After many years away from my favourite sport of curling, I got back into the game last year. One attraction of this fine game for me is that it is a team sport.
In most team sports, there is a hierarchy. In football, the quarterback not only directs the action on the field, he gets a lot of the glory. In hockey, the goal scorers and the goalie get the lion's share of attention. In curling, it is the skip.
One of my teams has the misfortune to have me as its skip. That misfortune is abundantly evident from its dismal won-lost record. On another team, I play on the front end.
But while it is the skip who gets the glory – or, in my case, the ignominy – the whole team contributes. The contribution of the lowly front end might be mostly ignored by outsiders but if they didn't make their shots and sweep the skip's rocks, the team would be nowhere.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul has a lot to say to a Church where there is no sense of team play. The Corinthian Christians are a bunch of individualists, each trying to emphasize their own status and bask in their personal ecstatic experiences.
They have little sense of the mission of the Church. Each of them is puffed up with the importance of the gift he or she has received from the Holy Spirit – whether it be speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing or one of many others.
Each person wants to say, "There is a spiritual hierarchy and I am at the top."
Paul will have none of it. He goes on for three chapters discussing spiritual gifts and the mockery the Corinthians are making of what they have received from the Holy Spirit. "Since you are eager for spiritual gifts," he says, "strive to excel in them for building up the Church" (14.12).
Here and in other letters, Paul provides lists of spiritual gifts. The lists are never the same. Not only do those lists include attention-grabbing gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues, they also include the more mundane – administration, financial contribution and acts of mercy.
The point should be clear: There is no exhaustive list of spiritual gifts and there is no hierarchy among them. Moreover, even the less spectacular gifts are important. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (12.7).
Paul has a particular bee in his bonnet about the gift of tongues. The Corinthians were clearly quite taken with speaking in tongues. Paul isn't.
Speaking in tongues is a true gift of the Spirit, but it is a gift that does little to build up the community.
It is a private language for giving glory to God, but it has no place in public worship, unless perhaps there is someone there to interpret what is being said in tongues. Speaking in tongues alienates newcomers and provides no instruction to the faithful.
"I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you," Paul writes.
"Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (14.18-19).
Speaking in tongues is emblematic of an early stage in one's spiritual development. That doesn't make it bad. But the mature Christian seeks to use his or her gifts to build up the Body of Christ.
Right in the middle of this discussion of spiritual gifts comes Paul's famous chapter on love. This chapter is often read at weddings. That is appropriate, but we also need to see it in context.
In context, the meaning is clear. If I have all the spiritual gifts – tongues, prophecy, knowledge and even faith – "but do not have love, I gain nothing" (13.3).
Despite his reservations, however, Paul urges the Corinthians to seek "the higher gifts," especially prophecy.
What constitutes prophecy is not exactly clear. Is it limited to spontaneous, inspired utterances in the assembly or can it also include social analysis and calling people to obey God's law as we see among Old Testament prophets?
Whatever Paul means by prophecy, he clearly likes this gift because it strengthens the Christian community.
We should do the same. We should seek these gifts.
But we should seek them, not for their own sake, but insofar as they help us give glory to God and to build up the Church.
It is good to have spiritual experiences. It is better to be a contributing member of the team, working in cooperation with the ultimate skip – the Holy Spirit.