First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary


William Loader

Pentecost: 4 June  1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

It is a pity to begin this passage half way through 12:3. 12:3a is baffling until we see Paul's rhetorical strategy. He is not seriously contemplating that people are going about cursing Jesus and claiming the authority of the Spirit; nor is he castigating the habit of taking Christ's name in vain. Rather he is thinking about people who make claims that their actions flow from the Spirit. In effect it is indeed possible to curse Christ by what we do and think, even when we are claim to be acting and speaking by the inspiration of the Spirit. Because that is what our behaviour amounts to! Paul's rhetoric is gentler in the following chapter where he declares that the recognised gifts count for nothing without love. Paul has no interest in denying what he and others call the gifts of the Spirit, but he assumes they become so much the possession of their bearers that they can become the instrument of wrong. Certainly 1 Corinthians assumes that when Paul warns against abuse of speaking in tongues, for instance.

It is also slightly unfortunate that we do not read the previous verse, 12:2. There he alludes to the past of the Corinthians - their involvement in pagan religion. You can get just as carried away with charismatic claims in Christianity as you did with your pagan religions. It has little to do with Jesus - nothing to do with him at all, if it is not about love but just about ecstasy and wonder. In fact it is like cursing all he stands for. This strongly confronting beginning sets the scene for our passage. So declaring Jesus is Lord in 12:3b is something much more than saying words. Paul's idea of a confession here is one from the heart that issues in action.

Our passage ends with an allusion to baptism as entry into an entity which is one (12:13). The theme is unity. Then as now claims to spiritual prowess and the focus on gifts instead of the giver led to disunity. Corinth's Christians seem to have developed a range of kinds of disunity: personality cult in chapter 1, denial of social justice in chapter 11, and here: failure to live out of the unity of the Spirit and instead seeing it as a source of competing claims. Paul goes on to develop a common illustration: communities need to work together as our bodies parts need to work together (12:12-27). That was a good secular argument which Paul baptised into Christian teaching, because for him the body is more than just a community; it is a participation in the ongoing life of the risen Christ which extends to encompass us as a realm of power and transforming love. The one Spirit brings the one presence of Christ to us. We drink it together (12:13). Or to change the image, as Paul often does, we have been incorporated into this body which is Christ (12:12). Later, Colossians and Ephesians will give the image a new twist, identifying Christ as the head of the body. For Paul in his undisputed letters Christ is the whole body and we have found our place in it and take on its various roles. Christ is the body with many parts, not just the head (12:12).

Notice that 12:4 speaks of gifts and 12:5 immediately speaks of services or ministries. Gifts are there for a purpose - to enable ministry and caring to operate more effectively. They are not awards or possessions, although - and this is important - Paul has seen that they can be treated as such and so alienated from both their purpose and even the Spirit. It may sound strange, but Paul assumes people can sin by using gifts of the Spirit. 12:7 recognises that people have different gifts, but all are for what is fitting and appropriate, especially for the whole.

The list in 12:8-11 assumes that these are not one's natural talents, but abilities one acquires as a result of the Spirit's activity. We might say they are generated or arise as a result of the impact of the Spirit. When people open themselves to God's transforming and energising love, new things happen. This will have been Paul's view of things. But Paul refuses to draw the conclusion that these abilities then become something independent of the bearer and always carry the hallmark of the Spirit. He would find the notion absurd of counting them up as signs of God. That would dent his argument, for it would mean that wherever such gifts are exercised they are legitimately God's action. Paul will have none of that. Later he will declare, reflecting a view of his day: the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (14:32). In other words he shares the view that prophets and anyone else who claims spiritual gifts, even when that claim is legitimate, are accountable for how they exercise the gift. He does not therefore romanticise gifts. They guarantee nothing in themselves. They are not indicators of spiritual status.

This also means we have to be careful in speaking of such gifts. My way of trying to come close to Paul's view is to say that there are things which people do in response to the Spirit, but they become abilities which they can then exercise independently of the Spirit. I have seen this work in conversations where I have heard people report glossalalia in indirect speech. In other words they could use it just like that, in the same way that someone might report singing by singing themselves as part of their reporting. It can be turned on and off at will. And the same appears to apply when it appears in other religions. Notice, however, that Paul has no argument with what he lists. He disputes none of them, including speaking in tongues, in which he himself engages. But he has a sober assessment of the significance of all the gifts and can rate them according to usefulness. Tongues comes at the bottom and so receives first attention in the next chapter (13:1). But there even the more useful gifts count for nothing without love.

Our passage ends by grounding the unity of the the congregation in the wider unity which for Paul symbolised the heart of the gospel: no one is written off (12:13). No one is excluded. There's a place in this body of compassion and generosity for all: Jews, Greeks, slaves, freedmen. Galatians 3:28 includes the pairing: male and female, absent here. That had become a problem at Corinth where some seem to have tried to abandon the distinction altogether, at least in dress. Nevertheless Paul keeps bringing us back to fundamentals, showing us a way to do theology. The one compassion of the one Christ is where we start: for understanding God, for understanding ourselves, for understanding the church and for understanding the world. Sit with it and we will find ourselves rejecting all elitism: whether it be based on spiritual gifts, gender, class or race.

Gospel: Pentecost: 4 June John 20:19-23
Epistle/Acts: Pentecost: 4 June Acts 2:1-21