are you persecuting my church?" Jesus asked him "Why do you persecute me?" Somehow, some way, Christ and the church are so intimately one, so united, that his persecution of the church was a persecution of Christ.

St. Paul teaches first that Christ "is the head of the body, the Church" (Colossians 1:18). Christ is preeminent in everything.

We learned from a previous column (August 2008) what St. Paul teaches of Jesus. Jesus, who is fully God and fully man, is the head of the body of the church. In Ephesians, Paul tells us that it is the Father who "put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body…" (1:22-23).

We might ask at this point how, in fact, we become part of the Body of Christ the head. St. Paul in no way leaves us grasping for answers.

He says clearly, "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…" (1 Corinthians 12:13). Through baptism we are so united with Christ so as to become his very body. The Father and the Son send the Spirit in baptism to make us one in Christ. St. Augustine would one day say, "What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 797).

However, beyond baptism, the church becomes more and more united to Christ through Christ’s self-sacrifice made present for us in the Eucharist. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation [communion] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). We become one body with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in baptism, but we continue to come into a more intimate communion with Christ the head through receiving his body, blood, soul, and divinity.

St. Paul will also help us understand the reality of the church as the Body of Christ in a couple different ways.

The first way is through an analogy with our physical bodies. "For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ…" (Romans 12:4).

The various parts of the body have different purposes, so too do we in the Body of Christ. We each have our own gifts. However, the gifts possessed by each member we do not have by random chance. "…We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…" (Romans 12:6). God himself has given them to us. As a result St. Paul says, "…exercise them: if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, in diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness" (Romans 12:6-8).

We know that when a part of our own bodies does not function properly, the whole body is affected. So it is in the Body of Christ. We must use the gifts the Father has given us, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of others.

The second way St. Paul helps us to understand the church as the Body of Christ is found in his letter to the Ephesians. He tells that the church is the bride of Christ (cf. 5:21-33). Eve, the bride, was taken from the side of Adam as he slept a deep sleep (cf. Genesis 2:21-22). Adam woke up to exclaim that she is, "…bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…" (Genesis 2:23). The church, also, is taken from the side of the New Adam as he slept the deep sleep of death upon the cross. His side was pierced and out flowed water and blood, which represents how the church becomes the body, and thus bride of Christ, that is, through baptism and the Eucharist.

St. Paul also draws out some obvious consequences for living a moral life as a member of the Body of Christ. He says, "The body…is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body…Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute? Of course not!...Avoid immorality…Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body" (1 Corinthians 6:13b, 15, 18a, 19).

Let us too glorify the head of the church, Jesus Christ, by glorifying God in our own bodies!

Printed with permission from the Diocese of Duluth.

Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate, Diocese of Duluth and is a faculty member of the Philosophy department of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England.

Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).

Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.

Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.