1 Samuel 3:3–10, 19; 1 Corinthians 6:13b–15, 17–20; John 1:35–42
I tend to lean on the gospel readings heavily when I write my homilies and less on the readings from the epistles, usually Paul’s writings. I’m going to deviate from my norm today because I want to focus on an element of our faith that I don’t think is well understood and one that can get distorted by the currents of politics and culture.
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”
Your bodies are members of Christ. What does that mean? Clearly, it suggests connectedness in some way. Is it the connectedness of a club? Or a fraternal organization? Is it like a voluntary membership to your neighborhood association?
It is like none of that. The Body of Christ is not simply a matter of agreement on certain beliefs, or alignment on political principles, or acceptance of certain ideologies. We are joined by a common baptism and confirmation, and we are joined by our shared communion in the Eucharist. What does this mean, and what should its impact be in our world and on our lives?
Let’s start with the Sacrament of Baptism. In the understanding of many of our Protestant brethren, baptism is merely a symbol of our acceptance of Christ as our savior. That is not the historical understanding of baptism, nor is it a scriptural understanding of baptism.
First, let’s talk about what scripture says about baptism. What it does not say is that baptism is optional, is purely symbolic, or is reserved for adults only. In the gospel of John, Jesus says that you must be reborn by water and the spirit. In Matthew, he tells the Apostles to go to all nations baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
In Acts, in response to the Pharisees who ask how they can atone for having crucified Christ, Peter says, “Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” In his first epistle, Peter says, “Baptism now saves you.” It replaces the Jewish practice of circumcision. Paul in Romans notes that we die and rise with Jesus in our baptism. So there is the scriptural foundation for our belief. But what does the Church teach about the effects of our baptism?
First and foremost, the Church teaches that baptism joins us to the Church. It is the means by which people begin communion with the Church. It has other effects as well, most notably cleansing from Original Sin and personal sin. But it is a sacrament of initiation, and what it initiates is membership in the Body of Christ. And not just baptisms in a Catholic church! If you are baptized using the proper matter and form—that is, with water and with the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and with the intention that the Church has, you are joined to the Catholic church even if you are baptized in a non-denominational community. In this respect, it corresponds to the circumcision of the Jews, as Paul teaches in Colossians 2:11. Note that circumcision took place typically on the eighth day after birth for Jewish boys, so by necessity, it was done on infants. If that is the case, it follows that baptism too is legitimately done on infants, and nothing in scripture indicates otherwise.
I love baptisms, and I have a special reason to celebrate this sacrament today as we [will be baptizing my first godson, Maverick Wimer, in just a few moments] [just baptized my first godson, Maverick Wimer, during the 8:00 AM Mass].
So baptism joins us to the Church. If you have been baptized, you are a member of the Body of Christ. Even if you aren’t Catholic and you’ve been baptized, you’ve been joined to the Church.
That’s the first of the Sacraments of Initiation. Two other important sacraments are also part of this group of sacraments of initiation: Confirmation and Eucharist. Now, Confirmation is important, but I want to focus on the Eucharist as it is central to our worship and also central to our understanding of what it means to be the Church.
The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving, which is appropriate, as it is the full expression of the early Jewish todah or thanksgiving offering of bread and wine. But note that we so frequently refer to it by its other name—communion. Communion. One name reflects what we do—notably, giving thanks. The other name reflects what it does—brings about communion. It makes us one with Christ and with each other.
I don’t hear this old aphorism very often any more, but it was very popular back in the 70s and 80s: you are what you eat. The point then was that if you ate something healthy, you’d be healthy, and if you ate junk, you’d feel like junk. But it applies in our case. We are joined to the Body of Christ in baptism, and when we receive Eucharist, we receive the body, blood, soul, and Divinity of Christ. And if we are what we eat, that means we become—more and more—the Body of Christ. And that means that we are not simply joined to Christ, but we are joined to each other. Communion is both vertical, with God, and horizontal, with each other.
We are members of the Body of Christ! Appendages! Extensions!
And this status implies something about how we are supposed to be in the world. We all have different roles to play. As Paul notes, some of us are called to preach and teach, some to give hospitality, some to interpret and others to prophesy. We all have a calling to do something for Christ. We are, as some have put it, His hands and feet. We are one of the primary ways in which God works in the world. He can intervene through miracles. He can reveal Himself directly to people in mystical experiences. But for the most part, what He uses to bring about His will in the world is you and me. We are His instruments—His hands, His feet, and His heart.
You see, we as Catholics believe that sacraments have effects. They change us. They are not merely empty symbols. Some sacraments are a point of no return. They make, what philosophers call, an ontological change in us. They mark us and change our very being permanently. Baptism is one such sacrament. But all have effects on us because all of them convey grace. That is part of the definition of a sacrament: a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace.
The Eucharist—communion—is a tremendous gift to the Church and the central act of worship for the faithful. It is a primary means that Christ gave us for our sanctification. It should change us more and more to be like Christ, and that enables us to go out into the world as Christ’s hands, feet, and heart.
We need to be Christ in the world. We need to be the gospel in the world. Some people will never set foot or never consider setting foot in this cathedral. They will not encounter the Gospel here unless they encounter the Gospel in you. You may be the only Gospel they ever hear. So preach it in your actions! Let your Catholic Christian freak flag fly!
[8:00 AM – We’re going to encounter these two sacraments today—baptism and Eucharist—these powerful mysteries of our faith. These sacraments can change our lives, but only if we allow the grace they give us to work in us. Jesus wants to come into our lives and transform them. But to do that, we have to surrender our lives to Him. Only then can we truly be His hands, His feet, and His heart to the world.]
[10:00 AM – We’re going to encounter the sacrament of Eucharist today—this powerful mystery of our faith. This sacrament can change our lives, but only if we allow the grace it gives us to work in us. Jesus wants to come into our lives and transform them. But to do that, we have to surrender our lives to Him. Only then can we truly be His hands, His feet, and His heart to the world.]