In looking at Paul’s understanding of the church as the body of Christ we see a set of relationships, that of the individual believer to Christ and the believer in community. It is through baptism that both the individual believer accepts salvation through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, and is joined to the community, the body, of fellow believers. Likewise, through the Eucharist, the believer is drawn into a deeper relationship with Christ while also recognizing his or her reliance on and unity within the community. They are symbolically understood as the body of Christ in the world. Therefore the Christian Community has a responsibility to carry forth the message and mission of Christ through dependence on one another as Christ’s hands and feet.
This differs from John’s metaphor of church first, in that John emphasized the priority of one’s personal connection to the vine or Christ over that of the community. Without this connection to the vine, enabled by the Spirit, the believer can do nothing fruitful on its own. Secondly, this relationship leads the believer on the path of discipleship, as one of many disciples on similar paths, who are then gathered by the Spirit in community. For John, this is church, seen in a community whereby all are called upon individually but equally to love and service to one another. For Paul, the church collectively is called upon to use her gifts given by the Spirit, rather than a gathering of individual disciples.
However, I feel that both understandings of our relationships as disciples are so important! We must both be connected to Christ as is suggested by John as well as to be connected to each other in community as the body of Christ. We cannot grow fruitfully as a vine if we lose our connection to life in Christ. Likewise, we need the support of the community and understanding of mission to be the hands and feet of the body. There are also common challenges presented by both Paul and John, seen in the need for love, forgiveness, and renewal.
For Paul, this is exemplified in the reception of the Eucharist. We bring all that we are when we come to mass, our gifts and our faults, and receive love, forgiveness and reconciliation to God as well as to each other. Then ‘blessed and broken’ we are then to be Christ to others. For John, we understand that partaking in the Eucharist though word and sacrament to be spiritually renewing oneself to the Vine the source of salvation. Yet also in recommitting one’s call of discipleship to greater love, forgiveness and service. Finally both saw a need for believers to continue the mission of Christ and work towards the values and reality of a coming kingdom of God. These remain essential today, for while we witness inbreakings of the kingdom we are called as a church to recommit our lives to its completion.