The reality that we refer to as “church” can be and, over time, has been named theologically in all kinds of ways. One of the earliest and most enduring has been to characterize it as the “body of Christ.” The gathered community of Christians—locally and universally—was referred to this way from very early in its history. This ecclesiological concept appears with some prominence in the Pauline letters, for example, which were penned while some of the witnesses to the resurrection were still living. Even before the gospels had been written, then, the Christian community was being referred to as the body of Christ.
There has never been a single meaning of the “body of Christ” idea. What it means to call the church the body of Christ is not easy to pin down. Different church councils and synods, and different theologians at different times, have specified its meaning in a number of ways. In general, though, these meanings tend to cluster around some pretty common themes. One is that the identity of individual Christian persons is to be rooted in the corporate identity of being a member of Christ’s body. Human bodies have several parts, each of which is important to the proper functioning of a body precisely because these members are not the same. Christ’s body is no different: all the members are needed for the body to be what it is. Diversity is a positive good in the ecclesial dimension.
Another idea, which is connected to this, is that baptism is the means by which human beings are made members of Christ’s corporate body, precisely by dying in the baptismal water and rising to new life in Christ, sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection and being reborn as a member of Christ’s corporate existence.
Still another is that the human group we can point out as the gathered body of Christ becomes the mystical body of Christ by the ritual means of sanctifying and consuming the eucharistic body of Christ in the form of the bread on the altar we proclaim to be the body of Christ.
These are only some ways that the meanings of this idea are spelled out. What they all have in common, however, is the core belief that this body of believers, being Christ’s church, is, in many deep and significant ways, the actual presence of Christ in the world, the embodiment of the Risen Lord. Not as a “mere” metaphor, either. To say this is to do more than to use a nice figure of speech. Yet also, not literally. To say that church is the body of Christ is not to say that it is the ascended body of Christ that we speak of in the creeds. But it is the continued presence of the Risen Christ in the world, here among us, now.
(Of course, this should not be taken to mean that church and Christ are the same, as if church, like Christ, is divine or without sin. That church is the community that uniquely possesses the purpose of explicitly mediating Christ to the world means that it participates in the reality that Jesus Christ announces and makes available. It does not mean that church should be confused with Christ—we’ve all seen the tragic effects of what happens when that equation is made.)
As General Convention draws ever closer, even if in a sadly pared down form from the one we all envisioned and hoped for, part of your role as deputies is to ponder the legislative proposals before you and to discern the best course of action on them. In my view, a good test that can help in making that kind of decision is to ask how each piece of legislation, if enacted, would either enhance or inhibit the ability of the Episcopal Church, in its wholeness or in its parts, to be the body of Christ in and for the world that church is called to be. To what extent would each proposal allow Episcopalians to live into the vows they made or that were made for them at their baptism into new life in Christ? How would it strengthen or weaken the baptismal logic that supports our denomination’s ecclesiology, in both its structure and its practices? To what extent would it make the offer of Resurrection Life more visible than it is right now?
While I cannot be with you in Baltimore, my thoughts and prayers most certainly will be. You are doing such important work, the Spirit-filled work of discerning a theologically healthful way forward for our beloved church at a very difficult moment. My you each do so soberly, yet joyously and hopefully, as members of the body of Christ, a body into which God pours so much life that not even the tomb itself can overcome it!