REFLECTION: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
The city of Corinth in antiquity was big, bold and successful. It was a crossing point for trade routes between east and west, north and south, and a meeting point for different cultures and customs. It was situated on the narrow isthmus which links northern and southern Greece. In the present day, the Corinth canal has been cut through this narrow strip of land so that smaller ships can pass through straight to Athens, the Aegean Sea and on to Turkey without having to circumnavigate the southern coast of the Peloponnese. The site of Corinth today is still impressive. You can see the spot from which Paul addressed the Corinthians, the towering acropolis beyond the city, the amazing drainage system in the agora and the public conveniences which must have been quite companionable, and the remains of an imposing temple to Apollo.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Paul’s Corinthian converts to Christianity seem to have been big and bold and successful too, ready to take on the challenges of their new faith, to get their new church sorted out, pretty confident even in the early days of the establishment of the church. But as yet there was no ‘rule book’ to deal with the practice of Christianity and the New Testament was yet to be compiled. The implications of their faith, of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, were still being thought through. So it was natural enough that questions and difficulties would arise among these energetic Corinthian converts, once Paul had left them. And some of these difficulties could threaten the existence of the new Christian community. So they sent Paul a letter about their concerns, asking for his help. We haven’t got the letter, but Paul’s reply gives us a fair idea of what was on their minds.
The question was, how were groups and individuals converted to Christianity? What was the evidence that they really were the followers of Jesus? Looking at the reading we’ve just had from Acts about the day of Pentecost, it was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which established the Church and set in motion the spread of the Gospel throughout the known world as the followers of Jesus took to the road. The ability to speak in tongues which was given to all those who were there on this pivotal day was one of the gifts of the Holy SpirIt. So the Corinthians began to think that this gift which came at the founding of the Church was so important that those who possessed it had a higher status than the other converts to Christianity. And they asked Paul what was the proper place in their assemblies for speaking in tongues. In other words, the idea was creeping in that there was a hierarchy of gifts from the Holy Spirit and that therefore there was a hierarchy of importance in the Church – a hierarchy of gifts and therefore of people and their value. Naturally this led to difficulties within the church in Corinth. It was a text book case of how to distress and alienate the faithful.
Paul’s response was to remind the Corinthians that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were many, not limited to speaking in tongues. And he mentions such gifts as the utterance of knowledge and wisdom, healing, working of miracles. No doubt we could add any number of abilities and understandings we have be given, the skill of peacemaking, how to interpret the natural world, how to teach, and so on. None of these things can we give ourselves. But Paul says the Corinthians are to remember that the gifts of the Spirit are just that, gifts, not our own achievements. The first gift we receive is that of faith. Paul says “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (Cor. 1:12,3). His argument is that faith is a sufficient sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is the gift which gains us admission to the believing community – not the speaking in tongues or prophesying or healing or any other of the gifts we may have. We belong through faith. Then Paul goes on to list the wonderful variety of gifts which people receive through the Spirit. God grants the gifts and it is the Spirit which allots the gifts and no one is given every gift.
The other striking point which Paul makes about the gifts of the Spirit is that they are not meant for the private benefit of the individual: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:7). Paul’s view is that spiritual gifts exist for the benefit of the whole community and should be used especially for the nurturing and building up of the Christian community. He then explains this through the analogy of the human body. The church is like a body, consisting of many different members with different functions, but still united as one single body. No function or part of the body is more important than another because, though different from one another, they all have their unique function but are still all interdependent. Paul is urging the Corinthians to accept the equality of what every member of the Church can offer, whatever it may be, and to let it be used for the common good of the Church.
And this is where the real difficulty comes in, not just for the Corinthians, but for ourselves too. Unity in diversity sounds a splendid idea, but it is an extraordinarily difficult one to realise. If we call for unity we have to recognise that diversity is a fact. If we celebrate diversity without seeking unity we will still be in difficulties. Is difference good or bad? Can or should differences be reconciled? If they are, does that mean difference is wiped out and we are left with uniformity? Or that difference means simply everyone for themselves? The tension between unity and diversity, within the Church and society more generally, and highlighted by the church in Corinth, is not new. But how to accommodate it and hold the two ideas in balance is still crucial to the well-being of our community.