In Christ we are members together of one body, Christ being the head. While we can talk about a universal, global church, most of the time in the New Testament, each local church is the body of Christ, in itself. This analogy presses home both the relationship we have with Christ and from that with each other. It is not the case that we all get our sustenance from the head and then everything is good. In God’s will and working Christ’s body depends not only on the head, but on the “work” of “each part.”
Early on in the history of the church, the church took on a ceremonial sacramental understanding of participation in the body of Christ. What came to the fore was the essential need to partake of Christ’s body and blood through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in the bread and the wine. What was likely the case in the beginning, actual meals, was now about a ceremonial, sacramental practice.
In this sacrament through the partaking of the bread and the wine, the faithful partake of Christ. The church in its teaching made this essential for salvation, even if grace has been extended to those who either don’t believe in “the real presence” in the bread and the wine, or don’t practice the ordinance. I personally have no problem calling the Lord’s Supper a sacrament. I believe that through the Spirit the Lord is especially present during such times. However I wonder if unwittingly we can lose out on the aspect of sharing in Christ through our actual participation in him with each other. Not only is there a vertical aspect, but a horizontal one as well. We go on as best we can essentially by ourselves, of course in relationship with God through Christ, hardly touching the aspect the passage (quoted above) is referring to. We don’t experience much at all of the ministry of the body through the head. So much of the time it is more the case that we get what we can and go on, not really expecting much if anything in the way of ministry to each other. That does not necessarily follow, but I think it most often is the case, at least to some degree.
The danger in emphasizing what I want to emphasize here, is that we can simply try to minister, or probably better put, serve each other, apart from the needed emphasis on a relationship with Christ. On the other hand we may also simply be satisfied with getting what we think we need from the Lord himself, and minimize with a shrug of our shoulders, the need to give and receive in relationship with others. None of us will arrive on this, and perhaps we are weak one way or another, even both ways (“vertically” and “horizontally”). But God in his grace in Jesus continues his good work, even though it will suffer as a result of our lack of understanding and participation.
I believe this is a life and death matter. Christianity is essentially organic in the sense of a living union by the Spirit to Christ, which consists of all who belong to Christ being joined to each other, especially to be worked out in local settings. We all suffer much when this is not practiced. And this analogy of Christ’s body is not merely for itself, but for the world. We in Christ are Christ’s body for each other and for the world.