1 Corinthians 12.3b-13
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 —
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
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
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).