Tag: Unity

One in the Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (1 Corinthians 12)

Adam Kossowski, Veni Sancti Spiritus
1 Corinthians 12:3-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
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. 
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 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. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
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                We’ve been waiting for the Spirit to come. Whether we’re ready or not, the Spirit is coming and is here. That period running from the moment of Jesus’ ascension to the day of Pentecost has come to a close (and with it a very strange Easter 2020). The promise made in Acts 1, before Jesus departed, was that before long they would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). With Pentecost that day has come. According to Luke, the followers of Jesus spent the time between the ascension and Pentecost praying and choosing a successor to the fallen Judas so that their number (twelve) would be complete. Then came the date with destiny, the day promised by Jesus.

                It was on Pentecost Sunday, a day when Jews would have gathered in Jerusalem for one of three important pilgrimage festivals. Pentecost is the Greek term for the Jewish festival of the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). And so as they gathered for prayer that day, the Spirit of God fell upon them, and as the Spirit baptized them, they began to proclaim the Gospel in a multitude of languages so that the crowd below heard the message (Acts 2). As I noted Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles). It was both the celebration of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest and a celebration of the giving of the Torah. As a pilgrimage festival, the city of Jerusalem would have been filled with people from across the diaspora. There are several intriguing parallels and analogies between the two festivals that should be kept in mind as we celebrate Pentecost.

Since I’m focusing my lectionary reflections this cycle on the second reading (epistles), we are invited to consider the message for Pentecost that comes from 1 Corinthians 12. First Corinthians 12 to 14 focuses on things of the Spirit. In fact, it is the place we go to understand how the Spirit works in our lives. There Paul speaks about spiritual things, of which he does not want them to be uninformed (1 Cor. 12:1). The lectionary reading begins in verse three and extends to verse thirteen. The section we’re invited to consider begins with the declaration that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). In other words, our ability to confess our faith is rooted in the presence of the Spirit, who empowers us to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth.

Having made that opening declaration, Paul gets to the practical side of the equation. I should preface this by dropping down to the closing verses of our text, where Paul invokes the imagery of the church as the body of Christ. He reminds us that there is but one body with many members. What is true of the body is true of Christ and therefore of the church. I will come back to the message of verse 13 in a moment, but first let’s return to the middle section of our passage. That middle section is the first of two gift lists in 1 Corinthians 12. I have written a rather lengthy book on Spiritual Gifts titled Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013), I would direct your attention there for an in-depth discussion of spiritual gifts.  

 

What Paul does here, is describe how there can be unity in diversity in the congregation. Paul tells us that there are a variety of gifts but only one Spirit. There is, he declares, varieties of services, and the same Lord, along with a variety of activities, but one God. While I realize that Paul doesn’t have a fully developed trinitarian theology, we see hints of the possibility here and there in his letters. While I try to be careful about how I conceive of God in trinitarian terms, perhaps we can think in terms of how our own unity in diversity as a community might reflect the diversity that exists within the unity that is God.  

 

As to the variety of gifts, Paul offers nine in this first list, all of which are activated by the same God in each one. These gifts, which are given to the members of the body for the common good include the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. It appears from the larger context that this gift of tongues is a big issue. Apparently, some prize it above the others (see 1 Corinthians 14). However, while Paul never denies its value, he puts it below those gifts that allow for understanding. The point here is that whatever gift you have been given, it comes from God and its purpose is related to the common good. So, don’t mount your high horse, because there is no hierarchy of gifts. Your gift(s) are there so you can serve others, not so you can rise in stature. Gifts have a purpose, and that purpose, while it might prove to be a blessing, is given for the welfare of the body.

To return to verses twelve and thirteen, after we’ve heard the message that the Spirit brings gifts to us that are to be used for the good of others, we hear the message that there is one body with many members. This reality is rooted in baptism, through which we become one, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free. In other words, as John McClure notes, “all of the usual ways in which people are organized by class, ethnicity, gender, social status, or education are irrelevant within this new creation.  All that is relevant is the way that God’s gifts empower each for the common welfare of the whole” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 254]. Over time, the church has often failed to recognize Paul’s message as revealed here. We often follow the lead of the larger culture, just like the Corinthians. Here is a corrective if we’re willing to embrace it. Whatever gift(s) come your way, use them, Paul tells us, for the common good. Remember as well that they come to us from God through the Spirit so we can declare that Jesus is Lord.

 

Image attribution:  Kossowski, Adam. Veni Sancti Spiritus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56946 [retrieved May 24, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/8750321716 – Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P..

 

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Unity in the Power of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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                When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he called them saints (1 Cor. 1:2). That might have been a more aspirational than descriptive statement, as we quickly discover when coming to the Second Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany. This reading follows the previous week’s reading which didn’t hint at problems, but it’s clear from this passage that this was a divided people. It seems that Paul, who had helped found the Corinthian congregation, had received word from a number of sources, including Chloe’s people, that the Corinthian saints were quarreling. Factions had developed, and they seem to have been dividing up according to allegiances. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, and some Cephas (Peter), and others Apollos. Then there might have been another group, who stand out for their claim to follow Christ.

I especially like that last grouping, the one that claimed to follow Christ. You see, I’m part of a denominational tradition that prides itself on its non-sectarian name. We’re “Disciples of Christ” and one of our Movement’s favorite slogans is “We’re not the only Christians, but we’re Christians only.” Yes, we’re Disciples of Christ and we wear that title proudly. So, take that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Why don’t you get with the program? For some reason, I don’t think Paul would appreciate this attempt to portray our movement as holier than others because we claim to follow Jesus and not a later leader or form of church government. After all, as Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul’s point is that the church shouldn’t be divided. It doesn’t matter how you define yourselves, be of one mind and purpose. In other words, remember your calling.  

 

                Paul’s call for the Corinthians to be of one mind and one purpose, with no divisions among them, appeals to me. Things ecumenical stir my passions. That may be due in part to my own denominationally diverse background, but I have longed to the followers of Jesus united. At the same time, as a historian, I know that unity that is coerced, often by governmental decree, doesn’t honor the one whom Christians claim to follow. In many ways, Christian unity is more aspirational than practical, especially as the “church” has expanded across the globe. Besides, it’s difficult to let go of beliefs and practices that have been embraced over time. Sometimes it’s just the way we organize ourselves that stands in the way of unity.

Nevertheless, unity might be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But unity needs to find its path in ways that honor our diversity in doctrine, practices, and governance. Since Paul mentions baptism here, we might think of our differences with regard to baptism. There isn’t just one way that Christians baptize. We’ve been arguing about it for centuries. I have embraced a particular form of baptism as my own, but I understand why others have embraced a different view. In Paul’s context, it may have been a question not of form or even doctrine, but the person who baptized a particular person. Paul responds to this problem, by downplaying his own participation in the baptism of members of the Corinthian Church. He goes so far as suggesting that his calling involved preaching the Gospel not baptizing people. Now that claim might get him in trouble in certain circles of my tradition. It might even get you fired from your post as a theology professor. since some in the broader tradition of which I’m a member believe that baptism is essential for salvation (and by baptism, I mean immersion for the remission of sins on the basis of an informed confession of faith). Baptism is, in my mind, an important element of the Christian faith, but fighting over it does nothing to further the message of God’s realm.

Rather than focus on who baptizes whom, Paul wants to focus on the cross of Jesus, which is itself rather scandalous. Paul says that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God. We might struggle with Paul’s statement regarding salvation, but his point is clear, the gospel is revealed in the cross, which to Jew and Gentile was scandalous. In our day much of the scandal of the cross has dissipated. We wear the cross as jewelry, with no thought to its original use. In other words, what was once scandalous has been domesticated.

          The arguments that were dividing the Corinthian community had to do with power and influence. That’s why Paul put his focus on the cross in all its foolishness. There in the cross, one would find the power of God, and not in the eloquence of a preacher. Paul felt called to preach the gospel, but he was concerned about those who put an emphasis on eloquence. It’s possible that some in Corinth didn’t think much of his preaching, but that didn’t really matter to him. He might not be the best preacher in the realm, but he knew what his calling was. It’s probably useful to remember that in his day there were those who studied rhetoric so they could be professional speakers. To be eloquent, was to have power. As for Paul, whether he was a good preacher or not, his focus was on the cross, lest it lose its power. He didn’t want to get in the way of the gospel, which is rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s a temptation that is as prevalent today as it was in the first century. There is a desire within all of us to be admired, but when that desire gets in the way of the gospel then it’s a problem. It’s not that preachers ought not to give attention to their craft, they just need to keep things in perspective. As a preacher, I try to do my best to offer something worth hearing, but in the end, it shouldn’t be about me (or any preacher, even the most eloquent of preachers).

            Now those who claimed to be of Christ rather than Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, were on the right track, but perhaps for the wrong reason. We should be about Christ in the church, but if we use that claim as a way of holding ourselves over others then we’ve defeated the purpose of our identification with Jesus. So, even though the cross seems to be a foolish place to center ourselves, that’s where Paul puts the focus. Not his eloquence. Not his prowess as a baptizer. No, it’s the cross of Jesus that matters.  Whatever unity was to be had in the Christian community would come in terms of the cross, which may seem like a rather foolish idea—Why would one want to find unity in a method of execution that emphasized humiliation? —but it is the way of Jesus (and Paul).