Summary: While the text is about the gift of tongues, Paul greater concern is how all the gifts of the Spirit are being used for personal gain with little thought of others. Paul would encourage the building up of the body of Christ instead.
Epiphany 5 C
A recent front-page story in the Wall Street Journal (January 6, 2004) reported U.S. Marines being trained for duty in Iraq are getting drilled in people skills as well as heavy weaponry. They are receiving instruction about staying respectful as well as about staying alive.
Marines are still being taught to fight. They are gifted in heavy weaponry and with the tools to use them effectively; but in order to diffuse hostility borne of suspicion they are being taught to ask questions first and shoot later.
Yes, there is great risk to such a strategy. An enemy certainly can exploit it for his purposes, and Marines still will have to be alert to defend themselves; but they are being asked to believe that people in Iraq "can still be won over if American troops treat them with more dignity, patience and understanding."
So they are being asked to use their fighting skills wisely, to employ them with discretion, remembering the greater mission of working with the people of Iraq in order to promote peace. This means they will sometimes pull back instead of fighting. Some of their intimidating apparel is being removed. The course talk and the gruff demeanor, which are so much a part of the military’s image of power; are being toned down. It’s not just simper fi anymore. It’s semper respectful.
That’s the way it’s got to be when you’re trying to win the peace. Wars are fought and won with an indiscriminate use of force; but if you’re trying to build consensus you need to exercise your power with greater precision and tact. You need to use the tools at your disposal with greater care so as to unite and not divide, so as to encourage and not dissuade.
And that’s true, as well, when it comes to the church. One might say that’s Paul chief concern today. In the chapters leading up to our text Paul has made the point that the church properly speaking is a body made up of various believers united together around Christ who is the head. In addition God has uniquely gifted these many members of His church with powerful tools and gifts. “Some he has made into apostles, others prophets, others teachers, then workers of miracles, and also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:28) but note: not for their own advantage or standing, but that, “church might be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:12). The church is a body with Christ as its head, which makes the gifts of His Spirit expressions of God’s will to build up the body. They were to be used respectfully, reverently, to God’s glory, not their own; and with the greater good of the church as their goal.
It’s something the church at Corinth hadn’t quite grasped. They were extremely zealous for the attainment of God’s gifts as Paul encouraged them, but only for their own spirituality and growth. They weren’t thinking much about the spiritual growth of their brothers and sisters in the faith or about their non-Christian acquaintances who desperately needed Jesus when it came to exercising those gifts. This was especially true of the worship life of the congregation where many were using the gift of tongues.
This gift of the Spirit gets a lot of attention today. What was it? How was it expressed in the life of the church? Is it a gift that the Holy Spirit still gives to the people of God today? Should everyone have this gift? Let’s suffice it to say this morning that the NT uses the word tongues in such a way as to imply both the speaking of foreign languages, known by various cultures, as well as unintelligible mutterings of the Spirit. In the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, for instance; Paul references speaking in both the tongues of men and of angels. It is likely the latter that is being spoken of in our text, a gift that Paul claims himself and commends to the church; but one he also clearly teaches as being more personal in benefit. Much more important for Paul is the gift of prophesy or preaching, the ability to proclaim the truth of God’s Word; because through that many more are blessed. And that’s what the life of the church is all about. It’s about functioning as a body. It’s about building each other up.
But here’s what was happening in Corinth. Worshippers were drifting into some kind of spiritually ecstatic state, speaking in tongues unknown or unable to be interpreted. Then another would be overcome and start rambling themselves, then another and then another until the whole place was nothing but noise and confusion.