Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding

Christian Community (5)

guestsNarthex1Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Church without saying something about institutions called churches. I also can’t overlook the unfortunate fact that although the word “church” has six letters in it, for some it is a four-letter word.

A common distinction is made between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The former is made up of people who wear clerical collars and vestments and those who sit or stand or kneel in pews and sing hymns or songs of praise. The latter is made up of those who actually have their hearts and minds conformed to Christ regardless of whether or not they place their bodies in buildings with a cross on it. In such a distinction, the invisible Church is the real Church, although people invested in the visible church (sorry about the pun!) hope that at least some of them are in the real, invisible Church as well. Of course, this invisible church isn’t really invisible. It is perfectly visible to God and it is visible to all people who have eyes to see. In my earlier posts on the subject of Church, I have suggested that the essence of Church is to be aligned with the forgiving love of Christ that brings us to the place of the victim in opposition to the principalities and powers that feast on victims. Acting out the role of Church in this way is quite visible, just as visible the people who sing hymns and preach in buildings that we call churches. Again, we hope there is at least some overlap between the two, but we all know that the two hardly coincide.

The Church is, then, visible in acts of worship and in charitable acts such as ministering to the poor. The disconnect between these two visibilities is a cause of dismay and downright confusion. Some people who are devoted to both might find that the people they worship with and the people they work with in ministry are very different. This problem becomes particularly acute when a “church” openly allies itself with Empire. To this day, there is concern that when the Roman Empire theoretically converted to Christianity, Christianity was actually converted to the Empire. The establishment of what was called “Christendom” tended to institutionalize the violent tactics of Empire. The Inquisition was a particularly notorious example of this. In more recent history, the Nazi government of Germany ordered the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church to expel all members of Jewish descent from leadership positions. Complying with this demand was a betrayal of their own members and of Christ. The Confessing Church which seceded in protest was a remnant of the Body of Christ.

The disunity and discord among Christians is a further cause of scandal to many. That there should be many ecclesiastical bodies with long or sometimes short traditions is not a problem to me. People are different and cultures are different. It is sad, however, that most churches, were founded in protest against the ecclesiastical body they left. Many of the long-standing debates have been resolved and many ecclesiastical bodies work together charitably in matters such as world relief. Many of the divisions, however, smack of emulating the disciples who argued about who is the greatest and/or the slogans in 1 Corinthians: “I am of Apollos!” “I am of Cephas!” Many of the theological debates in the early Christian centuries over the Trinity and the Natures of Christ could have been carried on with less rancor if church leaders had not been so afraid that God would eternally torture anyone who didn’t get the formulas just right. Getting the theology right just isn’t enough when we get the Love of God wrong.

The scandal of Church for so many of us tempts us to chuck it all and try to go it alone. If Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is true, that is simply not possible. We are affected by the desires and intentions of others whether we like it or not. If we set ourselves over against everybody else in defiance, that very defiance makes us totally dependent on the people we are defying. After all, if we aren’t defying people, we aren’t doing much in the way of defying. The deeper problem is that when we make ourselves that dependent on other people, we are easily sucked into the power of persecutory mechanisms when they occur. A lone individual can’t hold out against such a thing.

So there is need to connect with others. This is a point I illustrate in some of the stories I’ve written, most particularly in Merendael’s Gift. The protagonist can’t stand up to social pressures of the kids he hangs out with until he allies himself with other children who band together to befriend this strange visitor from another planet. This group becomes an analogy for the Church as the Body of Christ. In real life, we have to be alert to the people who are sincerely and humbly entering the place of the Victim. (I say “humbly” because some people pridefully use “victimhood” to manipulate others.) We can only hope that some of these people actually are in a church in the ecclesiastical sense.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the rivalry and sacrificial violence it can lead to suggests that they greatest division among Christians is along the lines of a theology and practice that is sacrificial on the one hand and one that is grounded in Jesus the Forgiving Victim on the other. Girard’s theory shows us how easily followers of Jesus’ Kingdom could easily slide back into remnants of the primitive sacred. The Body of Christ looks like the Body of Christ when it is embodied by people who stand up to the persecutory mechanism whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, any of us can easily fall into embodying instead the Satan who is the Accuser. That is to say, this schism between sacrificial and forgiving members can split right down the middle our own selves. This is why we need to strengthen ourselves with the practices of Church such as worship and interior prayer and mutual encouragement.

Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

Go to Christian Community (4)

Eucharist (3): Discerning the Body

eucharist1St. Paul solemnizes his recounting of Jesus’ breaking bread and passing the cup of wine by saying that he is passing on to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord. The words Paul uses here are specialized terms for receiving and passing on a sacred tradition. The only other time Paul uses these terms is to testify to Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. Resurrection and eating and drinking to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” go together. After all, does not the Lord come every time we eat the bread and drink the wine?

These solemn words are an island of peace and tranquility in the middle of a storm of human passions amounting to farce. Preceding them is Paul’s denunciation of the insensitive and chaotic eating habits where some people bring opulent meals to church and eat in front of poorer members who have little or nothing to eat. The deterioration of the sharing in the wilderness that began in John’s Gospel has only gotten worse. After holding up Jesus’ shared meal as a model, Paul warns against eating and drinking judgment by “not discerning the body.” Paul may be warning us not to fail to discern Christ’s body in the bread, but he is not thinking in individualistic terms. Christ’s body surely refers to the church and, given the context, Paul is concerned with failure to recognize this corporate body in the way we share, or fail to share what we have with the community. In his fit of tempter, Paul seems to suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ make people sick cause some to die. But considering how strongly Paul insists on God’s freed Gift of grace, Christ Body and Blood can only be more free grace and forgiveness. However, when we fail to see the Body and Blood in Christ in others, sickness, hunger and many more social ills will abound.

With a church in shambles, is the miracle of the Feeding in the Wilderness a distant memory? I noted in the first article in this series that memory is not just recalling something in our heads. Memory is making present. When we eat the death of Jesus, we enter into our own discord that tears the Body apart with cries such as “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!”  When we eat the Resurrection of Jesus, we eat the forgiveness with which Jesus greeted is disciples to gather them back together. We also eat the feeding in the wilderness and Jesus’ Desire to heal the people brought to him.

We are not left as orphans who have to try to stuff some ideal of human relating into our heads. We are invited to act with others the human drama of entering into God’s Desire for ourselves and all others. Most important, we are fed with the substance of God’s desire to quicken us on the way.

 Eucharist (1): Christ our Passover

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

Rising to the Life of Christ

crosswButterfliesWhen St. Paul says in Romans that we are baptized into Jesus’ death, what kind of death are we baptized into? An aged person drifting off while asleep? A ritual death with no consequences? No, we are baptized into the death of Jesus. This particular death, the one we are baptized into, is a judicial death resulting from collective violence. This is the shameful death of an alleged insurrectionist at the hands of an Empire. This death was caused by the meltdown of rivalry in the society of first century Jerusalem, exacerbated by the betrayal and cowardice of Jesus’ closest followers.

Once we know what death we are baptized into, we know what life we are raised to. In his risen life, Jesus showed no resentment or vengeance to those who had gathered to put him to death or had dispersed out of cowardice.  Moreover, Jesus was not entangled in any of the rivalrous feuds that are a way of life for most humans. Imagine living without all the entanglements and resentments swirling around and inside of us. Hard to do, isn’t it? That is how radically different the risen life is from the life we live now.

If our “old self” is crucified with Jesus, then we have, like Jesus, died in the place of the victim. That means we have died to our tendency to fuel resentments and resolve these resentments through gathering against the victim, as Paul himself repented of having held the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and openly approving of what they did.

None of this means that repenting of personal sins and faults doesn’t matter and that becoming free of them is part of the resurrected life. However, Christian teaching has a strong tendency to stress personal renewal to such an extent that horrifyingly sick participation in collective persecution goes unnoticed. That hundreds of thousands of Christians could lynch thousands of black people shows us now, now that the lynching era is over, how easily this sort of group contagion can take over in what is often called an “enlightened” and “civilized” era.

Rather than congratulating ourselves on giving up lynching after roughly a hundred years of the sport, I suggest we take careful note of the growing polarization in our country over social and religious issues. Honest disagreement is not a problem; it’s a good thing, something that keeps us honest. But polarization tends to be conflict for the sake of conflict so that conflict feeds itself and it feeds each one of us. Never mind that polarized conflict is as nourishing to humans as sawdust and glue. What is really dangerous about this polarization is that it easily collapses into collective violence as a way of resolving the tensions.

If we wish to be serious about living the risen life with Christ, we must be baptized by the love and forgiveness of the risen Christ and allow him to gently but firmly remove all the resentments we feed on so as to feed on body and blood of the Lamb of God who reaches out to everybody with vulnerable love.

Can you imagine such a thing? Can you be overwhelmed by such a thing in baptism?