Next Sunday's readings:Pentecost

02 November 2006


Acts 2.1-21 

1 Corinthians 12.3b-13 

John 20.19-23


THE 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). Luke may be distinguishing here between those who can recognise the miracle and those who are deaf to it. But perhaps he is just making clear: Pentecost did not involve glossolalia.


Luke has 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.


The 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).


Why was 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).


The crowd 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.


Paul’s 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.


Paul 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 (undeniable) powers and Jesus. Paul makes 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).


Paul 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 12.4-6).


The one 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.”


So, he 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).

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)