A bishop told one of his priests that he was sending him to be Pastor of a really difficult parish – so difficult, in fact, that it had become known among the priests as “the graveyard of Pastors.” “I’ve been advised to close the place,” the bishop said. “But I’d like to make one last attempt. I’m asking you to go there and see what you can do.”
The priest had not been in his assignment a month when he found that everything he had heard about the parish was true. Attendance at Sunday Masses was pathetic. The only thing parishioners seemed to be good at was malicious gossip, backbiting, and criticism. So, one Sunday the Pastor announced: “I have some bad news for you. I hate to tell you, but this parish is dead. So, at 10 o’clock next Sunday we’re going to celebrate a funeral Mass for this parish.”
In the days following news of this sensational announcement spread like wildfire. At 10 o’clock the following Sunday the church was full. There were funeral wreaths up front, and an open coffin. The Pastor announced that before beginning the Mass, he wanted everyone to come forward to pay their respects to the deceased. As people filed by, they got a shock. The coffin was empty – save for a large mirror. Each person looking in at the deceased saw a picture of himself or herself.
My brothers and sisters, I have told you that story – and of course it is just a story – because St. Paul is saying something very similar in our second reading. “You are Christ’s body,” he writes, “and individually parts of it.” And Paul goes on to say that though Christ’s body has many different parts, each with its own function, there are no unimportant parts.
Where did Paul get this idea that the Church is Christ’s body? He got it in the event which changed his life: Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. That encounter was so important to Paul that it is recounted three times over in the Acts of the Apostles. We find it first in chapter 9. You know the story. “As Saul [his Jewish name, for he not yet received his Christian name of Paul in baptism] approached Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed about him. He fell to the ground and at the same time heard a voice saying, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, sir?’ he asked. The voice answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’” Note Jesus’ question: not, “Why are you persecuting my followers, or my Church?”, but “Why do you persecute me?” Paul’s insight, that Jesus’ followers, born into the Church by baptism, comprise Christ’s body,came straight from that question, and that encounter.
But what do we really mean when we say that the Church is Christ’s body? No one has stated it better than the sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite, St. Teresa of Avila. This is what she said: Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he is to go about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
My friends, do we really believe that? Do we believe that the Church is not just the clergy and other religious professionals, but all of us? Many Catholics today do believe that. But not all. Old habits die hard. Some of our ways of speaking betray a different view. We hear people saying, for instance: “Why doesn’t the Church do something” about this or that problem? Or when a young man is ordained a priest, people say: “He went into the Church.” In both of those examples the assumption is that the Church is synonymous with the clergy — and today perhaps other religious professionals who work with the clergy.
That older view of the Church sees the laity as something like customers in a filling station. If they are good customers, they drop into the station weekly to fill up their tanks. When they need a tune-up they may go to confession. Otherwise the customers are content to leave the running of the station to others. There are still Catholics who think that way, and act that way. They like that model of the Church. It is easier, and less bother.
I called that the older view of the Church. It is not the oldest view, however, and certainly not the original view. The original view is the one set forth by St. Paul in our second reading. The Church is Christ’s body. That means that the Church is all of us. We don’t just go to church. We are the Church. If the Church is truly Christ’s body, and not just a spiritual service station, then there can be no passive customers. We are all called to be active messengers of Christ’s mercy, healing, and liberating love.
We can take this a step farther. If baptism has made us active members of Christ’s body, on whom he depends to continue his work in the world, then our relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the head of the body, cannot be a merely one-to-one, private affair. As members of Christ’s body we are related not merely to Christ our head, but to all the other members of his body as well. As Paul says in our second reading: “If one part [of the body] suffers, all parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
So often we think of our religion as a striving after high and distant ideals which constantly elude us. That is wrong! Being a follower of Jesus Christ never means trying to become something we are not. It means living up to what, through baptism, we already are. In baptism we were born into the great family of God called the Catholic Church. We became, in Paul’s language, members of Christ’s body. None of the members is unimportant. None is passive.
The differences between the members of Christ’s body are differences of function. Paul lists some of these functions at the end of our second reading: apostles, prophets, teachers, the doers of “mighty deeds,” healers, administrators. All are equally important. And all of us, as members of Christ’s body are joined in intimate fellowship with one another. Together we all have an intimate relationship with the head of the body: Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord – but also our brother, our lover, our best friend.