Concerning Spiritual Things - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2C (1 Corinthians 12)

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 New Revised Standard Version

12 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.


                A week earlier the church gathered to celebrate Baptism of Jesus Sunday. The lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke spoke of the Holy Spirit in two ways. First, John spoke of one coming who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire (Lk 3:15-17). Then, the second part of the reading from Luke noted that after Jesus was baptized and was in prayer, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, after which a voice from heaven declared him to be God’s Son, the beloved. As we continue our journey through the second lectionary readings, we find ourselves in 1 Corinthians. We hear Paul write a word of instruction concerning spiritual things. He wants this rather dysfunctional community to focus not on spiritual experiences that divide but rather spiritual gifts that unite and build up the body of Christ.

                This reading is the first of a series of readings from 1 Corinthians designated for the season after Epiphany (ordinary time for some). This first reading is an important one, as it lays down an important word about spiritual giftedness. I have written about this in some depth in my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening. This book emerged out of my own experience with the Holy Spirit, beginning with my time among the Pentecostal Churches. Over the years I tried to make sense of that experience, with the result being this book. I am a firm believer in Paul’s teaching that God has given to each of us “a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” So, not only are we counted among God’s beloved children, but we have been empowered and gifted, each one of us, to participate in the work of God in the world, a work that leads to the common good.

                There is a pattern in 1 Corinthians that suggests Paul is responding to questions posed to him by members of the Corinthian congregation. Being a missionary, Paul founded this congregation some years before. Unfortunately, the congregation had developed habits that were detrimental to its spiritual health. So, Paul deals with questions of food and sexuality, as well as spiritual experiences. The chapter begins with the words “now concerning.” The Greek here is peri de. That signals a new area of concern. Here the concern is with the pneumatikon, which is often translated as “spiritual gifts” but might be better translated as “spiritual things.” He doesn’t want the Corinthians to be uninformed about such things, in explaining his understanding of such things he points them toward the charismata, the gifts of grace. According to Paul, the charismata are to be understood as gifts of God and not something merited. To each is given a gift of the Spirit for the common good.

                Paul sets this discussion in a particular understanding of the nature of the church. According to Paul, the church is the “Body of Christ.” This concept will play a central role in the conversation that runs from this reading through the end of chapter fourteen of 1 Corinthians. This teaching of Paul is designed to counteract the social stratification that was disrupting the life of the Corinthians congregation. We see this not only here, but earlier in Paul’s instructions concerning the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 11, Paul denounced the inappropriate way that food was being distributed during their gatherings. While the rich ate well, the poor among them had little if anything to eat. This, to Paul, made a mockery of the message of Jesus. In chapters twelve and fourteen, Paul addresses a sense of spiritual elitism that centered on one particular gift, which is speaking in tongues. For some reason, and there are differences of opinion on why this is true, certain members of the congregation prized this gift above all others. Those who had that gift held it over those who did not. While Paul doesn’t deny the existence or value of this gift, he makes it clear that it is but one gift, and perhaps not the most important gift.

                There is another element to this story that is related to the embrace of speaking in tongues as the desired gift. Paul warns this community, which only recently emerged out of a Greek religious context, that they need to be discerning about the nature of gifts. Not every spiritual experience comes from the God revealed through Jesus. To make his point, he notes that one cannot say “Jesus is Lord” except through the Holy Spirit. In other words, in our spiritual experiences, the emphasis needs to be on that declaration, that Jesus is Lord. And, as Charles Campbell notes “through this confession the powerful hierarchies of the world are interrupted and destabilized, and a space is created for a new perception and a new community. The initiative of God and the gift of the Spirit, which empower such disruptive speech, shape the theological vision of the Body of Christ that follows” [1 Corinthians: Belief, p. 199].   

                One of the key elements of this discussion of gifts and the body of Christ is that while the body of Christ is one, its members are many. That is, when it comes to spiritual gifts, though there is one body of Christ, the members of the body differ in their giftedness. We might put it this way, the unity of the church involves diversity. This unity in diversity is the work of God, who gifts each one differently. Thus, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone (1 Cor. 12:4-6). Thus, our unity as a community is rooted in the oneness of God. As you can see, there are hints here of an early trinitarian formula.

                In the way in which Paul lays out this word concerning gifts and the body of Christ, he is careful to make sure that he has addressed the hierarchical views that had disrupted the community, a hierarchy imported into the life of the church from outside. Or, as Charles Campbell puts it, “just as God exists in a dynamic interdependent, mutual relationship of three equal persons, so the community of faith as the Body of Christ lives into this same dynamic relationship” [1Corinthians, p. 201].

                In our reading for the week, we encounter the first of several gift lists found both in this letter and elsewhere, especially Romans 12. The gifts that are listed accomplish different things within the body. There are gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. Again, Paul makes it clear that these gifts are activated by one and the Spirit, “who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor. 12:8-11). If we, as the church, embrace our place in the body, making use of the gifts imparted to us by the Spirit of God, then we will contribute to the common good. That common good starts with the Christian community, but I do not believe it ends there. Are we not gifted and empowered to bring blessings to the creation itself, in partnership with the Creator? As John Wesley noted, the world is our parish!





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