You would almost miss it if you weren’t looking for it. There’s a phrase in today’s second reading that is quintessentially Christian: the phrase ‘in Christ’. It’s the phrase that’s traditionally used when Christians sign letters – or a variation thereof.
This is the opening paragraph of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth, and he is giving a quick summary describing the people he is addressing. It’s very easy to see this introduction as a mere formality to be got out of the way before he gets to the meaty bits, but I’d like to concentrate on pulling apart this single phrase.
In Australia you could be forgiven for missing it altogether, because the Jerusalem Bible translation gives “greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ”. The New American Bible, however, (used in the USA) translates the Greek more accurately as “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy” (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ Θεοῦ, τῇ οὔσῃ ἐν Κορίνθῳ, ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, κλητοῖς ἁγίοις).
What’s so special about this phrase, ‘in Christ’?
Jesus talks frequently about our remaining in him. You wouldn’t find Mohamed expecting people to remain in him – he saw himself as only a prophet; God was completely transcendent and by nature not susceptible to unity with humans. Neither would one expect this in Buddhism – for the Buddhist believes that there is no such thing as the self or the soul which exists in the first place (the doctrine of Annata). But Jesus is God incarnate, and he stresses the importance of our remaining in Him through obedience to his Word and participation in the Sacraments:
“Remain in me, as I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself, unless it remains part of the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).
“Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (John 15:10).
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me” (John 6:56-57).
The theologian, N.T. Wright, points out that Paul never uses the term “in Jesus” or “in the Lord” but the preposition ἐν is always combined with the word, Christ, as in ἐν Χριστῷ (in Christ) – Christ meaning the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of David whose coming had been predicted.
A shoot will spring from the stock of Jesse,
a new shoot will grow from his roots.
On him will rest the spirit of Yahweh,
the spirit of wisdom and insight,
the spirit of counsel and power,
the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-3).
This Messiah will be not only for the Jews, but for the world.
… according to Psalms 2 and 72 (the former of which in particular is enormously important in early Christianity), and passages like Isaiah 11 (also quoted by Paul), when Israel’s Messiah arrives he will be the rightful lord not only of Israel but of the whole world. So Paul did not have to abandon his Jewish heritage in order to have a message for the world; he only had to stand at that point in the Jewish heritage which says, ‘From this vantage point all nations are called to obedience to Israel’s God, and to his Messiah.’ That was precisely Paul’s stance. (N.T. Wright)
That is why in today’s First Reading from Isaiah 49, we have God saying,
‘It is not enough for you to be my servant,
to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back the survivors of Israel;
I will make you the light of the nations
so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’
The Messiah brings a new way of relationship between God and man.
One of the chief significances which this word [Christ] then carries is incorporative, that is, it refers to the Messiah as the one in whom the people of God are summed up, so that they can be referred to as being ‘in’ him, as coming or growing ‘into’ him, and so forth. (N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology)
The mystical body of Christ into which we are incorporated gives endless food for reflection – our incorporation into Christ through Baptism, our incorporation into His mission, and our incorporation into each other through Him. If only we could ‘remain in Christ’ more faithfully, how much more fruitful our parish life would be, and what a sign we would be for the world! This is why it’s so important to be drawn into a personal relationship with Christ, allowing Him to lead us deeper into Himself.
Some more verses for reflection on this topic:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22)
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)
You are the children of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus, since every one of you that has been baptised has been clothed in Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female – for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:26-28).
Just as each of us has various parts in one body, and the parts do not all have the same function: in the same way, all of us, though there are so many of us, make up one body in Christ, and as different parts we are all joined to one another (Romans 12:4-5)