Based on 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is, in the words of my Oxford Annotated Bible, “a fascinating window onto the struggles of community of the movement that developed into Christianity”1. Corinth was the first major urban centre to which Paul brought the good news of Christ. With several co-workers such as Priscilla and her husband Aquila, Timothy, Pheobe and Silvanus, they spent a year and a half establishing house churches in Corinth, and they would come together every so often to celebrate the Lord’s supper. After Paul left to go to spread the Word in Ephesus, Apollos, another missionary came to Corinth.2 This letter of Paul’s is his response to issues and concerns brought forward, by the folks from the Corinthian Church. He deals with several specific issues that needed resolving as well as general problems in terms of how well the Christian life of the community was coming together—or maybe not! It was, to be sure, an interesting mix of people who had joined to form this community in Christ—Greeks, Jews, slaves, freed people, men, women, rich and poor. It was an incredible undertaking– bringing so many diverse cultures together to work and live in a new way of believing and living out that belief, and into a faith that was so new it was still developing ways about how to practice it and worship too. It’s clear if you read the letter in its entirety that each one of the various factions had their own ways and traditions that they felt was the right way, some of which were anything but Christian. What Paul and his fellow missionaries were trying to do was bring the unity of Christ to the diversity of peoples who were coming together, joined by their belief that Jesus was the Son of God, their Lord and Saviour. For some people, this would have meant incredible changes! This is the very definition of faith development—a true work in progress! And we think we have differences of opinion about how things are to go in our churches! Paul’s instructions in this letter were incredibly influential. This time of development of the early Christian church becomes the very foundation of functional Church. It made a wide reaching impact terms of use of language for worship and interpretation of Christian belief into a way of life that “provided key bases for subsequent Christian belief and practices”.3 Unfortunately, this also included the writings that biblical scholars today readily agree were later additions to Paul’s original text, particularly the instructions around the roles of women, which subordinated them again into the patriarchal structure of the society of the time.

The excerpt from this letter that we read today was written in response to Paul’s being advised of disputes within the community around these new Christians spiritual gifts and how they were being used, and the impact that was having on their new blended community. This bit we read today is actually a part of a much larger discussion that Paul returns to again later in his letter, so it seems this was a significant issue. Paul is very clear as to how people come to receive these abilities and regardless of what gift it was, they are all spiritual graces, gifted to them by the Holy Spirit. He then lists a group of them, which we can assume are the ones most in dispute. Now, in the Corinthian Church speaking in tongues and prophesying were highly valued and honored, due to pagan practices of the time. So those who had these particular gifts were more honoured than those who were without.4 And here in lies the issue for Paul, it was how the people were accepting and using their gift—or more correctly mis-using them. They were not given to assign status to certain people, or to be used for personal gain! One gift did not have more value than another. According to one source I read, Paul uses the word ‘charismata’ in the original Greek text, and that is indicative of its meaning as it is an unusual word, coming from the “Greek word, charis, meaning ‘grace.’ “…(F)or Paul these diverse gifts flow directly out of God’s grace. Thus one cannot claim them as their own possession or a product of their own innate talents. They always remain divine grace-gifts” 5 to be shared with and for the benefit of the whole Christian community. These two spiritual graces were given freely to all believers, as God chose to assign them, for a God-given purpose, not for personal use or gratification.

Interestingly, the fact that these are spiritual gifts is never in question, it seems that this was quite normal, almost expected even. Nor is Paul discrediting the authenticity of these spiritual experiences6. He does however, clarify for them how to determine whether it is of God or not. It is only by the Spirit can one claim that “Jesus is Lord”. This is considered the first confession of faith of the Christian church. Any other speech that disclaims Jesus’ sovereignty is obviously not from God. Keep in mind the implications of the word “Lord” in those days. Consider also the fact that this was a Roman occupied territory. So the one to whom you claimed was your ‘Lord’ was the one to whom you pledged your full allegiance; Your Lord is the one to whom you gave your all, exclusively, and who, in some cases had ownership over you—literally– if you were a slave.

We still say that phrase today, don’t we? We proclaim that “Jesus is Lord”; but the connotation doesn’t have the impact on us as it did in earlier times. While not as strong a statement in our democratic system of life, it still is a good yardstick for us to use to measure ourselves against, as we consider how we use our own ‘charismata’, our gifts. If Jesus is our Lord, the one to whom we pledge our full allegiance as our “Master”, to use another old- fashioned term, we then too pledge to do the will of the Lord—to live the way Jesus taught.

And if we too believe, as Paul upheld to the early Christians, that we are all given these manifestations of Holy Spirit for the common good, is that really how we use our gifts? They are truly God’s grace freely and lovingly shared with us, whatever that gift, that ability is. God freely gives to us, we are simply sharing of the love of God, by giving of what we’ve been given. The gifts that Paul’s discussing in today’s reading are by no means an exhaustive list. Prophecy, healing, speaking or interpreting the special divine speech known as speaking in tongues, other miracles, public pronouncements of wisdom and knowledge these are gifts that would make a very powerful and dramatic impact on the community, as you can well imagine. So much so in those days that they were viewed as preferable and valuable, and those who had these gifts would be held in high-esteem and higher social standing. And those with the less flashy gifts, gifts just as necessary for the health and functioning of the community, but not as highly valued, well they’re not the preferred gifts. What’s the impact of that? Well, suddenly you have a whole group of people who have been de-valued in the community. Let me give you an example, who has more importance in our eyes? An athlete with a gift for playing hockey or the cleaning person with a gift for tidiness and organization? I know that’s a very simplistic example, but you get the idea.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, 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”. (1Cor 12: 4-7)

In a society that values individualism, this ‘me-first’ culture of ours, this statement by Paul goes against what our society tells us—it is truly counter-cultural. We have lost the concept of ‘common good’, that concept of what is done by one for another, is good for all, that the good of all is as important, if not more so, than the desires of one. Our society tells us that’s backwards. We even have made slogans to justify this thinking, you’ve heard them, maybe even said them—“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” and “Charity begins at home”—you won’t find those in the bible, no matter how hard you look. But they sure sound biblical, don’t they? And they’re used as such too.
This scripture is a good one for today, Vestry Sunday, when we consider where our gifts lie to help the common good of this Church. It is a reminder—a counter cultural reminder–that faith, while personal, isn’t private, and the gifts we are all graced by God with, regardless of the gift, they are given so they can be shared, to the benefit of all.

Rev. JoAnn Todd, Rector
The Regional Ministry of Hope

1 Oxford Annotated Bible: Commentary on The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, p 267 NT
2 Ibid
3 Ibid, p. 268
4 Karen Stokes in “Pastoral Perspective” for 1Corinthians 12. 1-11 in Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1 p. 254

5 Richard Carlson, Commentary on 1Corinthians 12. 1-11 for http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2737 accessed Jan 13.16
6 Lee C. Barrett, “Theological Perspective” for 1Corinthians 12. 1-11 in Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol. 1 p. 258
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