Day of Pentecost (Year A)

I would have fit in well in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians’ struggles, which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 1–4, resemble my own: jealousy, striving, arrogance, and a propensity to measure one’s worth through comparisons with other people.

May 11, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

I would have fit in well in Corinth. The Corinthian Christians’ struggles, which Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 1–4, resemble my own: jealousy, striving, arrogance, and a propensity to measure one’s worth through comparisons with other people.

Although the specific activities that manifested these attitudes in the Corinthian church might seem foreign to many of us in 2008, the disease behind the symptoms remains common in Christian communities across time. I suspect that American believers are especially vulnerable to temptations to nourish rivalries, given our culture’s historical embrace of competition, individualism, and a social Darwinist ethos.

Paul hoped his letter would lead to healed divisions and reestablished unity (see 1 Corinthians 1:10) so that the Corinthians would more fully manifest Christ in their communal life and witness. Paul could have made his appeals by extolling the ethical virtues of cooperation, but he took a different route. His approach was more radical and existential, in that he reminded the Corinthians that unity must spring from their common theological identity as people in Christ. United to Christ, Christians are united to one another, which means that that qualitative distinctions among people have no place in Christian community. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12 continue to advance this basic argument as it applies to corporate worship, saying that the “one and the same” Holy Spirit gives gifts that equip Christians for various yet complementary ministries. The Spirit’s work is cohesive, uniting believers into “one body” comprising members that function interdependently.

The Corinthians themselves had raised questions about the Spirit’s work among them. We know this because Paul introduces Chapter 12 with the line, “Now concerning…,” which signals that he is addressing specific topics from a letter they had written to him (see 7:1). It appears that some in Corinth were considering the various manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work and making qualitative judgments among themselves based upon values they assigned to particular spiritual gifts. At least two things are possible: some Corinthians interpreted specific gifts as evidence of greater spiritual maturity and so valued those gifts (and those who possessed them) while disdaining others, or perhaps rivalries had formed around those possessing different gifts and the different ministries or worship practices that those gifts supported. For Paul, assumptions like these that introduce qualitative categories among believers contravene the gospel, because they fail to recognize that the same Spirit bestows all spiritual gifts for the specific purpose of creating a unified, interdependent body of believers.

The consistent refrain through verses 4–11 is that the one Spirit dispenses a diversity of gifts. This passage does not offer an exhaustive inventory of the gifts that God dispenses; Paul merely illustrates the breadth of the Spirit’s work in support of the corporate good. At least three conclusions follow from what he says.

1. No single person or category of people can claim exclusive insight into the Spirit’s presence or the complete nature of the Spirit’s activity. The fullness of the Spirit’s work is corporate, with the one Spirit manifested differently through different gifts. Thus, when the body of Christ operates, when a community of faith pursues and discovers things such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, and healing, no one less than God is at work (see 12:6). God’s Spirit is not bound to our own strategies, systems, or expectations, for the Spirit freely chooses to be present among Christians, their worship, and their witness (see 12:11).

2. There are ways to discern which claims or activities might be authentic manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Notice that Paul connects the Spirit and Christ in two ways. First, the Spirit bears witness that Jesus is Lord (see 12:3), which implies that the work of the Spirit advances the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship. Second, through the Spirit people are baptized into the body of Christ, and so the work of the Spirit contributes to the unity and harmonious functioning of that body. This means that Christian communities might answer the question Where is the Holy Spirit present in our life together? by focusing instead on two other questions: How is Jesus magnified as Lord among us? and What builds unity and corporate well-being among us? The focus of these questions keeps people attentive to the Spirit’s overarching purposes and discourages well-meaning but misguided practices that can predefine what the Spirit can or cannot do, such as creating catalogs of spiritual gifts or placing limits on the specific modes by which the Spirit can be expected to operate.

3. Christian community, worship, and ministry–if they are to reflect the fullness of God’s Spirit–must manifest unified diversity. Diverse gifts and insights that proclaim Jesus and sustain his body must be valued. When people formulate hierarchies among themselves or impose distinctions based upon appraisals of gifts, they fail to reflect the Spirit’s identity and threaten to obstruct the Spirit’s work in their corporate existence.

The pneumatic environment of the Day of Pentecost encourages preachers to draw attention to the gifts that God gives, allowing congregations to glimpse the Holy Spirit’s presence among them. But the festival setting can also distract. Pentecost celebrations often have the unfortunate effect of making talk about the Spirit a lot less interesting and a lot less powerful than it should be. The trappings that accompany Pentecost–red paraments, fiery banners, readings and prayers in multiple languages as echo of Acts 2–can make the whole day feel overly exotic or inextricably rooted in the past. It is risky also to talk about the Spirit and consider the Spirit’s activity among us now. Some Christians’ careless or abusive claims of spiritual authority make others prefer to treat the Holy Spirit’s power as a piece of nostalgia instead to of exploring how God’s gift of the Spirit matters for the church’s life and witness today. Yet, despite our ambivalences, this passage boldly declares that God remains present and active in and through communities of faith. In embracing that declaration, and renewing it in our congregations, we embrace a commitment to live in light of the Spirit and to mend our intramural rivalries and competitions based on status, knowledge, or measures of spirituality.