Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Using Gifts

Paul writes: “What should you do then, brothers and sisters?  When you come together, each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation” (1 Corinthians 14:26a).  Paul deploys the terms “brothers and sisters,” which feels like a way for him, as this is discerned from the contextual and textual flow of the entire letter, to produce unity of mind and of purpose within the congregation gathered at their standard assembly to hear this letter read in whole and as a group.  With this, we cannot escape the fact any more than the divided and possibly stratified Corinthian believers could escape the fact, that Paul emphasizes an equal participation by all in the events of the assembly. 

We shall not take lightly when Paul says that “each one” should have a song, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  This does not mean that each should have the ability to demonstrate all of these things, though this would not be problematic and could certainly be encouraged as long as it did not result in an unwarranted accrual of honor to anybody but the Creator God and His Christ, but that each one is encouraged to participate at some level, doing so, at least initially one would expect, in one of the ways that is being recognized as being influenced and directed by God through the Holy Spirit. 

Of course, the rest of verse twenty-six falls directly in line with all that Paul has said, especially concerning speaking in tongues, to this point, which is “Let all these things be done for the strengthening of the church” (14:26b).  This is always the crux of the matter for Paul in his letter to Corinth.  The strengthening of the church is the matter at hand.  What they have been doing, which is what Paul is criticizing on multiple levels, apparently exacerbated with the elevation of the speech act of glossolalia (speaking in tongues), has led to, in his opinion, the weakening of the church.  We can come to the conclusion that Paul sees a weakened and discouraged church through his constant exhortation expressing the need for strengthening and encouraging.  If the church is weakened, then by definition, the kingdom of God (the bringing of heaven to earth---causing the overlap of God’s realm of existence with man’s realm of existence, manifested whenever selfless and sacrificial love that reveals the character of God that is also to be the calling card of those that are His image-bearers is being put on display) is damaged, as it is the church that functions as the ambassadorial arm of that kingdom. 

It is with such thoughts (including in these thoughts that there were problems, including the bestowal of honor in competition with other spiritual gifts or other factions within the church, being created and exacerbated through the displays of speaking in tongues) under consideration that we then go on to hear “If someone speaks in a tongue, it should be two, or at the most three, one after the other, and someone must interpret” (14:27).  Paul is placing what he hopes to be effective boundaries around this particular religious exercise, as he continues his extensive and specific dealing with the issue.  He underscores the universal recognition that ecstatic speech, through all of the recorded history of the practice that preceded the Christian church, demands interpretation as part of its functionality, and for it both components of the act to be put to good use for the strengthening of the church.  Without interpretation, it most likely serves to draw attention to oneself, rather than to the god that is attempting to speak through the ecstatic speaker.  Plus, the interpreter allows for joint participation with another person (or perhaps more than one person?), thus achieving the goal of strengthening and encouraging. 

Accordingly, Paul insists that “if there is no interpreter, he should be silent in the church.  Let him speak to himself and to God” (14:28).  Can we not see that this deals quite effectively with the issue of competition and the honoring of self?  To this, with the strengthening of the church, along with its fellowship, equality of station, and universal participation in mind (with the always ongoing competition for honor also in mind), Paul adds “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should evaluate what is said” (14:29).  Prophets, of course, are those that prophesy, which Paul encourages all to do, so this is certainly not a special class of people within the church.  Plus, we have to catch the flow of the thought.  “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others,” presumably the rest of the assembly who also function as prophets (as Paul encourages the entire assembly to engage in speaking forth the words that attempt to reveal God’s character for the purpose of shaping the response of a people, or shaping a people into a responsive people), “should evaluate what is said.”  Again, the entire church assembly is engaged, with speakers that come from the entire societal range of the body, and the words of those speakers subject to the entire body that also encompasses the entire range of society.  This, importantly, devalues the honor system (though we do confess to the possibility that we are over-reaching and over-reading the impact of the honor and shame system and Paul’s thoughts and concerns related to that system and its unfortunate and undesirable functionality inside the church) and disregards the standing that one may have outside of the Christian body. 

Along with these things, in an act of preferring one another and valuing all participation equally, though it will be subject to evaluation by the whole of the assembly as they mull over the words within the framework of what they have been taught by Paul and the Jesus tradition that is to shape their modeling out of the kingdom of God, Paul adds “And if someone sitting down receives a revelation, the person who is speaking should conclude” (14:30), giving no thought to their own honor or standing.  With thoughts of selflessness and a shame-embracing love ringing in the background, we then read “For you can all prophesy one after another” (14:31a), with the now ubiquitous and completely expected directive in regards to the exercise of spiritual gifts, “so all can learn and be encouraged” (14:31a).     

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