Saturday 11 November 2017

The Church is the Body of Christ

By Saint John of Shanghai the Wonderworker

'Christ is the Head of the Body, the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all' (Col. 1:18, Eph.1:23). 

In the sacred Scriptures the Church is repeatedly called the Body of Christ. “Rejoice in my sufferings for you … for His body’s sake, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24), writes the holy Apostle Paul. The Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were given by Christ “for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). 

At the same time, it is into the Body and Blood of Christ that the bread and wine are changed during the Divine Liturgy, and the faithful partake of them. Thus it was instituted by Christ Himself, when at the Mystical Supper He imparted Communion unto His Apostles with the words, “Take, eat, this is My body; drink ye all from it, this is My blood of the New Testament” (Matt. 26:26-28). 

How at one and the same time can the Body of Christ be manifest both as the Church and as the Holy Mysteries? 

In the one case and in the other the designation “Body of Christ” is not used metaphorically, but in the actual meaning of the words. We believe that the Holy Mysteries, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine, are the very Body and very Blood of Christ. We also believe and confess that Christ is the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, became a man truly and that His flesh, taken from the Virgin Mary, was actually human flesh; that in body and soul Christ was truly a man in every respect like unto us, except for sin, and that at the same time He remains true God. The Son of God’s Divine Nature was not diminished or changed when He was incarnate, neither was His human nature changed thereby, but it fully retained all its human characteristics. 

The Divinity and the humanity are united in the One Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, without change, and without blending for ever, undivided and inseparably. The Son of God was incarnate so that people might be made ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), so that man, who had fallen into sin and death, might be freed therefrom and be made immortal.  

When we are united with Christ, we receive Divine Grace, which grants human nature the power of victory over sin and death. The Lord Jesus Christ showed people the way of victory over sin by His teaching and He grants us eternal life, making us participants in His eternal kingdom through His Resurrection. That we might receive this Divine Grace from Him, the closest possible communion with Him is indispensable. Drawing all to Himself by Divine love and uniting them to Himself, the Lord united one to another those who love Him and had come thereunto, uniting them within the One Church.

The Church is unity in Christ, the closest union with Christ for all who rightly believe in Him and love Him, the union of all of them in Christ.  This is what the Church comprises from her earthly part even to her heavenly.
The Son of God came to earth and was incarnate, to raise man to Heaven, to make him again a citizen of Paradise, restoring him again to his original condition of sinlessness and wholeness, and to unite him to Himself. 

This is achieved through the action of the Grace of God, which is imparted through the Church, but it also requires effort on the part of man himself. God saves His fallen creature through His love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also needed, and without it it is impossible for him to be saved. When it strives towards God and cleaves to the Lord in its humble love, the soul of man receives power, which cleanses it of sin, and strengthens it to battle with sin unto complete victory.
In this battle the body also participates; though it now appears to be the dwelling-place and instrument of sin, it is intended to be the instrument of righteousness and the vessel of sanctity. 

God made man, breathing a Godlike spirit into the animate body which He had first created from the earth. The body must be the instrument of the soul which is subservient to God. Through it the soul of man is manifest in the material world. Through the body and its particular members, the soul reveals its characteristics and the nature which God has given it as His image, and thus the body is a manifestation of the image of God and “our beauty is fashioned after the image of God” (verses from the Funeral Service). 

When the first-created people fell away from their Creator spiritually, the body, which hitherto had been subservient to the soul, receiving its orders through the soul, ceased to be subject unto it and began to strive to rule over it. The law of the flesh took the place of the law of God within man.
Sin, which thus cut man off from the source of life, God, also separated man himself. He lost the oneness in his soul, between soul and body, and death came upon him. The soul, no longer watered by the streams of life, could no longer impart them to the body. The body became corruptible, languidness became the portion of the soul. 

Christ came to earth to raise up the fallen image again, and to bring it back to unity with Him, Whose image it was. Uniting him with Himself, God elevated man to his original goodness in all its fullness.

Granting grace and sanctification to the soul, Christ also purified, strengthened, healed and hallowed soul and body. ‘He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit with the Lord’ (1 Cor. 6:17). The body, then, of the man united with the Lord, must be the Lord’s instrument, serving for the fulfilment of His will and being part of the Body of Christ. 

That man might be wholly sanctified, the body of the servant of the Lord must be united with the Body of Christ, and this is achieved in the Mystery of Holy Communion. The very Body and very Blood of Christ, which we partake of, become part of the great Body of Christ.

Of course, for there to be union with Christ, it is not enough simply to unite our body with the Body of Christ. The tasting of the Body of Christ becomes beneficial, when with the soul we strive towards Him and are united with Him. The reception of the Body of Christ, when spiritually we are turning aside from Him, is like the touching of Christ by those who beat Him, and scourged Him and crucified Him. Their contact with Him did not serve for their salvation or healing, but was unto condemnation. 

Those who receive Communion, though, with reverence, love and a readiness to place themselves at His service, intimately unite themselves with Him, and they become instruments of His Divine will. 

‘He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me, and I in him’ (John 6:56). 

Having united himself with the Risen Lord, and through Him with the whole Ever-Existing Trinity, a man draws strength from Him unto eternal life and himself becomes immortal. 

‘As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me’ (John 6:57). 

All those who believe in Christ and are united with Him by giving themselves to Him and through the reception of the Grace of God together comprise the Church of Christ, the Head of which is Christ Himself, and those enter into Him are His members. 

Invisible to the physical eye, Christ clearly manifests Himself on earth through His Church, just as the soul of man, which is invisible, manifests itself through its body. The Church is the Body of Christ because her members are united with Christ through His Divine Mysteries, and because through her Christ acts within the world. 

We commune of the Body and Blood of Christ so that we might be members of the Body of Christ (the Church). 

This is not achieved instantaneously. The fullest abiding in the Church is the condition of victory over sin and a complete cleansing therefrom. Everything sinful to a certain degree alienates us from the Church and separates us from the Church. This is why, at confession, this prayer is read over every penitent: ‘Reconcile, and unite to Thy holy Church.’ Through repentance the Christian is cleansed; in the communion of the Holy Mysteries he is united most closely with Christ, but then again the dust of sin settles upon him and he is estranged from Christ and the Church and therefore again needs repentance and Communion. 

Right until a man’s earthly life ends, to the very departure of his soul from the body, the battle between sin and righteousness continues within him. However exalted, spiritual or moral a condition he may have reached, it is possible for him by degrees or even precipitately to fall deeply into the abyss of sin. So it is indispensable for us, at each and every communion of the holy Body and Blood of Christ, to strengthen our communion with Him and bedew ourselves with the living streams of the Grace of the Holy Spirit which flow within the Body of the Church. The importance of communing of the Holy Mysteries is demonstrated by the Life of the venerable Onouphrius the Great, to whom, along with the other hermits who dwelt in that desert, the Angels brought Holy Communion; by the venerable Mary of Egypt whose last wish, after many years of living in the desert, was to receive the Holy Mysteries; by the venerable Sabbatius of Solovki and by a host of others. It was not vainly that the Lord said: ‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you’ (John 6:53). 

The communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is the reception within oneself of the Risen Christ, the Conqueror of death, Who grants to those who are with Him victory over sin and death.

When we preserve in ourselves the grace-filled gift of Communion, we have the pledge and presaging of the blessed life of soul and body. 

Until the very 'Day of Christ', His second Coming and Judgment of all the world, the battle between sin and righteousness will continue, both within each individual man, and among all mankind.
The earthly Church unites all those born again by way of Baptism, who have taken up the Cross of the battle with sin, and who follow the Contest-setter of that battle, Christ. The Divine Eucharist, the offering of the bloodless sacrifice and the communion thereof, sanctifies and strengthens those who participate; it makes those who taste of the Body and Blood of Christ true members of His Body, the Church. But it is only at death that a man may determine whether until his last breath he was actually a member of the Body of Christ, or whether sin prevailed within him and expelled the grace that he had received in the Holy Mysteries and which bound him to Christ. 

He who dies in grace, as a member of the earthly Church, is translated from the Church on earth to that in heaven, but he who has forsaken the earthly [Church] does not enter into the heavenly, for that part of the Church which is on earth is the road to the heavenly. 

The more a man finds himself under the action of the grace of Communion and the more closely he binds himself to Christ, the more he will inherit communion with Christ in His Kingdom which is to come.

But if sin continues to act in a man’s soul even unto death, then his body will be subject to its consequences, which bear in themselves sickness and death, and from them it will only be liberated when it decomposes after the death of that man and when it rises free of them in the General Resurrection. He who is united soul and body to Christ in this life, will be united with Him soul and body in the life to come. The grace-filled streams of the Life-creating Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ are manifest as the sources of our eternal joy in communion with the Risen Christ and in seeing His glory face to face. 

Even though sin does not completely alienate one from the race of man, nonetheless its consequences act not only upon individual people, but, through them, upon them upon the earthly activity of the whole Church. Constantly heresies, schisms and disorders appear, tearing away a portion of the faithful. From of old, breaks in commemoration between the local churches or within sections of them have agitated the Church, and in the Divine services we constantly hear prayers that such things might be cut short. 

‘We ask for concord among the Churches’, ‘the union of the Churches’ (Canon of the Resurrection, Plagal Fourth Tone), ‘that the dissension of the Churches might be set in order’ (Service of the Archangels, 8th November) ­– these and other similar petitions has the Orthodox Church offered up over the course of the centuries. On the Great Sabbath itself, before the Winding-Sheet, the Church cries out: ‘Birthgiver of Life, O most blameless and most holy Virgin: Quell every offence within our most Holy Church, blessing us with peace forever, O Good Maid’. 

Only when Christ appears in the clouds, will the tempter be trampled down and only then will all offences and temptations disappear. 

When the battle between good and evil, between life and death, is finished, then will the Church on earth be delivered into the Church Triumphant, in which “God will be all in all” (see 1 Cor. 15:28). 

In the coming Kingdom of Christ, there will be no need to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, for all those who have been deemed worthy will be in the closest bodily communion with Him and will delight in the pre-eternal light of the Life-originating Trinity, experiencing a blessedness which no tongue can describe and which our feeble minds cannot comprehend. Therefore, after the communion of the holy Mysteries of Christ at the Liturgy, in the sanctuary they always say the prayer which is sung on the paschal days, ‘O great and most sacred Pascha, Christ; O Wisdom and Word and power of God! Grant that we may partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy kingdom.’
Translated from Slova - the Homilies of St John of Shanghai, published by Russkiy Pastyr in San Francisco, in 1994.

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