Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflections on Good Friday and the Church as the Body of Christ

The Church is the Body of Christ. And on Good Friday we remember that this is not a pleasant vocation. We don’t like to think of God suffering.  But every Good Friday we are presented with the suffering of God.  We are presented with a God who loves the world so much that God entered the world and was present to the full reality of the human experience.
“And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) has become a central Christological affirmation. It is time for the Church to follow Christ by recognizing that its role is not as a mediator or spiritual guide, but as the body of Christ, a body that lives, breathes, eats, and dies among the people.
The Gospel of John may have included this early hymn about Christ as a clear statement against Docetism, an early Gnostic doctrine (regarded as heretical) that holds that Jesus only appeared to be physical, but in reality Jesus was incorporeal, a pure spirit. The doctrine arises from a belief that a physical body would have been an imperfection.
Though Docetism has long since been banished from our Christology (understanding of Christ), it seems to be alive and flourishing in our ecclesiology (understanding of the Church).  For a great many people in the United States, for a church to make a political or economic statement would be overstepping its bounds. The church is to minister to the spiritual needs of the people and to be involved in charity, but not politics, economics, or social justice. Yet to separate off the church from the political and economic arenas of life in which people suffer and die on a daily basis is to move the heresy of Docetism from Christology to Ecclesiology.
The Church must be involved in all of reality, not merely a few chosen and safe aspects. As the Salvadoran Theologian Jon Sobrino writes, “A Docetist Church is one that distances itself from ‘real’ reality and chooses the sphere of reality in which it wants to be Church: the religious, the doctrinal, the liturgical, the canonical.”
Every Good Friday we should be forcefully reminded of the cost of being a real church, and acting as the body of Christ. Jesus was betrayed, flogged, and crucified. At one point he even felt as though God had forsaken him (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34). This is how the world treats the Body of Christ. 
As Christians we are called to proclaim the good news of God as revealed to us in Christ Jesus, a poor man from a backwards province suffering under the economic and military control of the Roman Empire. That gospel is “good news to the poor,” “release to the captives,” “recovery of sight to the blind,” and “to let the oppressed go free.”  (Luke 4:18-19). This was Jesus mission, and it is the mission of the Body of Christ up to this day.  It is spiritual, but it is also physical. Perhaps most importantly it is as deeply unpopular with the principalities and powers of today as it was in Jesus’ time.
Like the first disciples, we keep hoping that the Messiah, the Christ will come in power to proclaim an end to suffering and death and establish the reign of God. But the wisdom of the world, the wisdom of strength, power, and realpolitik, is not the wisdom of God. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the midst of WWII, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…Only the suffering God can help.”
The plain truth is that following the way of Jesus is likely to end in suffering and possibly death. Just as the authorities of Jesus day pushed him out of the world and onto the cross, the authorities and politicians of today do not want the Church to tell them that they cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor. They do not want the Church to be a prophetic voice that denounces injustices in the tradition of Isaiah, Amos, Jesus, Oscar Romero and hosts of other Christians who proclaimed good news to the poor and challenged the oppression of the dominant powers of their day.
As a Church, each Good Friday we are reminded that we are called to be fully present in the suffering of this world. When we begin to enter into the brokenness of the poor and downtrodden, if we are filled with love we cannot help but become advocates for justice. As Cornel West memorably puts it, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Being the Body of Christ, suffering with the poor, denouncing the political, military, and economic powers of oppression, and announcing the Reign of God is not an easy task. But it is the task of the Body of Christ, the task that has been left to the Church. The good news of Good Friday is that we are not alone in that task, God is with us, fully present in our broken and suffering world.