Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 16, 2022
1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Commentary
An old cliché suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, Christians might like to think that the Church is immune to such inertia. After all, among the Reformers’ most cherished claims about the Church is that she is “always reforming.”
Yet a comparison of Paul’s first letter to Corinth’s Christians to what he might write to 21st century Christians at least suggests a kind of stagnancy within Christ’s Body. Approximately 2,000 years have elapsed since the apostle wrote this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. But its modern readers don’t have to squint hard to see how little has changed among God’s adopted sons and daughters. The NIV Study Bible says about 1 Corinthians, “Most of the questions and problems that confronted the church at Corinth are still very much with us – problems like immaturity, instability, divisions, jealousy and envy, lawsuits, marital difficulties, sexual immorality, and misuse of spiritual gifts.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson follows Paul’s treatise on proper worship (11:2-16), including appropriate celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). There he’s especially critical of Corinth’s Christians’ behavior before, during and after their worship services and celebrations of the sacraments. The apostle, however, reserves his harshest criticism for the divisions those actions don’t just reflect, but also exacerbate.
When Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 speaks about the “manifestations of the Spirit (7), he focuses on Christian unity in the face of such divisions. Yet he also, in some ways, toggles back and forth between an emphasis on unity and an emphasis on diversity. The apostle clearly wants his Corinthian readers to be aware of both the unity of the Triune giver of all gifts and the diversity of those gifts.
In verse 4, for example, he says, “There are different kinds of gifts” (diversity), “but the same Spirit” (unity). In verse 5 Paul notes, “There are different kinds of service” (diversity), “but the same Lord” (unity). In verse 6 we also hear him say, “There are different kinds of working” (diversity), “but the same God works in all men (unity).”
Verses 8-10 contain a remarkable list of diverse “manifestation[s] of the Spirit.” Yet Paul continues in them to deliberately emphasize a kind of unity within their diversity. In fact, many of his descriptions of those gifts follow a similar pattern to verse 8’s, “To one there is given through the Spirit the message of knowledge.” Verse 11’s end of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson even returns to the theme of unity: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit.”
1 Corinthians 12’s linked themes of unity and diversity are appropriate ones for the catholic Church of the 21st century. The heresy of Christian polytheism continues to haunt perhaps especially the fringes of the Body of Christ. 1 Corinthians’ proclaimers might reflect with their hearers on examples they’ve witnessed of that “creeping” polytheism. Last month I saw a large billboard along a major American highway that posed the question, “Why did Jesus create you? For answers, call …”
Yet the dangers of Christian division may be just as great if not greater, just as common if not more common than those of heresy. After all, Jesus’ followers don’t sometimes emphasize the differences between our various spiritual gifts. We also sometimes look down our noses at the gifts and those to whom the Spirit has given them. In fact, we might even argue that most of the manifestations of the Spirit Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12 are subjects of skepticism, if not outright rejection by at least some modern friends of Jesus Christ.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may want to point out that most of the diversity that the apostle affirms and describes in it is Christians’. When he speaks to his varied and various “brothers” (and sisters) in verse 1, he’s clearly speaking to his adopted siblings in Jesus Christ. “Each one” to whom a manifestation of the Spirit is given is a friend of Jesus Christ.
So in one sense we might argue that 1 Corinthians 12’s diversity is somewhat limited. That’s what helps makes verse 7’s assertion almost leap off the page: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of it is perhaps especially lyrical: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.”
Here is great, great gospel for a world that knows so much division: God gifts God’s adopted children with various manifestations of the Spirit for the good of not just Christians, but of all people. In a culture that encourages people to use our abilities to advance only ourselves or our causes, 1 Corinthians 12 summons God’s dearly beloved people to use the abilities with which God graces us for the welfare of not just people we consider to be nice and deserving (like us), but everyone.
Perhaps few things frustrate North Americans more than our elected leaders’ failure to work toward, to say nothing of actually accomplishing things for the common good. They don’t just argue about what that common good is. It all too often seems that at least some of our leaders also spend much of their time and energy promoting the good of those who like, support, and think like them.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul summons his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ to a different way. He reminds us that no matter with which manifestations of the Spirit God has graced us, God did so for the well-being of all people. God intended that the talents the Spirit shares with God’s people benefit everyone.
God, after all, graciously longs for not just God’s adopted children, but also for all people and creatures, as well as all of creation to flourish. The God who is already making all things new graciously “partners” with those whom God gifts to accomplish God’s good, loving, and sovereign purposes for everyone and thing God creates.
Of course, at least some commentators have limited the scope of verse 7’s “common good.” Even a quick perusal of especially older scholarly works show a tendency toward interpreting the “common good” as being the good of Christians, the Church, and churches.
That may stem at least in part from the relative rarity with which the Scriptures use the Greek participle sympheron. In fact, it’s translated as “common good” only in 1 Corinthians 12:7. Elsewhere sympheron is translated as “bringing together” (i.e. Acts 19:19) or “being better” (i.e. Matthew 5:29).
Proclaimers who choose to focus on this Sunday’s Lesson’s theme of the “common good” might want to explore the unity at which those diverse translations of sympheron at least hints. What might it mean if we humbly proposed translating it as “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for bringing together”? That would suggest that God graciously gives God’s people good but very diverse gifts in order to unite people.
Such an interpretation might also help 1 Corinthians 12’s proclaimers and hearers to better understand its link to chapter 13’s love chapter that immediately follows it. It too, after all, refers to some of the gifts that chapter 12 lists.
1 Corinthians 13 insists that if we have various manifestations of the Spirit but don’t have and show love, those gifts are largely worthless. That suggests that Paul’s explicit calls to love that bracket this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson must also characterize Christians’ use of our various talents and gifts.
So this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might fruitfully explore ways that love for God and our neighbors doesn’t just compliment but also characterizes our use of our gifts for wisdom, healing and speaking in tongues. We might ask, for example, what “prophecy” and “faith” that are devoid of that love look like? How might love enhance our knowledge and distinguishing between spirits?
Of course, as I noted in an earlier commentary, even a partially loving use of our manifestations of the Spirit requires a kind of attentiveness in a culture that sometimes cherishes privacy. Our neighbors who need Christians to lovingly use our spiritual gifts for their good don’t always publish or publicize their misery on social media. Our neighbors God summons us to love as much as ourselves may, in fact, be so far on our churches, communities and world’s margins that we scarcely even notice them.
That’s a reason why 1 Corinthians 12 summons Jesus’ friends to look for ways to identify people who largely remove themselves from our field of vision. God has graced God’s adopted sons and daughters with an astonishing variety of manifestations of the Spirit. They’re too rich and precious to be hoarded or just shared with the people we like.
The authors of an article published by the Markula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University entitled, “The Common Good,” note, “Commenting on the many economic and social problems that American society confronts, Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson once wrote: ‘We face a choice between a society where people accept modest sacrifices for a common good or a more contentious society where groups selfishly protect their own benefits.’
“The common good has been an important ethical concept in a society that has encouraged many to ‘look out for Number 1.’ Everywhere, it seems, social commentators are claiming that our most fundamental social problems grow out of a widespread pursuit of individual interests.”
While the authors’ understanding of “the common good” may slightly differ from Paul’s, its proclaimers might suggest that their points apply to his teachings in 1 Corinthians 12.
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