The Apostle Paul’s teaching is deeply incarnational, yet this has often not been recognized. Paul sees that the Gospel message must have concrete embodiment, which he calls “churches.” Jesus’ first vision of church is so simple we miss it: “two or three gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20), “and I am with you” (which is just as strong a statement of presence as in the bread and wine of communion). This is surely why Jesus insists that the message be communicated not by the lone evangelist but sends the disciples out “two by two” (Mark 6:7). The individual alone is not a fitting communicator of the core message, and I am not either.
During Paul’s lifetime, the Christian church was not yet an institution or a centrally organized set of common practices and beliefs. It was a living organism that communicated the Gospel primarily through relationships. This fits with Paul’s understanding of Christ as what we might call an energy field, a set of relationships inside of which we can live with integrity. Today’s support or recovery groups are good examples of these relationships.
Paul’s brilliant metaphor for this living, organic, concrete embodiment is “the Body of Christ”: “Just as a human body, though it is made up of many parts, is a single unit, because all those parts make up a single body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). At the heart of this body, providing the energy that enlivens the whole community, although each in different ways, is “the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5).
This Spirit is itself the foundational energy of the universe, the Ground of All Being, described in the first lines of the Bible (Genesis 1:2). Union is not just spiritual poetry, but the very concrete work of God. It is how God makes love to what God created. Paul writes that it is precisely “in your togetherness that you are Christ’s Body” (1 Corinthians 12:27, JB). By remaining—against all trials and resistance—inside this luminous web of relationship, this vibrational state of love, we experience a very honest and healthy notion of salvation. If you are trying to do it alone and apart, it is not salvation at all, but very well disguised self-interest.
Paul’s communities are his audiovisual aids that he can point to inside of a debauched empire (where human dignity was never upheld as inherent), to give credibility to his message. To people who asked, “Why should we believe there’s a new or different life possible?” Paul could say, “Look at these people. They’re different. This is a different social order.” In Christ, “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, JB). This is not just a religious idea, but a socioeconomic message that began to change the world—and still can.
For Jesus, such teachings as forgiveness, healing, and justice work are the only real evidence of a new and shared life. If we do not see this happening in churches and spiritual communities (but merely the conducting of worship services or meditation sits), religion is “all in the head” and largely an illusion. Peacemaking, forgiveness, and reconciliation are not some kind of ticket to heaven later. They are the price of peoplehood—the signature of heaven—now.
~Adapted from Richard Rohr: Essential Teachings on Love, ed. Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Orbis Books: 2018), 103-104.