This week's readings:Pentecost
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
1 Corinthians 12.3b-13
SPIRIT, in Luke’s story, may be dramatic, but is always orderly. The disciples
who speak in different tongues at Pentecost speak the “dialects” of their
audience in Jerusalem. They are far from drunk (Acts 2.13).
be distinguishing here between those who can recognise the miracle and those
who are deaf to it. But perhaps he is just clarifying: Pentecost did not
his eye, as ever, on the Jewish scriptures; he (or his source) has drawn as
well on more recent traditions of the Jewish feast of Pentecost.
people who gathered in Shinar started to build a tower. Its top was to reach
heaven. “Now nothing they plan to do”, said God, “will be beyond them” — and he
scattered them over all the world (Genesis 11.6).
the city of the tower called Babel? Because, claims Genesis, God there confused
(Hebrew bll) the language of the earth. In Greek, the point is made more
clearly: “The city was called Confusion, because God began there to confuse the
tongues of all the earth” (Genesis 11.9).
in Luke’s account of Pentecost is “confused” in its turn (Acts 2.6). Is the
gift of the Spirit, then, about to undo God’s earlier action, and resolve that
ancient confusion? Not exactly. All of those affected at Pentecost, whatever
their homeland, are Jews; and they hear the disciples speak in their various
dialects. The Spirit, then, overcomes some of the divisions of Babel, but does
not undo them.
Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, is a harvest festival on the 50th day —
pentecoste hemera — or seven weeks after Passover. By the second century AD, at
the latest, it was linked as well with the Law’s reception at Sinai. “There
were sounds and lightnings on Sinai . . . and God descended upon it in fire”
(Exodus 19.16, 18). The whole people “saw the voices” of God (Exodus 20.18);
rabbis took this to mean that the voice divided itself into 70 languages, so
that all the nations could understand it. As on Sinai, so at Pentecost: a
covenant is given in fire from heaven and speech for the world.
Corinthian converts knew of a far less tidy spirit. Just across the Gulf of
Corinth stood Mount Parnassus. Here was the prophetic Oracle of Delphi,
inhabited by a spirit or spirits. Here, as well, were celebrated the winter
rituals of the “maenads”, devotees of Dionysus. The maenads spoke of their
god’s coming or parousia; as Jesus’s followers spoke of his.
offered a spirit, too. Or, as it seemed, more than one. Wherever there was
power, there was surely some god or daemon at work; and the range of gifts
evident in the Corinthian churches suggested a range of such divinities. The
churches might well have attracted ecstatics who denied any connection between
their powers and Jesus. Paul makes it clear: an ecstatic utterance is inspired
by the Spirit of God, if, and only if, its speaker acknowledges: “Jesus is
Lord” (1 Corinthians 12.3).
unfolds an almost Trinitarian scheme of gifts and service. He acknowledges the
various spiritual charismata distributed in the churches; but just one and the
same Spirit, inspiring them all. There are various forms of service, but one
and the same Lord, who took on the form of a slave, directing them all. There
are various operations effective in the churches, but one and the same God,
bringing them into effect — the God who effects all in all (1 Corinthians
Spirit of God brings into effect all these gifts, for their use in the service
of the churches. No member of a church is grandly autonomous, independent of
the less obviously gifted; no member is dispensable. It was a commonplace to
compare a community to a body. “The body is one,” says Paul, “and has many
members, and all the members of the body, many as they are, are one body.”
could have continued, is the Church. But he has a stronger point to make. The
gifts themselves do not define a person’s place within the Church, but the use
of those gifts in the service of the Lord Jesus. In this use, interdependent
and mutually supportive, is the unity Paul seeks for his unsettled, factious
converts. A body is one; so is the Church; for the Church is defined by Christ,
and Christ is one. We — as Paul’s converts before us — have all been baptised
into Christ’s one body, which lives by breathing the one Spirit, the one breath
(1 Corinthians 12.12,13).