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15 October. 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14
These three chapters deal with the sometimes contentious, and often misunderstood, question of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Seeing that the Alpha course takes a whole day (or even weekend) to explore this topic, I cannot cover it adequately in a few hundred words. But it is important to understand that the Holy Spirit is not simply some mysterious force that takes over a small number of people and enables them to perform miracles such as healing, or discerning what is going on in someone else’s life. Paul does refer to those ‘gifts’, but they are rare. Speaking in tongues (praising God in a private language) is more common, but still not part of regular mainstream Christian experience.
What Paul is at pains to point out is that the Holy Spirit (who is the presence of God among us, sent after the ascension of Jesus) gives all kinds of gifts, which are intended partly for building up the faith of the individual, but mainly for building up the faith of the congregation and empowering the ministry of the whole church in the world. Such gifts include leadership, preaching and teaching, leading worship and pastoral care, which are the mainstay of authorised Christian ministry. But above all Paul prizes prophesy – the understanding and sharing of a message given directly by God for a particular situation. The prophet may well also be the priest or pastor, but not necessarily. That is why he insists at the end of this passage that public worship must be orderly, with only one person speaking at once, and the rest of the congregation paying attention.
For the same reason, Paul emphasises that the Lord’s Supper (which became the communion, eucharist or mass in later tradition) is about gathering to share bread and wine as if they were the actual body and blood of Christ, which unites us. The practice that the Corinthians seem to have had is something more like a picnic where every family brought their own meal and were not even willing to share food with those who had brought nothing.
So whether you personally, or your church, experience the more miraculous gifts, and in whatever way you celebrate the Lord’s supper, never forget that all the Spirit’s gifts are given for the church, and not just for you. We are one body.