Over the last few weeks I’ve noted that Paul’s letter to the Romans is a pastoral letter to a church struggling to maintain unity in the midst of developing conflict.
Paul’s narrative of the human body from corruption to transformation runs through the letter as a subtext. It supports his contention that all Christians in Rome (Jewish and non-Jewish) are subject to corruption and all are transformed on the same basis—by God’s free grace. They all participate in that human journey, which puts them all on the same level.
As I indicated the other day, Paul’s theological narrative of the body (individual bodies and the gathered body) has significant theological implications. I’ll mention just a few:
First, God’s “salvation” is not an elimination of embodied human life but the transformation of it. The evangelicalism with which I’m familiar tends to denigrate the body, associating sinfulness with embodied existence. The hope, then, is getting out of the body reaching a “spiritual” plane of existence.
In Romans, however, Christian hope is not “getting out of here and escaping to heaven” for an eternally disembodied existence. Christian hope is for the glorification of God’s children (Rom. 8:18-25)—the glorious transformation of our earthly bodies to true humanity. Our hope is one day to flourish on a transformed earth as transformed people.
Second, as we await this final transformation, our current Christian existence has everything to do with how we conduct ourselves as bodies and our participation in the gathered body. That is, growing in Christ means cultivating embodied habits and practices that manifest the character of Christ.
If Paul says that this means that Christians with significant differences need to learn to “welcome each other” (Rom. 15:5-7), then we ought to explore the many ways that we can do this as bodies in the gathered body. Are there communal patterns or corporate practices in our church that marginalize anyone? Those need to be eliminated and replaced by corporate practices that draw others in and make them feel at home.
Third, if Paul writes about God’s saving moves in terms of how God is reclaiming bodies, then we must reconsider how we bifurcate existence into “spiritual” and “physical.” Christians sometimes are hesitant to contribute resources to meet the physical needs of others unless we feel that “spiritual” purposes are being honored. We should reconsider this dichotomy. Part of growing in Christ and embodying participation in salvation must involve caring for bodies as the body of Christ.
Fourth, and pressing this point a bit more strategically, the current embodiment of salvation involves specific bodily conduct. Paul confronts the error that the manner in which the current possession of salvation is embodied is by behavior that makes one Jewish. Just because one is Jewish does not guarantee future bodily transformation. So, what does guarantee that? Paul’s answer comes in Rom. 8:17—all those who suffer with Christ will be glorified with Christ.
That is, we possess salvation if we participate in our bodily practices in the cruciform life of Jesus by the Spirit. That means that contemporary Christian existence must involve the corporate exploration of concrete communal practices that embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus.
Where such explorations are absent, we should consider any hope of future glorification to have no basis.
Lastly, we embody salvation by pursuing unity as a body. It is a tragic irony that this letter, intended to unify a corporate body in Rome, is often the battleground over which dogmatic wars are fought. One wonders if Paul’s point has been grossly missed.
There’s much more and much else to be said about this narrative thread, and other theological conclusions to be drawn from it, but I’ll leave it there for now. Other thoughts about how Paul narrates the body?