By Robert R. Schwarz
Call it a doctrine, a religious entity or metaphysical concept, the term Body of Christ has been infused into Christendom for centuries without unanimity about its meaning and how it functions. This is expected , considering the two billion Christians in the world ( according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ) make up an estimated 41,000 denominations world-wide ( according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity ) . Nevertheless, there appears to be common agreement among church leadership that every Christian should be aware that he or she is a member of this Body and of the role he has in it.
What will follow are comments of several active Christians who take their given role in this Body seriously. First, we should perhaps cite from Webster's New World College Dictionary two of its definitions of a Christian: 1 ) a person professing belief in Jesus at the Christ, or in the religion based on the teachings of Jesus; 2) having the qualities demonstrated and taught by Jesus , as love, kindness, humility, etc.
And second, we cite these few Biblical verses so you know the sources from which these inspired comments come. ( As for an analogy these individuals might use to explain the benefits of "membership" in this Body of Christ where each members knows his role and carries it out for the common good, think of a champion athletic team—say, this year's Chicago Blackhawks. )
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, 5 )
Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,let us exercise them. (Romans 12: 6)
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, as we were all given to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12: 13 )
The eye cannot say to the hand," I do not need you, " nor again the head to the feet, " I do not need you. " Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. (I Corinthians 12: 21-24 )
Living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into Him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body's growth and builds itself up in love. ( Ephesians 4: 15, 16 )
Last, a few words from theologians to help not only to visualize the Body but also to explain, again by analogy, how God can respond simultaneously to the prayers of millions of Christians who live and breathe in this Body. In his book, " My Meditations of Saint Paul ," The Rev. James E. Sullivan, writes: " When one of their [ Paul and Barnabas ] fingers was infected , their whole body went into a fever to help the injured finger fight the infection. That's how a living, healthy body reacted…Distance meant nothing. " Another Christian made the case of God's ability to instantly orchestrate the unified functioning of millions of cells in one human body . He gave the example of how a loving touch of a mother upon her baby's body can, with the speed of light, communicate joy, love , and comfort to the entire body and mind. As for how God can and does reply simultaneously to an infinite number of prayers, this Christian gave the example of an employee at an electrical power plant who , with one tug on a master switch, lights up an infinite number of light bulbs.
Here, in alphabetical order , are the thoughts of individuals who were asked to contribute—in brief or in length—to this article:
Diane Adam, long-time, very active member, St. James Catholic Church, Arlington Heights, IL … God has told us we are all one with Him. He is the vine and we are His branches. We are one with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ living and dead. Thinking about and then believing these words is comforting. We are never alone and with Christ in us we become stronger. The Eucharist is our and my identity. It centers me and joins me with Catholics all over the world and even in heaven with my parents and other loved ones.
Dr. Mike Atella, Christian psychotherapist, Schaumburg , IL… The concept of the Body of Christ hasn't nearly achieved its potential. It has an amazing potential, more than any other organization in the world. There is plenty of room for the church to flex its muscles constructively to help our world become a better place for us all.
Another thing that makes it hard [to discern our particular part ] is that God places us in situations to use our gifts, and perhaps those roles change over time and with different circumstances. Praying to discern this is critical. Be open to how He wants to use you as a part of the Body of Christ to further His kingdom! My role continues to grow and unfold, which is pretty cool.
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ in human terms ?
A. We are all connected through Christ and the Sacraments. When I look out into the congregation during Mass , I see the face of God collectively as all the individuals at Mass.
Q. Who's in it, who's not ?
A. For me, I include everyone . I believe in Matthew 25; Jesus is the ultimate judge of who will be in the eternal Body of Christ. My role is to make sure all are welcome to be with Christ and in Christ.
Q. Is it important for all " bona fide" Christians to know that they exist in this body and also to know what their role or function is in it ?
A. The mystical lends me to believe that not all is answered during our life on earth. I prefer to live in the mystery.
Q. Can you describe any experience in your life—pastoral or not—where you were an active member in this body and how it might have achieved its goals—secular or spiritual—more effectively ?
A. Every time I have the honor to celebrate Mass I feel connected on various levels with the community of believers. When I invite the worshippers to go in peace, I feel we are sending each other out to be the body of Christ in our world today. Being nourished and fed by the Word and Eucharist compels us to go out and create a new world.
Q. How do you visualize the body of Christ in human terms?
A. You're talking about 3 different bodies: When He was His physical body; then as us Christians—every last one of us— the communion of saints ; and also the Eucharist , the real Presence of Him.
Q. So, all Christians of all denominations belong to this body of Christ ?
A. That's right.
Q. Then, this body is a universal body , and baptism is sort of a credential to enter it?
A. That's right.
Q. Does it really matter whether a Christian is aware of being a member of the Body of Christ?
A. It's important to remember because we are carrying Christ into the world . And whatever we do, people [ if they know we are Christian ] see the act as being done by Christ. It's one of the most essential beliefs of the church.
Q. Is it also important to know what your role is in this body, so you can work for the common good ? For an analogous example, think of the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup: Surely, it was vital for everybody on that team to know his precise role and how to coordinate it with all the other team member roles.
A. Well, the Body of Christ does have so very many members. But I believe that if we are following the Ten Commandments, we are functioning in Christ's name. Though not all of us may not be aware of being in His Body, nevertheless this is the truth , which takes hold of us whether we believe it or not.
Q. Can you describe any personal experience where you behaved as a member of the Body of Christ?
A. At Mass every morning. We are a community there. I feel that I'm a part of the life of everyone of those people. There's no doubt about it !
Matthew Hahn , deacon at St. James , Arlington Heights, scout leader, and former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant…A former commandant of the Marine Corps was fond of saying "Marines do the right thing, especially when they know nobody is watching. We teach the same principle in scouting: "On my honor, I will do my best , to do my duty to God and my country…to help other people. " Working together in this way, both the Marine Corps and scouting produce fine examples of people who make up the Body of Christ. And, when this happens, wonderful, marvelous things happen .
St. Paul uses a literary device by personifying the members of the human body and imagines the nobler members with the lesser ones. This serves to reaffirm the truth, that members are to have the same care for one another.
Jesus Christ is the head of the body, the Church. This image shows the relationship of Christ with the Church, to which he sends his grace in abundance, bearing life to all its members. "The head," St. Augustine says, "is our very Savior, who suffered under Pontius Pilate and now, after rising from the dead, is seated at the right hand of the Father. And His Body ( the Body of Jesus Christ ) is the Church. ..For the whole Church, made up of the assembly of the faithful—for all the faithful are Christ's members—has Christ as its head, who rules His Body from on high. " (Enarrationes in Psalmos, 56, 1 ).
Brian Reynolds, musician and secretary of Foundation for Children in Need (FCN), an expansive outreach program serving the needs of the rural poor in India…
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ, in human terms?
A. The visual I see when witnessing the Mystical Body of Christ is when “love in action” is exercised. Love exercised through prayer, compassion, kindness, patience, tenderness, mercy and in loving service to others. We all have been blessed with many gifts and power from God, Our Father, and as I understand it, someday these special gifts we have today will come to an end, but “love” goes on forever.
Q. Is it important for all Christians to know that they exist in this body and also to know what their role or function is in it?
A. I believe that that knowing we are all one in His Body brings all believers closer together. (It also strengthens our desire to evangelize to those who may not be part of His Body… and, as St. Francis said, if necessary , use words.) Our awareness of being one in His Body helps each of us recognize the love of Christ in ourselves and within others. As I attempt to live my life out in the Body of Christ, I believe my role or function is continuously being shaped and directed through every interaction God Blesses me to experience. Our Father in Heaven is constantly pouring His love into our hearts, and it is up to each one of us to decide how to share our abundance.
Q. How does FCN function as the Body of Christ?
A. Well … we are using our God given gifts to help support the poorest of the poor in Southern India. Each volunteer, board member, sponsor and employee is working to help improve a child’s life through the gift of an education and needed healthcare. As each staff member fulfills their mission role, God’s love is realized through our collective efforts to reach out and help these poor people. For any person that has ever felt alone, afraid or challenged by life circumstances, the living Body of Christ brings believers together in prayer and unity for that person in need. This sincere response from others confirms that God is present in our world and He is realized through our love for one another.
[ excerpts from a previous sermon of his ]
The church is not an human institution . It is a living reality. It is alive, because the living Christ is its head and lives in and through its members...
As an institution or human organization, the church can be efficient, successful, well organized ; but unless Christ is its Savior and Head, unless Christ, by faith is living in its members, it is not the church, the Body of Christ…
You were born—reborn, once and for all—when you were united with Christ's death and resurrection in Holy Baptism. There is one Baptism, one faith, one Lord, one God and Father. That is what the Scriptures say. This is our unity in the Body…
We should say to ourselves, [ our church ] is the Body I belong to. The Body needs me. I may be only a little finger, but I am important to the Body. We are not to consider ourselves inferior or inadequate. We are not to despise our gift and be discontent with our contribution. The Lord has place you in the Body and He wants you to exercise your gift for the good of all. We are interdependent ! …
This calls for appreciation of gifts which we have among yourselves. Some of us are good at exhortation…acts of mercy and compassion…service…leadership…financial support…evangelism…teaching…craftsmanship…interpretation of the Scripture…hospitality. These are all gifts mentioned in the Scriptures. All of us have the gift of love, which is the most important gift of all.
Fr. Paul Wachdorf…pastor, St. Gregory the Great , Chicago…
Q. How do you visualize the Mystical Body of Christ in human terms ? Who's in it, who's not ? Does it have any real form ?
A. The Church , which is the Mystical Body of Christ , can be found in three different forms. It exists on this earth and is called the "Church Militant" because its members struggle against sin, evil and injustice in the world. The Church suffering refers to the souls in Purgatory who await the fullness of redemption. The "Church Triumphant "is the Church in heaven. The real form of the Mystical Body of Christ is the people who make up the Church and who seek to build up the Mystical Body of Christ in our world.
Q. Is it important for all " bona fide" Christians to know that they exist in this body and also to know what their role or function is in it ?
A. I believe that it is important for all Christians to claim membership in the Mystical Body of Christ and to claim ownership for seeking to build up the Mystical Body of Christ by their words and their actions. Every Christian needs to discern how he or she is a part of the Mystical Body of Christ and what he or she can contribute to building it up. The image of the Mystical Body of Christ reminds us that we are all in this together. We are not lone wolves. We journey towards the Kingdom of God together, and we have an obligation to partner with our Christian sisters and brothers on this journey. I think it is very important for all “bona fide” Christians to internalize this and live it out.
Q. Can you describe any experience in your life—pastoral or not—where you were an active member in this body and how it could have achieved its goal—secular or spiritual—more effectively ?
A. As a Catholic priest for the past 40 years and as the pastor of a parish, I have dedicated my life to being an active member of the Mystical Body of Christ; and through my preaching and teaching, through my witness and example, I have sought to encourage my parishioners to do the same. Over the past 40 years, I have had countless experiences where this has been the case. And I am always looking for new and creative ways in which I can be a member of the Mystical Body of Christ myself and in which I can encourage my people to do the same. Right now I think that Pope Francis has the right idea … that as good Christians, we need to look out for one another and to pay special care to the least of our sisters and brothers.
Rick Warren, celebrated author of the "Purpose Driven Life"and founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA…
One reason you need to be connected to a church family is to fulfill your calling to serve other believers in practical ways. The Bible says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each one of you is a separate and necessary part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27 ).
Your service is essential to the Body of Christ—just ask any local church. Each of us has a role to play, and every role is important. There is no small service to God; it all matters.
There are no insignificant ministries in the church. Some are visible and some are hidden behind the scenes, but all are valuable. Small or hidden ministries often make the biggest difference. In my home, the most important light is not the large chandelier in our dining room but the little night light that keeps me from stubbing my toe when I get up at night.
There is no correlation between size and significance. Every ministry matters because we are all dependent on each other to function.
What happens when one part of your body fails to function? You get sick. The rest of your body suffers. Imagine if your liver decided to start living for itself: “I’m tired! I don’t want to serve the body anymore! I want a year off just to be fed. I’ve got to do what’s best for me! Let some other part take over.”
What would happen? Your body would die. Today thousands of local churches are dying because of Christians who are unwilling to serve. They sit on the sidelines as spectators, and the Body suffers.
God calls you to a service far beyond anything you could ever imagine. He created YOU for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for you to do (see Ephesians 2:10). Whenever you serve others, you are actually serving God.
All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz