Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Today’s lection begins a four-part reading through chapters 12, 13, and 15 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians for the Sundays of Epiphany.
While the lectionary breaks up chapter 12 into two sections, the chapter consists of one unit on the nature of spiritual gifts. Indeed, the lection for next week provides the theological and metaphorical grounding for the claims Paul makes in the first part of the chapter. The Christian community is one body with many members that finds its unity in baptism and its diversity in the incredible variety that is the manifestation of the Spirit.
There is a certain irony in this topic barely a month past Christmas. One might even paraphrase Paul’s opening sentence to this chapter, “Therefore, since you have received many gifts, what will you do with them?” In this post gift-giving season, we are asked to recognize that the gifts we receive are the very grace-acts of God. The term that Paul uses for “gift” has the same root as the word for “grace.” In many respects, to hear these words in the after holiday bustle of gift return, acknowledgement, and even disappointment might be less than favorable, and perhaps even offensive. In the wake of tangible, palpable, and desired giving and receiving, it may be difficult to imagine such spiritual gifts, activities, and services to have any meaning or significance in the subsequent holiday slump.
It is helpful to remember that Paul’s letter to Corinth has in mind the common needs of the Christian community. One of the main critiques Paul lodges against the Corinthian congregation is their inability to live out the essential claim of a community founded in the Gospel. The ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ unite every congregation of believers, for the sake of God’s mission in the world, but also, for the sake of the building up of that particular community.
Immediately prior to the text for today is Paul’s concern for the abuses of the Lord’s Supper. If the community is not able to find unity in the most communal demonstration of its identity, what might that mean for other times when it comes together as a church? Paul first admonishes the congregation for its individualistic behavior at the meal itself, but then Paul does what Paul does so well. He does not stop at reprimand, but he calls the Corinthians to remembrance. In recalling Jesus’ words instituting the Lord’s Supper he re-centers the congregation in Christ and Christ alone.
In addition, Paul’s appendage, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (11:26), ups the ante even more. The Corinthian congregation needs to be reminded that its birth, identity, and existence as a Christian community are grounded in the death of Christ, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). The very cross of Christ is at stake when a community of believers gathers without living out the radical equality of a power made perfect in weakness. We recall that the divisions and disagreements within the Corinthian church become the central purpose of Paul’s correspondence and spur us to necessary reflection on our own communal behavior.
Two additional issues arise from this text that might be worthwhile and generative for preaching during the season of Epiphany. A first question might be, “How do we deal with difference?” There is a strong pull from the secular world in the months immediately following the holidays toward a universal maxim for self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions abound, which are, if we are honest, less about self-enhancement and more about self-conformity; fulfilling a need to mold ourselves to the expectations of others.
Is there a way we can preach into this reality, not for a banal sermon about self-affirmation or self-esteem, but for the sake of the unique and extraordinary person God has called each and every one of us to be? Can these words from Paul help us to embrace difference, to look for difference, and to entertain the idea that cookie-cutter Christians are not whom God has in mind? That our like-mindedness is what we are able to claim because of what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Christ and not because of what we want to claim about God?
Recently, I was in Washington D.C. for the annual meeting of the Academy of Homiletics. One of the speakers was Mike McCurry, press secretary for President Clinton. He shared with the group of preachers his “Five C’s for Effective Communication.” His last “C” was Commitment, which he admitted he would have rather called “perseverance” but he needed a fifth “C.” McCurry argued that the church is really the last place where people of differing beliefs and backgrounds are brought together to converse, where conservative and liberal can sit next to each other in the pew.
In the midst of divisions, especially denominationally in my own church (ELCA), how do we talk about Christian unity? What happens when a community’s identity resides in a uniformity of commitments and not in the unity that God in Christ makes possible? Will the church be a place of building up and not tearing down, where we do not have to prescribe a paradigm of winners and losers, where we actually imagine and believe that Christ is truly present and listens in on our conversations? What would Jesus hear?
A second direction for preaching might focus more on what gifts given out of God’s abundant and amazing grace can mean. In the wake of the season of receiving that is focused on ourselves, “What did you get for Christmas?”, this text calls us to an awareness of what it means to receive for the sake of others, to accept the gifts God has so graciously given us with a “thank you” whereby the fullest expression of gratitude is worked out in the community of the faithful.