Alyce McKenzie, in her weekly post at Edgy Exegesis, points out that Paul must have chosen the image of the Church as a body very intentionally. Knowing what I know about Paul based on his corpus of letters, I think he chose the body image because it would be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1.23). Having spent 11 chapters dealing with the internal struggles of the Church in Rome, specifically spending extra time to help smooth the riff between the Jewish Christians on the one hand and Gentile Christians on the other, Paul calls them both to unity through the image of the body.
Judaism was, and is, a very incarnational religious tradition. The Torah is full of rules that deal with real life: how to plant and harvest; what to eat; how to wash the dishes; what to wear; and so on. This was necessary in those days because of the fragility of life. There were constant threats against one’s body in first century Palestine. Pregnancy and childbirth were the cause of many a death, as were food borne illnesses, and a myriad of other diseases we take for granted these days. Life was so full of death, that the Jewish system of Torah was at least partially built to keep people alive.
The Romans, on the other hand, were very much anti-body. They were so focused on the spiritual that they saw the body as “an embarrassing encumbrance” (Stott, “Romans” BST, 322). Their goal was to find their way out of their filthy bodies and into the incorruptible spiritual realm.
And so, when Paul uses the body image to explain the make up of the Church, he forces both sides to think hard about their understandings of the flesh. Isn’t the body simply too fragile to be a good metaphor? Isn’t it just too earthy? No, says Alyce McKenzie, it is the perfect image. “It’s better than family or team. You can take a break from being a member of a team. You can go on vacation without your family. But you can’t take a break from the parts of your body.” To further that understanding of unity, I would add that it is precisely because the body can feel pain, because bones can break and skin can be gashed and bruises can form, because scars develop to remind us of past hurts, that the image of the body is the ideal image for the united Church. It isn’t perfect. It doesn’t always work like it should. Sometimes parts (white blood cells) attack other parts accidentally, but we can’t run away from each other.
That’s the peskiness of the body metaphor for modern Christians who are, rather unfortunately, used to tens of thousands of different flavors of church. A new sign on the church down the street this week tells me that we have two “Church of Christ” congregations within a block of each other. No matter how many walls we build, the truth of the matter is that we are still united, members of the same body, called to show forth the power of God to all people.