When the Apostle Paul refers to followers of Jesus in the aggregate as ‘the body of Christ’, he is only scratching the surface. The New Testament audaciously identifies the new community with the risen Jesus himself.
Paul had a knack for riots. Creating them, one means.
After narrowly escaping being rough dissection without anesthesis at the hands of an enraged Jerusalem mob, he asks the Roman soldiers who were at once his rescuers and arrestors for a chance to turn and address those who found his mere presence in the temple grounds a blasphemous offense.
The bona fides he provides his listeners display an assortment of religiously motivated exertions, some of them at the expense of the nascent Jesus movement itself:
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished. (Acts 22:3–5 ESV)
Paul’s ‘Damascus Road experience’ is extensively reported in the Book of Acts and in Paul’s own letters. It is repeatedly linked to Paul’s violent assaults upon the young Christian movement. Twice the narrative includes the appearance of Jesus in a vision and the claim that Paul is not merely harassing the practitioners of a new faith but also persecuting Jesus himself.
As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ (Acts 22:6–8 ESV)
The highly motivational trauma that Paul reports with remarkable frequency must have included the revulsion of discovering that he had been persecuting the risen Jesus himself. His biography ever after would include the shame of having done violence to ‘the church’ and to ‘Jesus’, as though it mattered little to him in this connection to make the distinction.
In this light, the ‘body of Christ’ language that would emerge as a preferred metaphor for the Christian community seems remarkably natural.
I write this post at a time with ISIS and other extremist movements have unleashed a targeted savagery against Christians (leaving aside for the moment the blood and tears they have claimed from fellow Muslims). Christians struggle with how to pray for these particular enemies.
One wonders whether Paul might counsel us to pray that our self-declared enemies would realize that they are persecuting Jesus.
It seems a possibility so remote as to be almost not worth the bother. Likely those early followers of Jesus who cowered in basements against Saul’s murderous arrival felt similarly about their lethal antagonist, so relentless, so zealous, so lethal.