On that unforgettable day on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus heard the question that struck his heart like a thunderbolt: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He could have replied, “O Lord, of course I’m not persecuting you, just your followers.” But he understood. In fact, he was blind for three days as the full truth sank in: Jesus is alive, and he is one with all those who believe in him. So much so that it is as if when you stomp on a man’s foot, his head cries out in pain.
Paul’s letters show the fruit of his reflections on this mystery: the church is the body of Christ. This is not a mere metaphor or poetic figure of speech. It is a mystical reality. Christ is the head, and Christians are physically joined to him through Baptism and the Eucharist. We are his body, his visible, audible, and tangible presence on earth.
This truth has enormous implications for life within the parish.
Hearts Knit Together in Love
Luke describes the daily life of the earliest Christian community this way: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Greek word for “fellowship” is koinōnia, which means interpersonal communion, a close bond of mutual love and support, even to the point of sharing goods. Not coincidentally, it is the same word used for holy Communion. The Eucharist was the high point of a community life of deep mutual love, animated by the Holy Spirit, and concretely expressed in acts of humble service to one another.
Such fellowship was a remarkable novelty in the ancient world. The early Church consisted of people who never previously would have dreamed of associating with one another: Jews and gentiles, aristocrats and slaves, morally upright people, and people who had been mired in sexual disorder. Yet in Christ they formed deep bonds of affection as brothers and sisters. Such love was a powerful witness to the gospel and an antidote to the loneliness and alienation that was common in the ancient world as it is today.
But that koinōnia did not always come easily, any more than it does for us. Paul realized he needed to pray constantly for the Christians, that their hearts might be “knit together in love” (Col 2:2). He reminds them, “Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:10). He teaches that this love is not just an emotion, nor simply a general attitude of goodwill. It is costly. It entails humbly counting others better than yourself (Phil 2:3), constantly looking out for their interests (Phil 2:4), gently bearing the burdens of those who are weak or have fallen (Gal 6:1-2), putting up with the faults of those who may not be easy to get along with (Eph 4:2), and forgiving readily (Eph 4:32). It also means taking care to avoid cliques, factions, favoritism, judgmentalism, or any attitudes that could tear apart the unity of the body (1 Cor 1:10-13). Ultimately, it means emptying yourself as Christ did and becoming the “last of all and the servant of all” (Mk 9:35; Phil 2:5-8).
In a parish that lives according to this biblical vision, the good of each member becomes the preoccupation and commitment of all. It is not enough simply to sit in the pews week after week with the same people. No member of Christ’s body can be indifferent to any other. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). How could a hand not care if the knee is scraped? The hand will put a bandage on it. Or if the hand is injured, the feet will walk toward the doctor so the hand can be cured.
Even more, all the members have one single goal: to glorify God by being transformed into the image of his Son, so that Christ may be made known and loved in the world. All the members want the “old self” to die, with its self-centered and divisive tendencies. All reject Satan and want to see him put to flight. All want to be delivered from the ways of the world. All recognize that, even when a brother or sister fails or when we disagree, this is their highest goal as well.
Building up the body in love
There is one other element of biblical teaching that has often been neglected but is essential to koinōnia in the Church: the charisms, the innumerable gifts for leadership and service that the Holy Spirit distributes among the faithful. In pursuing unity, human beings tend to seek uniformity—everyone dressing, talking, thinking, and acting alike. But God’s plan is for a unity formed through the rich diversity of charisms such as teaching, administration, hospitality, intercession, healing, miracles, and prophecy. Each person is given charisms to be put at the service of others so that believers may be built up and unbelievers may come to believe (1 Cor 14:24-26).
A parish in which all activities are charism-based equips and motivates each member to serve according to his or her charisms, which brings joy and fulfillment, as well as freedom from jealousy or competition. If another person has an outstanding gift, praise the Lord! His gift is not for himself, but for the whole body, and I can rejoice in it as if it were mine. Likewise, if I have a gift it is not for my ownership, but to share generously with others.
In this way, the divine love that flows from Christ the head to each person can flow through each person and circulate tangibly among all the members, so that all “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:15-16). This is the glorious mystery that God wants the world to see when it looks at the Church: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27).