Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
The more I read the letters to the Corinthians, the more I appreciate the courage and boldness of this community as they wrestled with what it meant to be people of faith.
The Community at Corinth
They engaged the apostle Paul in what seems to be a lively discussion. We don’t get that from many other communities. In Romans, we do not get a clear sense of who the Christ-believers really were. In Galatians, Paul is so upset that we learn more about the apostle’s rage and ardor than we do about the community. But in this letter to the Corinthians, things are different.
We learn a lot about the members of these early house churches. They came from different social backgrounds. They did not necessarily lead lives that would traditionally be qualified as saintly. And most interesting to us, they seemed to have had great conversations with Paul. It is not that Paul simply told them what to do, and that was the end of it.
What I like about the Corinthians is that they challenged Paul; they offered their own ideas about his gospel and defended their interpretations at least as passionately as Paul argued for his own. Thus, the relationship between the Corinthians and Paul can serve as a healthy model for integrating dispute and disagreement into the modern, post-modern, or emergent church which still thinks about what it should become and how it should behave in the world.
In this particular installment of the disagreement between the Corinthians and Paul, Paul is reflecting upon the diversity of gifts at play in the community at Corinth. Apparently, their house churches had plenty of people feeling like they brought something special to the life of the church: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Because of that diversity of gifts, there seemed to have been some talk among the Corinthians about whose gift was best.
Spirit as a uniting force
Paul’s answer begins with the spirit. In the passage directly after this one, he will use the metaphor of the body to strengthen his argument (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and bring the discussion to a temporary close in chapter 13, with the famous reflection on love. But here, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-13, he focuses on the spirit. It would be more natural to have the passage start at 1 Corinthians 12:4, which begins a new argument in the discussion, yet the lectionary reading includes the second half of verse 12:3: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”. It introduces the central element of the passage, and already provides a unifying force behind the various gifts of the community.
The recognition of Jesus as Lord cannot happen unless the spirit is at work within the person who confesses “Kurios Iesous“. Establishing this as a premise of his discussion about gifts, Paul can then remind his addressees that they do not recognize Christ as the Messiah through their own abilities and, thus, they have no preliminary grounds for boasting. Rather, they are all dependent upon the spirit in their ability to confess Christ as Lord as well as in the variety of gifts that they bring to the community. The spirit functions as an enabling force, but the spirit also levels the playing field. No one can pretend that they did not need the spirit to recognize the lordship of Jesus or to develop their own particular gifts.
Paul is careful to clarify that it is the same spirit (to auto pneuma, repeated four times in the passage) that acts in everyone. It is not only that the gifts are activated by the spirit in each person, they are actually triggered by the same spirit, suppressing any opportunity to claim that one gift has a better “pedigree” than another. Rather the spirit gives them each their own particular value.
The Value of Gifts
As Paul often does in his dealings with his communities, he walks a tight rope in his arguments. He refuses to say that one gift is better than the other and insists upon the unity forged by the spirit, which permits him to describe the community as one unified body (1 Corinthians 12:12-14). Yet, at the same time, he does not want to say that the particular nature of each gift does not matter. Recognizing one’s gift and the form of that gift is important. Knowing how to use these gifts matters as well (see the discussion later on about speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2-25).
Thus, in a way, after having made a strong argument about the equality of each gift, Paul delineates matters more precisely, and insists on the proper use of gifts. Gifts are all given by the spirit, but they are not all the same, and so, particular gifts matter. However, what Paul wants to avoid is people focusing on a particular gift to the detriment of others and exalting the people who practice that particular gift (which in Corinth appears to have been the gift of speaking in tongues). Christ-believers need to move away from a state of mind in which one judges the achievements (or lack thereof) of others. Rather, they need to concentrate on the manner in which each and every gift is used so that the body of the community can remain united.
Finding one’s Gift
The problem of the Corinthian community seemed to have been that there were too many people claiming the special value of their own particular gifts, too many people wanting to be involved and participate in the life of the community, and thinking that their involvement was better than that of their neighbor. Paul needed to level the playing the field and bring unity where there was division.
Today, many churches wish they had this problem. They wish more members would become more actively involved. And most members wish they could identify (in themselves) a gift of the spirit for which they could boast. But what if they can’t?
Perhaps what our congregants need to hear this Pentecost Sunday is an affirmation that the spirit is at work in each of us, that the spirit has given different gifts to each of us, that these gifts can and should be celebrated, but more importantly used for the building up of the kingdom because they are given by the spirit, not to create division but unity, for we are the community of God.