Sunday 31st May – Pentecost
Lectionary passage – 1 Corinthians 12 vv 4 – 13
Paul writes to the Christians of the Church in Corinth about the gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The main Lectionary Passage for Pentecost Sunday is, of course, the Acts Chapter 2 description of the events of Pentecost – the coming of the Spirit as described in graphic terms of wind and fire. For the purpose of this Reflection I have assumed that almost every streamed or audio Service will focus on that passage and accordingly, again this week, I have chosen one of the other passages prescribed for this – the second major festival of the Christian calendar.
It is not easy to piece together into a precise and ordered chronology details of the timescale and of the places that Paul visited on his three Mission Journeys. The snippets of information that we glean from his letters and from Acts give us a somewhat disjointed and incomplete account.
It is not easy to piece together the details of his relationship – in terms of letters and visits – with the Church in the city of Corinth. It seems from the references that Paul wrote four letters and made at least three visits to Corinth. Certainly there is a reference in First Corinthians to an earlier letter (1 Cor 5 v 9 ). Did the early church fathers, recognising the real value of parts the letters, in their Spirit-led wisdom do a ‘cut-and-paste’ job and incorporate parts of all four letters into what we now know as First and Second Corinthians? Again, that is for scholarly study rather than pastoral reflection!
Its not easy to recognise that in the very early days of the Church there were real issues of belief and behaviour which threatened to drastically undermine the fellowship of the congregation, the unity of the Church, the teaching of Paul and other leaders on some important principles and also Christian standards of worship and life-style.
Paul receives cries for help. They come in the form of a visit to his base in Ephesus by some of “Chloe’s people” who bring shocking news of the goings on in Corinth -1 Cor 1 v11. They come in the form of at least one letter from the Corinthian Church asking for his guidance and judgement. Six times in the letter Paul responds, “Now concerning what you wrote..” 1 Cor 7 v1 etc. Put the picture together, and it is a pretty sorry situation. There is blatant immorality, there are lawsuits by one Christian against another, there is disturbing malpractice at Worship Services – even at Communion, there are questions about the Resurrection and other beliefs, there are challenges to authority and an apparent total breakdown of the sense of belonging together as the people of God. Factions within the Church have set themselves against one another and totally disrupted any harmony.
Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, a major seaport, the home of a Temple dedicated to Aphrodite – the goddess of love with all that it implies – there were 1,000 ‘sacred’ prostitutes linked to the Temple. It was nothing short of miraculous that Paul and his companions had been able to establish a church there in the first place. Even so it would be hard to find a church beset by so many problems. In his letter Paul tries to sort them out. For him the unity and harmony of the Church is all important. That is the context of this Lectionary Passage.
So, what is Paul saying about the gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit to the Christians of Corinth, and what does this Scripture say to us? You may find it helpful at this point to refer to two more passages from Paul’s letters. Romans 12 vv 3 – 8 and Ephesians 4 vv 7,11 & 12.
In verse 7 of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul writes “The Sprit’s presence is shown in some way in each person..”. The Pentecost event described in Acts 2 is spectacular. The immediate results are astounding. But that was a very, very special occasion. Paul asserts that the Sprit is at work not just in the special and spectacular but in the ordinary. Not just in gifted prominent people but each and every one of us. The Spirit’s work most often is quietly, gently even unobtrusively, nurturing, encouraging, enabling us to use our God-given gifts. As the opening two verses of the Book of Genesis assert, from the very beginning the Spirit of God was at work. That work doesn’t stop. The Holy Spirit is at work in us.
The verse continues “for the good of all”. The important principle that God’s Holy Spirit is at work in us all is coupled to the Spirit’s purpose. The Ephesians 4 passage comes in here to add emphasis. Having listed some of the gifts seen in people, verse 12 reads “He did this to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ”.
One of the major problems in the Church in Corinth was that of division amongst the members. Some formed factions and purported to follow the leadership of one or other of those in authority in the Church. Others puffed themselves up because they mistakenly believed that their special gift made them more important or better than anyone else. In all three of these passages, Paul lists just some of the gifts of the Spirit, maintains the important place of each gift and very clearly points out that we are in it together working for the good of all and the building up of God’s Holy Church. He writes to Rome “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you should”. Romans 12 v 3 and to Philippi, in that sublime passage about Jesus, he writes “The attitude you should have is the one that Christ Jesus had:”. In the Corinthians letter he goes on to develop the idea of the Church being the Body of Christ with a particular understanding of its various parts belonging together in unity.
To me, our Lectionary Passage for this Sunday is a direct challenge for us to pause and ask of ourselves some questions, questions that seem particularly pertinent as we contemplate what the Church will be in our post-Coronavirus future:-
- What gift or gifts has the Sprit given, encouraged and enabled in me?
- How may I use all that the Spirit has given me for the good of all and in order to build up the body of Christ?
- How do I ensure that my gifts blend with the gifts of others to ensure the unity and harmony of the Church of Jesus Christ?