When we read Luke’s report in the Acts of the Apostles concerning Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, what could strike us as strange and puzzling is Christ’s self-identification when Paul asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply goes: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” If we can stretch our imagination and engage our fantasy a bit, we might picture Paul protesting, “You are already dead, how can you say I’m persecuting you? It is the followers of ‘the Way’ that I’m persecuting, not you!” But even this protest sounds absurd, for the person Paul encounters in the vision is very much alive.
The insight Paul gets from this strange meeting and conversation shapes his conviction about what the risen and glorified Christ really means for him and for all of humanity. The Christ that Paul encounters on the road to Damascus transcends the individual category. He is no longer a single person, the man historically known as Jesus of Nazareth. He is now an inclusive personality—one in whom believers find themselves incorporated. Paul begins to speak of Christian life as lived in an ‘area’ which is ‘Christ’. This idea is echoed by the Acts of the Apostles, where we read: “In him we live and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This extraordinary conception of Jesus Christ is what New Testament scholars call the ‘Corporate Christ’. Paul employs various expressions to convey this new notion of Christ.
‘In Christ’ is an important prepositional phrase that Paul uses one hundred and sixty-four (164!) times to express various ideas of incorporation into Christ. Paul seems to think of himself and of other Christians as included or located in Christ. Moreover, a Christian is not ‘in Christ’ as an isolated believer. Being ‘in Christ’, for Paul, is a communal conception and not an individual possession. It is a life shared with those who have responded to Christ. 1
Adam in the letters of Paul is a corporate, more-than-individual figure. The ‘first Adam’ signifies sinful humanity in need of redemption. The ‘second Adam’, who is Christ, signifies redeemed humanity. Thus, Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, develops the understanding of Christ as Adam. Paul goes beyond Israel to the scope of all humanity, finding in Christ not only true Israel but renewed humanity.2
Body of Christ is the expression coined by Paul to convey the idea that our union with Christ is ‘organic’ in nature. Christ himself is the body of which Christians are limbs. It is by union with this body and by incorporation in it that Christians become Christians. Christ is the true self of the human race, standing in that perfect union with God to which others can attain only as they are incorporated in him.
In an age of heightened individualism, Paul’s conception of Christ as corporate invites us to recognize the undeniable fact of our connectedness. Many of our problems today are communal and even global in nature. If we can acknowledge our responsibility to the larger communities in which we live, we can facilitate solving global issues and discover a greater sense of meaning, inasmuch as it will allow individuals to realize that we all share a common story. Indeed, it is time that we accept the fact that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
1 Ernest Best, One Body in Christ (London: SPCK, 1955), 1, 8; W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), 213.
2 C. D. F. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 94.
Excerpted and adapted from Glimpses of Paul and His Message
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of Paul and biblical Greek.