The first and second Sundays of Ordinary Time tell us about two beginnings which are related to each other. Last Sunday was the baptism of Jesus, the beginning of his public ministry. This Sunday is about our beginning, our call to discipleship seen both in the call of Samuel, who was just a boy, and of the first disciples of Jesus, young adults. The call to discipleship is practically the first thing Jesus does in his ministry.
Discipleship requires two things: first, that the Lord comes close to us and draws us to himself; second, that there be in us a search for him and a readiness to welcome him. Once Samuel is told by Eli to answer “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”, the Lord comes close and stands nearby Samuel, calling his name, and Samuel welcomes him. The Lord stays with Samuel from then on. Jesus, too, walks close by the Baptist and his disciples. Their search for the Messiah is over when the Baptist points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. They go after him and stay with him. He welcomes them and they welcome him.
To be a disciple of Jesus means to have, or at least to seek, this close relationship with him. We can call it a covenant: Jesus is with me; I am with Jesus. It is a bond of union and communion of life.
Our second reading from Corinthians today adds more. It is not just my soul that becomes a disciple of Jesus. It’s the whole of me. Jesus is in the flesh. I am in the flesh. In his body he calls me in my body to be one body and spirit with him. He comes to us in the body, so we must go to him in the body. The Christians in Corinth were strongly influenced by the thinking of the time that the material world was useless and bad. What matters is the spirit alone, they said. For that reason, the body did not matter, so you could do anything you liked with it and in it. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is tackling the fallout from that false outlook because, although saying that they believed in Jesus in the flesh and probably received his body and blood in the Eucharist, they were following Greek ideas and indulging in gluttony and especially in sexual immorality. Paul is teaching them instead the doctrine of Christ: that the body, too, is not only important but that, because of baptism, it actually belongs to the Lord, it is part of our discipleship. Being a believer in Jesus, being a baptised disciple of Jesus involves not just the soul but the body, too. We are in his body and he is in ours.
Not so long ago, there was a mentality in our own Church, and it’s probably still around, that the body was bad, sex was bad. In a strange way, it was like that ancient Greek mentality which despised the body. The difference is that, in the case of the Greeks, it meant you could live a life of licentiousness without it mattering; whereas in the case of this warped Catholic thought it led to all manner of prudishness, taboo and prohibition in matters of the body. Both of these extremes fail to respond to the true Catholic vision of the body and of sexuality.
The body is good in the first place because the Lord himself created it, in all its dimensions, including the sexual. Then, the Son of God himself ennobled our human condition, body and soul, by taking it on himself. Yes, it is true that sin created havoc and disorder both in the human soul and in the human body, and sexuality was not spared that. But just as the Lord came to redeem our souls, so he came to redeem our bodies. He redeems the whole person in the unity of body and soul. Therefore, he came also to redeem human sexuality from its share in the havoc and disorder of sin. In redeeming our body and sexuality, Christ’s purpose is not to stifle, frustrate or demean our sexuality. How could it be if he created it? His purpose it rather to bring our sexuality back to playing its God-given part in the original harmony of body and soul of the human person. This he did by his death on the Cross, by offering his whole humanity, body and soul, completely to God as a sacrifice of love. His death destroyed sin, the sin of the soul and the sin of the body and therefore the sin of the sexuality of the body. His death redeemed our sexuality.
But it gets even better. For the way in which Jesus heals our humanity is to join us, body and soul, to his own body, blood, soul and divinity. The first step in that is baptism. It is not just our soul that is baptised and cleansed from original sin, but also our body since it is an integral part of who we are. Baptism makes us members, body and soul, of the mystical body of Christ, the Church. This is not a metaphorical way of speaking: it is the real and actual truth. Baptism literally incorporates us into the Risen Body of Jesus Christ to the point that we now are his body. So much so, that only those who are baptised can receive his body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. In confirmation, our bodies are anointed with the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of matrimony, two members of the body of the Lord literally consummate his love in their marriage by being joined to one another more fully and completely until death. In holy orders, the ministerial priesthood of the incarnate and risen man, Jesus, is conferred on the male candidate to be the sacramental sign of Christ the Head at the service of His Body and Bride, the Church. The body is not meaningless: it mediates Christ.
That’s why St. Paul’s statement that the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body is so powerful. It sums up the truth that, whether married or not, we are to live our bodily life, including our sexuality, in a way that honours the Lord. Christianity’s opposition to sexual immorality therefore is not out of hatred for the body, but rather out of great love for it, Christ’s great love for it. Paul warns the Corinthians against fornication and all forms of sexual immorality because by these we sin against our own bodies, we fail to love our own bodies properly, and therefore we offend against the Body of the Lord. We are forgetting that our bodies are destined for the Resurrection and for eternal unification with the whole of humanity, the Bride of Christ, and with the Bridegroom himself.
The union of the human body to Christ in our life of discipleship frees us from a life in the body which is aimless and harmful. Jesus has welcomed us in our bodies into his Body the Church. If we are to welcome his body into our own in the Eucharist and, when the time comes, in the Resurrection, we must seek to welcome him now. The Lord well understands that, especially in the area of sexuality, it is a struggle for everyone to live in fidelity to him, for the power of sexuality can be used to express not only love, tenderness and intimacy, but also – so the psychologists tell us and history itself testifies – anger, domination, possessiveness and a whole host of similar undesirables. Christ never intended the beauty of sexuality to be disfigured in these ways, but for it to be the means by which husband and wife express the unique and exclusive joy of their love and their openness to the Lord’s gift of children. Even so, He will help us in our struggle to live our sexuality authentically if we ask him, trustingly and patiently. In fact, He loves us all the more for engaging in the struggle which, if we keep trying, can become the means by which Christ will conquer our bodies and our souls for himself.
So, let’s accept willingly and confidently St. Paul’s advice when he encourages us to glorify God in our bodies. The gift of chastity is not the enemy of our sexuality but enables us to live it properly. In marriage, it’s one way; in celibacy, it’s another. Chastity empowers us to put our whole being at the service of our higher Good, God himself, and brings about an inner peace and serenity by which we can live under our own skin with joy and gratitude. As a result, it will enable us to live our relationships in a way that pleases God and preserve us from the disorder and brokenness to which unredeemed sexuality can lead. May the sacrifice of Christ’s body sanctify our own bodies more and more each day and enable us to be his true disciples in body and in soul until at last we reach the peace of remaining with Him for ever.