Baptism and the gift of the Spirit forge the bodily unity of Christians with Jesus (see 1 Cor 12.12–13). The unity is in him, based upon his individual, resurrected body (see Rom 12.4–5). Real unity with the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus is brought about in baptism; this bodily unity of the Christian with the individual body of the Lord Jesus makes of the Church a physical whole (see Col 1.22; 2.12, 17; 3.1–4, 15). Maintaining this bodily communion depends upon the sacrament of the Eucharist (see Jn 6.53–57).23
When Jesus himself compares his relationship with his disciples to that of a vine to its branches (see Jn 15.1–8), one might suppose that this instance of organic unity is only a metaphor for the unity of the Spirit and for existential solidarity by faith and love. But St. Paul’s development of the thesis that Christians are members of Jesus’ body goes far beyond the metaphorical.24 Even so, there is a tendency to take the thesis as a figure of speech, since otherwise one confronts an apparently grave difficulty: If Christians really are united with Jesus in bodily unity, how can his and their organic individuality be maintained?
Modern individualism blocks understanding here. We tend to think persons are in all respects units completely separate and isolated from one another, that each hidden self-consciousness demarcates a self-enclosed entity, which can send signals to others but never really commune (become one) with another. We assume that if there really were communing, individuality necessarily would be forfeited. In fact, this is not so. Biologically, individuals of a species share concretely in common life; their independence is relative and a matter of degree. Not individuals but only species evolve. In species which reproduce sexually, the one act of generating a new individual involves the dynamic unity of a male and female. Such real unity takes nothing away from the individuality of each male and female. They exercise other functions separately, and play distinct roles even in the sexual act.
Now, the bodily unity of Jesus with his members in the Church is not unlike this real, physiological unity. The author of Ephesians himself suggests this when he compares the unity of wife and husband with that of the Church and Jesus (see Eph 5.22–33). The one-flesh union of marriage, which is most perfectly actualized in fruitful sexual intercourse, illuminates the bodily unity of Jesus with the Church. Like husband and wife, Jesus and his members do not lose their individuality, and they play distinct roles. Because of this bodily unity, members of Jesus already share in his resurrection life (see Col 3.1–4).
The whole of the created world is related to humankind and will be involved in the fulfillment of Christians (see Rom 8.19–22). On the one hand, some passages of Scripture seem to suggest that the physical universe will be utterly destroyed (see 2 Pt 3.7–12). On the other hand, God created things good and to last (see Wis 1.14; 11.24–25). The close relationship of the cosmos with human persons suggests that the new heavens and new earth which will renew the present ones (see Rv 21.1), will have been transformed along with human bodily life. The whole cosmos is destined to share in the same sort of total renewal initiated in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus (see GS 39).25
Certain texts in the New Testament seem to suggest that the coming of the Lord, the resurrection, the transformation of the universe, and the final judgment would come very soon. Some of these are sayings on the lips of Jesus himself (see Mt 24.34; Mk 9.1; 13.30; Lk 21.32). Others are not (see 1 Thes 4.15–17; 1 Pt 4.7; Rv 3.11; 22.20). At the same time, Jesus is said to have stated that not even he knew the time of the end, for this knowledge was reserved to the heavenly Father (see Mt 24.36; Mk 13.32; Acts 1.7). A passage in the Second Epistle of Peter (3.8–9) often is taken as an attempt to square the delay in the coming of Jesus with a previous common expectation that it would occur shortly. However, no one could have supposed that the project of spreading the gospel to the whole world could be carried out quickly (see Mt 24.14; Mk 13.10). Paul also suggests a long period of activity for the Church (see Rom 11.25).
This difficulty could be resolved if we took the relativity of time much more seriously than it usually is taken. Time actually is a relative measure which depends upon a definite physical system and also upon various factors within the system. Time is not an absolute precondition of all existence, uniform for all things and all conditions. With this point in mind, we might ask how the present age and the new age of the Lord Jesus can possibly be related within the same temporal scheme. In some ways, the new age already has begun—using “already” to refer to it from within our present temporal framework. In other ways, the new age will not arrive until the end of the world—again using “will not arrive” and “end” to refer from within our present temporal framework to a reality of a different order.26
23. A development of certain aspects of this point: Gustave Martelet, S.J., The Risen Christ and the Eucharistic World (New York: Seabury Press, 1976), 117–79.
24. See Benoît, op. cit., 58–67.
25. See De Margerie, op. cit., 102–3, 248, and 410–22.
26. See Pierre Benoît, “Resurrection: At the End of Time or Immediately after Death?” in Benoît and Murphy, eds., op. cit., 103–14.