First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 2

William Loader

Epiphany 2: 20 January  1 Corinthians 12:1-11

It is interesting that Paul deals with problems about spiritual gifts by pointing to the Corinthians' previous involvement in other religions before they became Christians. Even more surprising is his statement that no one can say, "A curse on Jesus", and claim to have the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Why mention cursing Jesus to Christians? What possible relevance could this have for them? And why refer to their past religious experience?


The two are connected; Paul is confronting them with the possibility that their spiritual Christianity may be no better than their previous religious experience of being carried away. Even more seriously, it might amount to cursing Jesus, rather than acknowledging him as Lord. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord was a key element in becoming a Christian. It meant acknowledging that God was meeting us in Christ. Now, Paul is suggesting that focus on spiritual gifts can amount to nothing more than being carried away and can achieve exactly the opposite of what Jesus stands for (in effect, cursing him, rather than acclaiming him).


How could this be? Paul will go on to suggest that this occurs wherever the gift or experience becomes more important than the giver and the achievement more important than love. Paul will go on in 1 Corinthians 13 to explain that if love is not central, then all such claims to spiritual gifts and achievements and to special workings of the Spirit amount to nothing. He begins unpacking his challenge in 12:4. There is one Spirit. This means that among the various gifts (or claims to gifts) of the Spirit there needs to be coherence; otherwise something is wrong. That coherence is bound up with an understanding of unity and wholeness which flows from the fact that we are relating to the one Jesus and the one God (12:5-6).


This helps us see what matters most for Paul - or better, who matters most. For Paul, faith (faith in community) is about relationship, in which people matter most. It is not about sensational experiences or achievements. The real sign of the Spirit of God is not the ability to sustain spiritual "highs", but the presence of love and compassion in our lives. Particular gifts are subordinate to this purpose. In 12:7-10 Paul lists some things which he (and his hearers) will have understood as manifestations of the Spirit.


Paul begins with the least spectacular and sensational - perhaps deliberately, to counter what was going on in Corinth. 12:8 mentions wisdom and knowledge and the ability to express them. His letters are evidence that Paul has these gifts. Nothing indicates that this is a kind of supernatural knowledge or insight unrelated to the normal processes of learning, as though it refers to sudden flashes of revelation. On the other hand, nor is it just a nice way of describing intellectual processes and achievement. Paul is writing about knowledge and wisdom which comes as a result of people's openness to the Spirit. That will certainly have something to do with the connecting which occurs when a person becomes centred on God and the Spirit in their lives. Notice that 1 Cor 13:2 refers to such "knowledge". The early chapters of the letter also deal with claims by people to have this gift.


1 Cor 13:2 also refers to "faith", which we find here in 12:9 beside acts of healing. "Faith" here doubtless means faith which produces miracles. These will have included healing. Paul will have understood this ability to heal as a fruit of the Spirit. Again this is more than an inspiring way to describe medical practices. It refers to healing which seems beyond the normal rational explanations of the time, but to be based on a relationship with the Spirit. We might have explanations for such healings today in terms of what can be inspired by faith and unleashed when a person is focused on God in their lives, but Paul assumes something beyond rational explanation - hence a faith miracle.


Miracles are also in focus in 12:10, but it moves on to prophecy, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues and their interpretation. Prophecy, here, is more than wise predictions about the future. Paul will assume a supernatural element, however we understand that. It is probably a lot more than prediction, but like the prophecy of the Old Testament and in Revelation, prediction about the consequences of current behaviour with a strongly ethical flavour. A secular view might begin to talk about people's claims to discern things through intuition. Discerning spirits is an important indicator that there was a problem with claims to the Spirit. As the author in 1 John 3, Paul knows that many claims to inspiration are spurious. Someone needs to be able to discern what is genuine from what is not genuine. That was not automatic, although Paul certainly sees it as Spirit-inspired. His own acts of discernment (like what he doing in these chapters) show that the basis for such discernment is the critical thinking which the Spirit inspires. One could argue that this describes one of the chief functions of theology as a discipline (in more than one sense).


Finally Paul mentions speaking in tongues and its interpretation. This describes a phenomenon which was present in some early Christian communities (and exists also in other religions) in which people spoke, but not in a way recognised as belonging to their own language. Some think it meant that people spoke in another language: Luke assumes this on the day of Pentecost. Paul seems to focus not on a language miracle, but a form of expression which results from the impact of the Spirit on people and whose meaning needs to be interpreted; otherwise it will not be understood. He, himself, speaks in tongues (14:18). His discussion in 1 Corinthians is very interesting. On the one hand, he has no doubt that this manifestation is a gift of the Spirit, but, on the other hand, he qualifies it significantly. He treats it as a low priority. He also suggests that it may be abused.  It can be noise nuisance (13:1)!This indicates that he does not simply equate speaking in tongues with an activity of the Spirit. It can, in fact, be an act contrary to God's will and the common good.


To understand this we need to enter a world of thought where the Spirit initiates things which then come under people's control and which they can abuse. Paul cites this as the principle that "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (14:32). This means Paul is far from identifying all these spiritual gifts (spirits) as always a work of the Spirit. With some at least they may be spurious and with others they may not be an expression of the Spirit at all, but of unloving, self-indulgent behaviour which does little good. This brings us back to Paul's opening statements in 12:1-3, where he confronts the possibility that so-called "spiritual gifts" may be nothing more than manifestations of the kind of religious self indulgence which he attributed to some other religions of the time - and may achieve the reverse of their original intention: not affirming God's love, but blocking it, not acclaiming Jesus as Lord, but cursing him.


It must add up. There must be coherence. Otherwise, wonderful as they may all sound, and impressive as they may appear, the claims to the Spirit are not borne out by reality. Where they are not vehicles of compassion, they are just so much distraction and can even betray the gospel. That will be the message of 1 Corinthians 13. That is also the meaning of 12:7. The gifts exist to bring into effect what is appropriate. The word, sumferon, in 12:8 means what is fitting or appropriate. NRSV translates: "common good". It certainly needs to fit what God sees as good and for Paul that means building people up in their faith and not putting blocks in the way of sharing God's love with others. That is the focus here and in what follows. It is not on wonders, not on enumerating "gifts of the Spirit", as if Paul's fairly loose list was ever meant to be comprehensive or to be seen as a set of markers to be sought, let alone counted. But then much of what exists as Christianity gets carried away with distractions and fits the Corinthian  model which Paul is challenging.


Gospel: Epiphany 2: 20 January John 2:1-11

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