1 Corinthians 12:1-11
As Paul continues with his reflections on worship, he begins addressing yet another issue that has divided members of the Corinthian church. Paul begins this section by saying that he doesn’t want the brothers and sisters in the community to be “ignorant” about “spiritual things.” Though the NRSV translates these as “uninformed” and “spiritual gifts,” the more literal translation of the Greek is preferable. Since the Corinthians believed that they were enormously intelligent and knowledgeable, they would have bristled at being labeled “ignorant,” which is precisely the reaction that Paul wants as he starts this phase of his argument. The more literal and more ambiguous “spiritual things” is also preferable; though Paul focuses on gifts of the Spirit in this passage (e.g., speaking in tongues, or glossolalia), he is primarily focused on demonstrating the Corinthians’ ignorance of everything that the Holy Spirit does within the Church. Indeed, he illustrates this ubiquity of the Spirit and its power with a hyperbolic rhetorical example. Paul claims that no one who speaks by the Spirit of God will ever say, “Let Jesus be cursed!” We should not imagine that there were Corinthian Christians running around making the unchristian proclamation that Jesus should be cursed; rather, Paul is making the point that the Spirit animates all speech and action within the Church, and that unchristian proclamations do not come from those who are animated by the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is only the Spirit that enables Christians to make the fundamental and essential confession of the Church, that Jesus is Lord.
We might wonder how the Corinthians were demonstrating their “ignorance” of the Spirit. Though we only have Paul’s reaction to the Corinthian situation, we can make a fairly reasonable guess about the problem that existed in the community. Apparently, there were members of the church who had been endowed with spectacular charismata, or spiritual gifts. There were people who could speak in tongues, who could prophesy, who could perform acts of healing, and then there were people in the community whose gifts were much less obvious. Naturally, the Corinthians who had been endowed with these charismata assumed that these extraordinary gifts were evidence of the fact that they were more spiritual than their brothers and sisters in Christ. This didn’t necessarily mean that they were better than their fellow Christians, just that they had received a larger measure of the Spirit. Once again, the Corinthians were dividing the community between the “haves” (those who had knowledge, time to devote to Eucharistic fellowship, and the Spirit) and the “have-nots.” Unsurprisingly, Paul believes that this schismatic behavior is problematic, but his response is striking. In the discussions of idol meat and the Eucharist, Paul encourages the “haves” to give up what they had; the “strong” are encouraged to abstain from eating meat and the wealthier Corinthians are enjoined to wait for the other members of the community when they gather for the Lord’s supper. In this case, however, Paul tells those who “have” that they do not have a monopoly on the Spirit. Indeed everyone within the Church has been endowed with the Spirit and is in no uncertain terms “spiritual.” Paul famously explains this by observing that “there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.” He goes on to observe that a manifestation of the Spirit is given to each member of the community for the common good. After listing a wide variety of spiritual gifts, Paul notes that all of them “are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (emphasis added). In other words, Paul is saying this to the Corinthians who imagine themselves to be spiritual: “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!” God is ultimately the one who gives and activates spiritual gifts, and anyone who regards the possession of a charisma as an affirmation of his worthiness or spiritual maturity has missed the point. The spectacular nature of one’s spiritual gift has nothing to do with the one who has that gift and everything to do with the Spirit of God. There is one Spirit, and everyone in the Church has been given spiritual gifts: everyone is of equal value before God.
“We had the experience but missed the meaning. And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.” — T.S. Eliot
One thing that I’ve always found striking about certain branches of American evangelical Christianity is the fact that speaking in tongues is considered a sign of one’s conversion and membership in the Christian community. One simply has to watch televangelists like Pat Robertson to see that glossolalia is often regarded as a sign of one’s fitness to be a leader in the church community. These churches, in other words, attach an implicit value to speaking in tongues; it becomes a symbol of one’s spiritual nature. I’m often left wondering how members of these Pentecostal denominations interpret the passage from 1 Corinthians that we read today (I welcome insights any of you may have). Though the apparent contradiction between Paul’s teaching and the Church’s practice is most obvious among these charismatic denominations, the disconnect exists in every church community. We tend to be overawed by those talents that are spectacular and public; we’ll marvel at well-crafted sermons, inspired choral performances, or dazzling organ voluntaries. We begin to say things like “this person is truly endowed with the Spirit!” We forget, however, that everyone who is a member of the Christian community has been endowed with the Spirit. As. T.S. Eliot might have observed, we experience worship but miss the underlying reality that the Spirit animates everything that we do. Everyone who participates in the life of the Church has been given a spiritual gift and it is only when we come to this realization that we are truly able to worship as God intends. The Spirit dwells in the midst of us, and each of us has been given the privilege to tap into the Spirit’s reality. When you participate in worship, when you participate in the life of the Church, remember that you are bringing as much to the experience as everyone else gathered there, for we all have a share of the same Spirit.