This passage occurs in the RCL's year C passages; it also occurs as one of the last passages in the Narrative Lectionary's Year 2 cycle. In the Narrative Lectionary it is partitioned as 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Much has been written about spiritual gifts. A few brief reflections/directions for preaching:
- Everyone has gifts. For those that think they have no spiritual gift, ask them if they can confess Jesus as Lord. If so, then they have spiritual gifts!
- Gifts are to work together. (The Greek suggests this in vs 1-11; the rest of chapter 12 makes this abundantly clear)
- Gifts are for others, although how far outside of the church spiritual gifts go is a long and complicated debate.
- Faith (and love) are gifts, nothing we can do to earn them.
Key Words and Grammar Items:
πνευματικος ("spiritual", 12:1) The first word here for "Spiritual Gifts" is "pneumatikos," an adjective that means spiritual. It is transformed into a noun here (technical note: by the placement of the definite article before it). But the word "gift" is not used. In fact, the word for gift later on is "charisma." So really, this should just read: "Concerning the spiritual things." If you translate this as spiritual gifts then, in some ways, you are suggesting that all things spiritual are gifts!
εθνη ("Gentiles", 12:2) The translators render "ethne" here as "pagans" instead of "gentiles." A reminder of the tension, inherent in 1st century Christianity, between Jews and Gentiles. To be non- Jewish was to be an "ethne" (and ethnic) and not part of God's family!
ειδωλα (plural form of "idols", 12:2) Although there are some examples of true worship to statues, generally idols function a bit different in our culture than in 1st century paganism. However, we still have idols! We may not have a temple with a large marble statue of Venus or Pluto in our towns, but definitely still worship the idols of beauty and money!
Grammatically, this sentence is really odd and I've even read that it is considered a manuscript error because it reads so strangely. The NRSV nicely puts it, "however you were led." Paul uses the "αν" marker to show contingency and then uses two verbs: you were led, leading away. A poetic way to say: Whatever the heck road they led you on.
διακονια ("ministry" or "service", 12:5) This word is becoming increasingly difficult to translate. It has a non-religious origin, deriving from a waiter who serves. More generally it can to mean service; the New Testament certainly uses it as a term for serving others. For the church over the centuries the word has been picked up by a whole group of people who have dedicated their life to service (Deacons and related terms). Part of the challenge in translating the word is inherent in the tensions around service (the concept and not the word). Service can mean formal providing but it can also mean outpouring of mercy; furthermore, how the service conveyed by this term in the New Testament connected to the Word, proclamation and the Church? In short, to translate διακονια as "ministry" makes it "churchy" something that it was not originally; to translate this as "service" derives it, perhaps, of the religious meaning Paul and others wish to imply.
This particular passage highlights the challenge of translating this word. Luther's German, Tyndale and the KJV translate this not as "service" but as "office" or "administration." While this translation seems to make service overly formal, it opens up the door for profound thinking about vocation -- each of our "offices" in life is an opportunity for serving others. With this translation of διακονια as "office" Luther captures Paul's dynamic and far-reaching sense of the breadth of God's gifts. Whether this is a fair translation is up for debate. But no doubt Luther clearly connects vocation, even secular vocation, to spiritual gifts and service to the Lord.
ενεργεω ("energιζε", 12:6) The translations move in all sorts of directions here, but the word underneath all the working/doing by God is "energy." This is perhaps a nice connection into people's lives -- from where does our energy come to survive the treadmill called life?
συμφερον ("good", 12:7) The English translators tend to add the word "common" before "good"; Paul's term "sympheron" is more neutral, as in "profitable" or "beneficial"; furthermore, it does not necessarily mean "common" and the word "common" is not in the Greek. When this word appears elsewhere in Scripture, including its almost identical usage in Hebrews 12:10, it is not translated as "common good." What then gives them permission to translate it as the "common good"?
Well...here is my conjecture. The word is a combination of two words συμ meaning "with" (the "n" in συν becomes an "μ") and φερον meaning "bear" as in bearing fruit (John 15). This word means then "bear together" or "produce together." These gifts were given for the mutual harvesting of gifts!
Lastly, a Trinitiarian argument:
I believe that 12:11 this is the strongest statement in the NT that God is Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is said here to "ενεργεω" (energize) the activities, "διαιρεω" (distribute) the activities, which he "βουλεμαι" wills. Paul locates the will of God in the Holy Spirit! Moreover, in verse 7, the distributions are done by God who energies them. Same thing!