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Rowan Williams on the body of Christ

Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Resurrection has some very helpful thoughts on the nature of the church as the body of Christ, and, specifically on the relationship between the church and the risen, personal body of Jesus.

We have already noted that Jesus as risen is a Jesus who cannot be contained in the limits of a past human life; the corollary of this is that Jesus as risen cannot be contained in the legitimating and supporting memory of a community. The Church is not “founded” by Jesus of Nazareth as an institution to preserve the recollection of his deeds and words; it is the community of those who meet him as risen and the place where all the world may meet him as risen. . . .

So the void of the tomb and the unrecognizable face of the risen Lord both speak of the challenge of Easter to a God who is primarily “the God of our condition.” The Lordship of Jesus is not constructed from a recollection but experienced in the encounter with the one who evades our surface desires and surface needs, and will not subserve the requirements of our private dramas. The Church is not the assembly of the disciples as a “continuation” of Jesus, but the continuing group of those engaged in dialogue with Jesus, those compelled to renew again and again their confrontation with a person who judges and calls and recreates. The Church may be Christ’s “Body”, the place of his presence, but it is entered precisely by the ritual encounter with his death and resurrection, by the “turning around” which stops us struggling to interpret his story in light of our and presses us to interpret ourselves in the light of the Easter event. The “Body” image is one of many. We need to be cautious about any tendency to see the Church as a simple “undialectical” extension of Christ; and we have already explored something of the way in which the Eucharist enshrines the dialectic by both confronting us with our victim and identifying us with him. The Church is where Christ is because it is where persons find their identity through him and before him. Christ is with the believer and beyond the believer at the same time: we are in Christ and yet face to face with him. Christian worship and spirituality wrestles continuously with what this means, as it both addresses Christ directly, and speaks in his name to God as “Abba.” Jesus grants us a solid identity, yet refuses us the power to “seal” or finalize it, and obliges us to realize that this identity only exists in an endless responsiveness to new encounters with him in the world of unredeemed relationships; to absolutize it, imagining that we have finished the making of ourselves, that we have done with desire and restlessness, is to slip back into that unredeemed world; to turn from the void of the tomb to the drama of a cheapened Calvary for the frustrated ego. (p. 74, 76)

It should be noted that I am not interested here in identifying targets for Williams’ critique so much as receiving and appropriating his constructive statements about the nature of the church as the body of Christ. And, more importantly, the tendencies he describes here seem to me to be temptations. Temptations that we are all prone to in our attempts to live out the life of the church in the world. As such they constitute a powerful and helpful exhortation. I know I find it arresting and often needed in my own ecclesial life.

One Comment

  1. Beautiful. The dialectical unity and difference of the church with Christ is much more compelling to me than a simple choice for one or the other.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:21 am | Permalink

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