The Body of Christ: Mystical or Not?

The Body of Christ: Mystical or Not
Reflections for All Saints Sunday

The Prayer of the Day for this Sunday addresses the Almighty God who has knit his people together into the “mystical body” of Christ.

But is this Body really mystical?

It could be a bit “mysterious” if you consider that it truly extends far beyond what we can see and touch and even imagine. Picture the people in church assembled for Holy Communion and then try to imagine that Table being a mystical one that stretches around the known world and out into the unexplored universe. Then imagine it reaching back through recorded and un-recorded time and in the future in the same way. Understand that at your own elbow are folk who are not themselves expecting to be drawn in, and whom you would not desire or expect to be included.

The Body is quite properly thought of as mind-blowingly mysterious. Buy “mystical?”

It seems quite wrong to think of it as mystical in the sense that it is intangible, irrational, impractical or abstract. In fact, God the Creator and God the Sanctifier are real, yet we do not see, taste or feel them. They are woven through, yet not usually available to our perceptions. But the Body of Christ became incarnate in history and even now is in the pew next to us. The Body is composed of the very real people who pray for us when we are sick and miss us when we are gone from the pews.

Trouble is, the body is also composed of the people who sing off key, let their kids scribble on the hymnals and say and do all sorts of other annoying things. So we would like to think of the Body as more mystical and abstract – something purified of idiosyncrasies and troublesome contagion. Wasn’t it Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon who said she loves humankind but it’s people she can’t stand?

In a similar way we hear Jesus in this week’s Gospel of Luke 6:20-31 describe a blessedness that we recognize as wonderful in a mystical, abstract and theoretical sort of way: “Blessed are you when you are poor, hungry and weeping. Blessed are you when you are hated and cursed and you bless them and pray for them in return. Blessed are you when you give to anyone who begs from you, and even to those who rob you.”

Oh, yes, we recognize this as the mystical, theoretical, but wholly impractical thing that it is. Nice to talk about, but completely unworkable.

Yet, the key verses of All Saints Day are the ones that remind us that we are the holy ones who shall receive and possess the kingdom forever (Daniel 7:18); we are the blessed ones, we are the saints—not in a theoretical, hypothetical sense, but in reality. God has put all things under the feet of Christ; and in spite of the fact that all rule, authority, power and dominion belongs to those who do unto others before the others can do it unto them, it really belongs to those who put others before themselves. The rule, authority, power and dominion are securely under Christ

Christ’s warning and his charge are for us. If we are rich and full and laughing up a storm now, while others are oppressed and in pain—woe to us. But if we truly believe that all real wealth and power are under Christ’s feet, then we will live and serve as Christ did.

A mystery is a thing we know something about, but cannot know all about. The Body of Christ is mystical in that it is bigger and more awesome than we will ever know. But we do know that the person next to us is part of it. Even the enemy we are called to pray for could a most important part of the Body. And we know that there is something saintly and blessed and holy bubbling up inside us that makes living for others as Christ did very practical, very doable.

PS – While we are on the topic of “mystery,” or “mystical,” I have to comment on a radio discussion I heard today (on NPR’s “Science Friday”) of a scientific approach to morality. People like Sam Harris and Stephen Pinker and others made the case for that faith is irrational and defies all empirical verification. They say that it would be far healthier for the human race if we would be liberated from religion and faith because such an irrational approach to morality diverts us from what science proves is truly helpful. They prefer to call on science to help us honestly and fully pursue that which would make us “flourish.”

As a modern man, I too value empiricism and science. They are handy. They are great tools. But are they adequate or sufficient for the job of moral thinking? They seem enamored with this term “flourish.” It seems more scientific–more valid to them. But does it advance the argument to now suggest we can somehow define or describe what it is to flourish? I guess it is a fresh word, but is it a fresh concept? Is it different from “eudaimonia,” or “happiness,” or “the good,” or a dozen other terms people have used for something we cannot quite understand? And if your idea of what it means to “flourish” winds up being quite a bit different from my own, do I have the right to say you are just being irrational or scientific? And would that be helpful?

The fact that philosophers, and a vast army of thinkers from just about every other field, have continued to debate what makes us happy or fulfilled, seems to suggest that there may be more mystery in this world than any scientist is comfortable with.

Too bad.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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