A Sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards at St Mark’s The Gap
Corinth was a glorious Greek city. Anyone traveling by land crossed an isthmus and passed Corinth. The City’s location allowed it to dominate two important harbours, and access ships traveling from Asia and the Aegean sea, and gave access to the Adriatic Sea and Italy. Springs and rivers ensured the city was fertile and rich. The City was one of the most important in the Mediterranean, until it resisted a Roman takeover, went to war, and was sacked, burned and largely razed in 146 BCE, remaining desolate until the Romans re-established the city 44 years before Christ. This was a restored, new and vibrant city.
The Corinthians were a people living in a Greek culture, under Roman authority, meeting all manner of people from around their known world. It was as cosmopolitan as was possible in the time. Paul had met good friends in a fellow tent maker, Aquila, and his wife Priscilla, and spent 18 months in Corinth, teaching. Despite opposition from the local Jews, Paul established a church, mostly people of lower class, status, and wealth, but with some notable elite members, one of which, Gaius, would go on to host the whole church.
After Paul had left, the community began experimenting with this new identity as followers of Jesus, and were confused about the boundaries between their church and the society around them. These problems were detailed in a letter to Paul who wrote First Corinthians in response. We don’t know the full content of the Corinthians’ own letter, but as we work through Paul’s letter, we can see he describes his assessment of each problem before providing advice. Being Paul, it’s beautifully argued, considers the wider theological context, and contains Paul’s advice, opinion, and sometimes direction, specific to the situation. The entire letter sets the scene for order in a community that lived in an environment influenced by a polytheistic Graeco-Roman culture that was in turn influenced by new ideas and behaviours arriving with every ship.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of what he taught and how he lived amongst them, so that they might have an orderly church that followed Jesus and glorified God. Leading to our reading today, Paul has systematically addressed the issues he has heard are affecting Corinth. There is an extended section on the relative value of marrying and staying celibate. Paul then addresses whether it is acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and then to the conduct of people in church, including teaching that allowed the church to adjust to women’s active participation in worship in a decorous way, as well as teaching reverence and respect for community during the Lord’s supper. In each section, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to live and worship in a way that is good for the community, rather than putting themselves first or treating people preferentially. The advice is contextual, specific to these people and their needs, for the good of that community.
And we reach today’s text, where we hear Paul’s response to an overenthusiastic charismatic expression in the community, that stretches from our reading today, into the 14th chapter. At the time, these signs Paul describes – healings, wonders, dreams, epiphanies, visions, ecstasy and inspired utterances were all known outside of Christianity, and perhaps some outside attitudes are carrying over into the church.
The expression of spiritual gifts has become competitive sport, in a way that doesn’t edify the community nor glorify God. There’s a “my gift is better than your gift” attitude creeping in.
So here, Paul begins to describe the shape of a Spirit-guided, organised Christian church.
12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
Paul introduces the shift to a new issue with Peri de – Now concerning. Paul softens the teaching to this point and the teaching to come, by referring to the Corinthians as brothers and sisters, or “fellow Christians”, and at the same time alerts them to their lack of knowledge and failure to understand what is at stake. He wants them to have knowledge about spiritual gifts, not to be puffed up, but to build the community in love.
12:2 You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of the time when they worshiped idols – they know that this was not the way to God, because they recognised Jesus as Lord. A theme of knowledge is introduced. You know, you realise. I made known to you. He reminds them how easy it is to be led astray, or carried away, without the right use of this knowledge.
Paul is instructing the Corinthians to think, to understand, and to see spiritual giftedness in the light of that reason. He tells them how to assess what they witness and experience.
12:3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
Here, Paul is affirming every member of the community. As they confess Christ crucified, and all say “Jesus is Lord” they demonstrate without doubt that they have been graced by the Holy Spirit, regardless of whether they have a particular showy charismatic gift. If there were a war of “my gift is better than yours”, Paul has just pulled the blanket out from under them all.
Just as once you didn’t know about Jesus, and now you do, look at your practice of spiritual giftedness, and take on the new knowledge I am giving you. Spiritual gifts are for following Jesus’s way.
Having established that each person who has confessed that Jesus is Lord has been gifted belief by the Holy Spirit, Paul goes on to explain just how other gifts of the Spirit are focused on Christ, and Christ’s mission in the world.
12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
12:5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
12:6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
All things are given to us for the glory of God, serving the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the spirit. Paul directs focus not to the individual gift, but the one that bestows the gift. There are varieties, which can also be transcribed as diversity, of gifts, services and activities in mission, that are purposefully given and activated across all believers by God for benefit of everyone. All the many diverse gifts, services, and activities in the church spring from the one God, for God’s purpose. You might also say the church is a diverse, gifted, serving, and active community by the inspiration of the one Holy Spirit.
12:7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
Manifestation: an event, action, or object that clearly shows or embodies something abstract or theoretical. OED
The Holy Spirit is in the work and love of God made clear. To each one of us, this is a gift – to show and to see, for the common good.
We are all interrelated. Our actions affect one another, as much as we might think we live in a bubble. The Holy Spirit works for the common good. The Holy Spirit works to unify what the world sees as discreet and divided. Using our gifts for God and our community is the expression of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.
12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,
12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
12:11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
While the focus of the section is on the charismatic gifts that are relevant in Corinth. Paul upholds the gifts of wisdom and knowledge alongside faith and healing – no one gift elevates a person above another. The ability to reason and discern is as important a gift of the Spirit as is the gift of healing and miracles. And the thing about these gifts is that we need to see them as interacting. We need to look for others’ gifts and respect the person and their gift, because gifts are given by the same God.
Paul’s point in this passage, and in the first letter to the Corinthians broadly, is that all church behaviour needs to lead to the glory of God, and the building of the entire community. People were encouraged to participate in the church to the fulness of their abilities and gifts, and to recognise this diversity was intended by God, was for the glory of God, to the benefit of the entire church in the community. The letter to the Corinthians was written to respond to the disorder in worship caused by the disorderly use of charismatic gifts, to the benefit of the individual over the life of the church, and the focus of this section reflects that goal.
There are also other gifts of the spirit described in the letters to the emerging church:
Later, in Romans 12, Paul adds to these gifts teaching, ministry, encouragement, generosity, leading in diligence, and compassion in cheerfulness. In Ephesians we see apostleship, evangelism, and pastorship. There’s a lot of overlap between gifts, but do you notice in this list that Prophesy appears across First Corinthians, Romans, and Ephesians? Prophesy, in this context, is not to predict the future, but to encourage those in the church body to continue on God’s way.
In 1 Corinthians 14:1, after expounding on spiritual gifts and then love, Paul goes on to say: Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. Edify, improve, build, encourage. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
Just like John the Baptist and then Jesus plainly spoke to encourage people to turn their hearts to God, the work of Prophesy continues. Paul’s instruction to us is to set our hearts and minds not on our own desires and advantage, but to seek God, and to work together as a community in equity and diversity. Can we be a community of prophets, that encourage eachother to use the gifts we have to the benefit of our community and the glory of God?
As always, God’s way is not the world’s way. The world might elevate the giftedness of a tennis player about other gifts. Or shrewdness in business. Or financial luck – being in the right place at the right time. Or the ability to achieve fame. Or academic ability. Or persuasiveness. But for Paul, all gifts are to be used for the common good. What glorifies God? What builds the church? What contributes to God’s mission?
Does the sign honour and attest to Christ?
Does it speak love and truth? (1 Cor 13)
Does it build community? (v. 7, 1 Cor 14)
That is the work of the Holy Spirit. After Pentecost, the motley crew of Acts transforms into a cohesive, confident and dynamic group – bold in proclamation and in living out their faith. The disorderly early church would go on to become the modern world wide church, that still is being refined and improved today.
What are the gifts in our community, and how might we use them to the glory of God, following Jesus, in order to work together for the common good, in the power of the Spirit? How might the Spirit be leading us to work together, for the common good?
In the name of Christ, Jesus, our Lord.