2nd Sunday Ordinary Time 1 Cor 12:4-11
For this Sunday and the following three, we’ll be reading from a masterpiece of New Testament literature, namely St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In these weeks we’ll be hearing from the very heart of the letter, Chapters 12 – 15, and you’ll recognize the themes immediately. Today it’s about the gifts given by the Spirit. Next week we’ll hear Paul’s marvelous analogy of God’s Church as a body, with each part playing a crucial role, even if you’re “only” the big toe. In two weeks we read Paul’s beautiful ode to love, a favorite reading at weddings, with its poetic refrain, “Love is patient, love is kind…” and so on. And finally, we’ll hear from Chapter 15, as Paul summarizes the faith that he has received and is passing on to his readers, a faith through which all are saved. Then, shockingly enough, at least to me, we enter Lent!
First of all, let’s talk about Corinth a bit. Corinth is located on the northeastern part of the Peloponnese peninsula in modern day Greece. It is ideally situated as a crossroads town. At the time of Paul’s arrival, about 52 AD, boats would unload goods in the north part of town, have them transported across the 4-mile isthmus, and reloaded into boats on the south side. All for a nice little fee, of course. Likewise, if you were traveling west to east, from Sparta to Athens, well, guess where you’d have to pass through? Today, there’s a canal cutting through Corinth, and it’ll cost you $150 to take your 40-foot yacht through. Luckily, I don’t have a 40 foot yacht.
As a crossroads town in 52 AD, Corinth would be a bustling place, full of sailors, merchants, soldiers, immigrants, and many racial groups. With such a diversity of people, it is very likely that the town was a fairly tolerant place. This worked to Paul’s advantage, since the townspeople would be used to having interesting characters coming through at all times. Corinth had another reputation as well, given its unique crossroads position. It was the sin city of the ancient world, where debauchery was rampant. If you’re going to preach the gospel, you’d be hard pressed to find a more challenging place to do so. Paul, however, relished a challenge, so he left the urbane center of philosophy, Athens, after just four months and made camp in Corinth for the next year and a half. To his delight, I’m sure, he was wildly successful.
When he finally left Corinth in 54 AD to continue his missionary work, he left behind a thriving Christian community. The people were absolutely dedicated to Paul and his message, and it is clear that the power of the Holy Spirit permeated the group. But as often happens when a charismatic leader moves on, the group began to splinter. All too quickly, several people began to claim that they should be put in charge based on the specific gift of the Holy Spirit they had received. Gifts were ranked as to how holy each was, and as you can imagine, this caused a lot of resentment. Paul got wind of the arguments and wrote this letter to address the issue head-on.
Before we go much further, it’s important to clarify some often confusing terminology. There are three words that come up in any discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These terms are gifts, charisms, and fruits. Simply put, charisms and fruits are both gifts of the Spirit. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are the well-known qualities love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are clearly not the same as the gifts Paul mentions, namely wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, works, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. The Church often calls these gifts charisms. What’s the difference? The fruits are gifts that the Holy Spirit gives for our benefit. These are the holy rewards from good deeds done as we follow the will of God. When someone says that they receive more than they give when doing something on behalf of others, this is what they mean. They receive peace, joy, love, and so on. Paul’s list of charisms, on the other hand, are given by the Holy Spirit to be given away. They are given for a higher purpose, to benefit the community in some specific way. To summarize, when we employ our charisms freely and effectively, the Holy Spirit rewards us with His fruits. It’s a wonderful interplay, and a sure sign that you’re using a charism properly.
Now back to Paul and those bickering Corinthians. Note what Paul doesn’t say in his letter. He doesn’t say that all Corinthians are created equal. He doesn’t say that each person should strive to acquire all of the charisms noted, as if each were a Boy Scout merit badge. He doesn’t encourage them to develop their charisms in Holy Spirit school. He takes a very different tack. He states that each and every individual has been given a charism from the Holy Spirit and that these charisms carry a responsibility to be shared. There is no top-dog charism, there is no ranking. Simple, clear, and to the point.
So, hold on a second. If that’s true then, is it equally true now? Has each of us been given a charism from the Holy Spirit? Yes, absolutely! Do you know the charism you’ve been given? Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues, mighty deeds – which one fits you? Are there others not listed? Yes, most definitely. Here are a few others that have been identified: administration, craftsmanship, hospitality, leadership, mercy, music, teaching, writing. There is no definitive list, but most authors would suggest that 25 is a good starting number. How do you know what charism you’ve been given? Here’s how to think about it.
We all have natural talents, usually identified over the course of our early lives. For example, I found school very easy, and loved to read and ponder and stretch my mind. However, I was a terrible public speaker as a youth, horribly self-conscious and shy. At some point in our lives hopefully, we make a decision to make God a priority, to seek his will and follow it. You can call it a conversion experience if you like. This is the moment when the Holy Spirit will give you a charism, will take that talent you have and move it to a higher dimension. This is exactly what happened to me. The Holy Spirit inspired me to teach, to take all of that wisdom input and craft ways to express it so that people could benefit. The road from teaching to preaching is a short one, and it is now as natural to me as breathing. When I am in the Spirit, homilies come easily and the Spirit grants me joy and peace as I work. I have several musician friends who tell me the same thing. When they are singing or playing sacred music, their hearts soar. That’s a charism in action. Similarly, a person gifted with administration, as boring as that may sound, is absolutely critical to the smooth running of a program or a parish. Likewise, for people who have charisms of craftsmanship, hospitality, or writing. We need sacred art, welcoming faces, and well-written prayers and stories. All charisms, all critical, all working together, none above the rest.
The last point I’ll mention is this. A charism is a skill or gift that we find so easy to do that we often miss its significance in our lives and its potential for others. Sometimes we need to ask another person, “What charism do you see in me?” Your homework this week – ask that question. Ponder and pray over the answer – the Holy Spirit is calling you out! Time to share…
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach