Tillard’s Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: A Book Summary

J. M. R. Tillard, Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: At the Source the Ecclesiology of Communion, trans. Madeleine Beaumount (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2001).

I have now read the fourth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Reece LaBlanc. This is my summary; and this one is very difficult to briefly summarize for my FB friends. This book is no gentle flow down the stream; it is a torrent rapid of theological engagement through Scripture, historical theology, and theological reflection.

This book is not for the theologically faint-of-heart. It is a thoroughgoing theological reflection on the centrality of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) as the sacramental event that constitutes, at its most basic level, the church as church. It is a theological case for the conviction that the Eucharist is no mere addendum to the Christian life and community but is very spiritual reality into which we are grafted. The flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church are united, and the Eucharist is not only an expression of that union but the source of the reality of the communion.

As I said, this is not exercise in the beginning or even intermediate theology. Rather, through reading Augustine carefully as a foundational thinker for the West and reading Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom as theologians for the East, Tillard finds a common theme, though sometimes abandoned in the West and in danger of being jettisoned in the West (even in the Roman Catholic Church). When the Eucharist is displaced as an enriching but dispensable practice (as has happened among many Protestant traditions in the West), Tillard argues we substitute the ecclesiology of communion for individualistic experiences of relationship with Jesus. Ultimately, the church—lacking its primary expression of communion itself—becomes as irrelevant and dispensable as the Eucharist. “Where is the communion?,” Tillard asks.

For Tillard, and the patristic writers he unpacks, communion is not a byproduct of individual relationships with God as God has collected all the individuals into a general fold bound together by cords of good feelings toward each other and a common subjective faith in God.  Rather, communion is the reality of the union of the flesh of Christ with the flesh of the Church—it is the mystical union of Christ and the Church in the Spirit. The Eucharist—where we receive the body and blood of the Lord—connects us to our own embodied lives in the midst of the gathered church (flesh and blood, concrete people). Shared Eucharist is shared communion, but not in a mere cognitive sense but in a deeply mystical and relational sense such that we commune with God and with each other.

The church is not, Tillard argues, the “sum or the juxtaposition of ‘justified’ individuals.” Nor can we reduce the church “a vast system of human solidarity.” On the contrary, the union is not mere solidarity, or justification (our sins are forgiven as individuals), or assembly in the same building. It is, in fact, the reality effected by the Spirit that unites the flesh of Christ and the flesh of the Church. Ecclesiology (the very nature of the church) is a Spiritual reality expressed and resourced by the concrete eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ. It is communion; it is concretely experienced at the Eucharist table. This communion is “the knot” that ties everything together by the Spirit who unites God and humanity in Christ.

So, the enfleshed community (the concrete, visible church), through the Spirit and in Christ, communes with the transcendent, holy God and Father who has embraced humanity in its poverty. The flesh of Christ did not live for itself but for the sake of others, and the Eucharist in which we participate calls us (indeed, forms us and constitutes us) as people who will also sacrifice ourselves in agape love. The Eucharist is both a constitutive moment whereby we experience this profound union and, at the same time, a moment where we are formed by the work of the Spirit to become bread for the world, sacrificially giving ourselves for each other and the world just as Christ gave himself for us.

The church is supposed to be community of unceasing mutual love. As we dwell in the love of God through the Eucharist, so the Eucharist fills us with love so that we might become the reality in which we participate. The mutual indwelling experience in the Eucharist renews the mission of the church as “the healing of the body of wounded humanity.” The Eucharist not only testifies to this and renews it, but it is most fundamentally union with God in the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. The Eucharist, then, is a concrete source of life for the community that constitutes the community in the Spirit through the flesh of Christ.

Tillard is pushing against the dangers of Western emphases on individualism as well as reducing the meaning of assembly to listening to the word preached.  The West tends “to see the church as a society of baptized persons held together by obedience to the word, rather than as the communion united by the eucharistic body.” While the East has always been faithful to this vision of the Eucharist, the West has struggled to maintain it. According to Tillard and the East, there is “an unbreakable bond between church, Holy Spirit, and Eucharist.”

The nature of the communion that “defines the church” is this union between enfleshed members of the body of Christ communion (participating, sharing in) the flesh of Christ by the Spirit of God. In this we, we are one in the Spirit as a church, and the church experiences, renews, and instantiates this union most profoundly and concretely when at the Eucharist together. This, indeed, is a liberating moment as the grace of Christ’s own sacrifice frees us from our own selfishness so that we might become Christ to the world itself. And we do this not as individuals but as the body of Christ—a community in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit.

Perhaps, at bottom, the point is that ecclesiology is not fundamentally about voluntary congregationalism or loose bonds of shared commitments (even creeds). Rather, it is a profound union of the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ in the Spirit through God’s gift of the Eucharist. It is a relational ontology—a participation, a mutual indwelling, a shared life—made possible by the flesh of Christ. It is not so much about how we, who are members of the body, make unity a reality but rather how the Spirit has united the flesh of the church with the flesh of Christ as a gift of God. And the Eucharist embodies that union—with God in Christ by the Spirit and with each other. That constitutes the communion of the church.

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