During these weeks in the season of Epiphany, the lectionary is going to invite us to consider a series of three readings from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, all dealing with the matter of what he calls spiritual gifts. I’ve long been really drawn to this particular epistle, because in it Paul wrestles with some very concrete and practical matters, and you can all but watch his thought process unfold as the words flow from his pen. It includes some of his most extraordinary writing; his remarkably poetic words about “God’s foolishness” and “God’s weakness” in the opening chapter, as well as the great reflection on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Yet all through this letter, what you see him doing is to struggle to articulate a kind of working ethics for a community under grace. Can you eat meat sacrificed to idols? Can one Christian take another Christian to court? What lines might be drawn in terms of sexual ethics? “It is actually reported,” he writes, “that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. How arrogant!” (5:1)
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You see, Paul is writing to a church community that he planted but which has begun to come seriously off the rails. He has done in Corinth what he did in various places around the Mediterranean; he has gone in and established a church, teaching and sharing with them for time in their common life, and then he has helped them identify leaders and moved on to plant another community in another city. His epistles are generally his letters back to those various communities, offering guidance, counsel and encouragement. What is clear in the case of the Corinthians letters is that those local leaders are really struggling; to use a very modern term, it is clear that the Corinthian church has become rather dysfunctional. The leaders have written Paul to outline their problems and concerns, and he is now writing back to them.
And so when he writes about “spiritual gifts” he’s doing so because he’s become aware that they’ve become a source of some sort of problem. Paul uses two Greek words almost interchangeably: pneumatikoi and charismata. The biblical scholar James Boyce suggest that while the word pneumatikoi is generally translated as “spiritual gifts,” it would be better translated as “those gifts which the Spirit offers.” That isn’t just splitting hairs, as what it does is put the emphasis on both the gift and the giver of that gift. Similarly, Richard Carlson suggests that with the word charismata—from which we get our English word “charismatic”—we must keep in view the fact that it is connected to the Greek word charis, or “grace.” “[F]or Paul these diverse gifts flow directly out of God’s grace,” Carlson insists. “Thus one cannot claim them as their own possession or a product of their own innate talents. They always remain divine grace-gifts.”
You see the distinction, right? We talk about a gifted musician or a gifted athlete, by which we mean those people have got something that most of us don’t. Sure, they need to cultivate that through practice, training, rehearsal, but in the end it is something they have. In the case of “those gifts which the Spirit offers,” it is entirely different, partly because the giver of the gift—the Spirit—must always be kept in view, and partly because the gifts are not meant to be the property of the recipient.
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.
The same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God, the common good. Why do you suppose Paul is hammering so insistently at this? Because in Corinth these things have become a source of division and pride; they’ve established some sort of a spiritual pecking order, and it is pushing Paul around the bend. That’s not what I taught you, for heaven’s sake. Not, not, not!
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” he writes, and begins to list off some of the gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, the discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues. That is a heck of a list when you pause to think about it, and what it suggests is that when Paul was planting this Corinthian church, the Spirit of God was powerfully and visibly at work. Without any self-consciousness whatsoever, Paul will go on to write about his own experiences of having spoken in tongues (1 Cor 14:18), and in all of his intellectual rigor he has no doubt at all that there is much more going on than he can begin to understand.
But the problem is that in Corinth these gifts have been severed from that foundational connection to the Giver, and were being sought not for the sake of the community but rather for the sake of the experiences themselves. It is then a small step to beginning to compare and compete over whose experience is stronger, more powerful, more ecstatic. At this point the quest for ecstasy begins to parallel the old religions from which these Corinthian Christians had been set free. “You know that when you were pagans,” he writes, “you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.” Idols that ostensibly promised you experiences and pay-offs, if only you would appease them with offerings.
But that’s not the proclamation he’d entrusted to them; that’s not gospel. Whatever gifts you have been graced with, they are for all. As C.K. Barrett writes in his commentary, “Gifts are shared out among Christians; all do not receive the same gift, but all the gifts come from the Spirit, so that there is no room for rivalry, discontent, or a feeling of superiority… gifts are not occasions for boasting but opportunities of service.” This is what Paul knows, and this is what he needs to communicate to a church that is beginning to come seriously off the rails.
Had we read just a little further, we’d have come to Paul’s teaching that “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” We’ll actually launch in there in next Sunday’s reading, so for now just note Paul’s insistent reminder that we’re not doing this solo, so to speak. Our individuality—including gifts and strengths, but also wounds and weaknesses—is always tied to something much bigger than our own selves.
And as Barrett points out, in the church there really is “no room for rivalry, discontent, or a feeling of superiority”… or at least there shouldn’t be. Churches are peopled by humans, however, so any church community is as liable as the Corinthian church to begin to slip. As Nadia Bolz-Weber put it in an interview, “Church is a place were you will be hurt because it is full of human beings.” Then she continued, “I say to people, I’m glad you love it here, but at some point I will disappoint you or the church will let you down, [so] please decide on this side of that happening. If you leave, you will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks of our brokenness and it’s too beautiful to miss. Don’t miss it.” Which may be another way of saying that you will miss the moment when Jesus takes the plain water of our plain lives, and makes of it the best in wine, in the most extraordinary abundance. And you don’t want to miss that…
Looking at his beleaguered Corinthian community—and looking, too, at saint benedict’s table—I think Paul would agree.