Father Donald Senior, CP

The church, a crucified body

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Cor 12:12-30; Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21

The second reading for this Sunday is one of the most well-known passages from Paul’s letters. Distressed by divisions and conflicts in the Christian community of Corinth, Paul reflects on the church as the “body of Christ.” Just as a body is one reality with many parts working in harmony, so is the church.

But Paul is not speaking metaphorically, as if the church was like a body. No, he is convinced that we Christians do, in fact, form one body — the very body of Christ. Just as at one fundamental level all human beings share a common origin as sons and daughters of God and all of us are bound together on this planet earth as one human family so we Christians are united with Christ and become one body.

Paul believed this so deeply that the thought of Christians being at each other’s throats or divided into factions was a constant concern for the apostle. Because we form one body we need each other and should care for each other. Above all, we need to be united with Christ the heart and soul of this body.

When Paul spoke of the church as the “Body of Christ,” what image of the body of Christ did he have in mind? A perfectly toned and beautiful body as we see in some depictions of Christ? Or was Paul thinking of the crucified body of Christ? A body wounded and broken? This is the Christ that Paul preached.

Earlier in this same letter he told his Corinthian Christians: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).

The church that is the Body of this Christ is not a superhuman and perfect entity but is truly human and imperfect, still bearing the wounds inflicted by sin, and striving to remember the compassionate love of Christ crucified.

That is why, I believe, that in describing the church as the Body of Christ, Paul notes in our reading today that we take care of the “weaker” parts and give greater honor to those parts of the body that we might consider “less honorable.” We treat our “less presentable parts” with greater care and if one part “suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” This is a “body” where care and compassion rule.

Here I believe is an important link with the Gospel passage for today. We hear the beginning of Luke’s Gospel — the book from which most of the Sunday readings of this year will be drawn. Luke starts with a formal introduction addressed to “Theophilus” who might be the patron supporting Luke’s work or represents the ideal Christian reader to whom Luke dedicates his Gospel account.

From these first verses of the Gospel, the Lectionary selection moves to the dramatic opening scene of Jesus’ public mission in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth. Filled with the power of the Spirit, Luke notes, Jesus unrolls the scroll of the Scriptures until he finds the stirring words of the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor ... to proclaim liberty to captives … recovery of sight to the blind … to let the oppressed go free.”

As Jesus concludes the reading he hands the scroll back to the synagogue attendant and declares to his spellbound audience: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

As Luke’s narrative unfolds we will see Jesus doing just what he declares in this first sermon: healing and teaching, liberating those with burdens, filled with compassion for the poor and the vulnerable.

Here is where the readings we hear today from Paul and Luke join. If the church claims to be the Body of Christ, then it should be animated by the same Spirit that filled Jesus and led him to give his life for our sake.

Let the church be known for its work of reconciliation and forgiveness, its thirst for justice, its care for the poor and the vulnerable. This is what Pope Francis had in mind in declaring this year a “Jubilee of Mercy.” In a world so filled with violence and sharp divisions, the church is called more than ever to be a sign of Christ’s tender mercy.


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