Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 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.
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. In the law it is written,
‘By people of strange tongues
and by the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people;
yet even then they will not listen to me,’
says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.’
So often in churches we get into conversations about the ‘right’ worship or the ‘best’ translation of the Bible or the ‘most effective’ form of evangelism. We use words that carry our own interpretations and personal views and obsessions. It is clear, when reading such a text as we have in front of us today, that it was also happening in the Early Church.
Paul was writing to the people of Corinth hoping they would listen and respond. Paul was writing because he wasn’t happy with the behaviour of ‘church’ members. He was concerned that their worship had become very insular and was less about sharing the love of God with those beyond the worshipping community and more about holding themselves up as faithful people because they had all the external trimmings of faith (ie in this case, speaking in tongues). So he wrote to encourage them to do better: to look outwards. Paul was encouraging prophecy for the building up of the community. His encouragement was for them all to work for the good of the whole community – believers and non-believers.
Many people in churches today still consider the Sunday service to be ‘church’ and struggle with the idea that people coming into other worship opportunities are somehow not part of the ‘church’ (often because the Sunday congregation is the financial powerhouse too!). Others judge a church service as ‘good’ or not by their own needs being met as in ‘I got nothing from that service’.
God calls us beyond boundaries and limitations or traditions and expected behaviours, God calls us out of our self-absorption; God calls us to be bringers of the kingdom. That means going beyond the physical (and spiritual) walls of ‘church’ to see where God is already at work… and then God invites us to join in.
Gracious God, help us to ensure that our corporate acts of worship speak more about your love than about our preferences. Inspire us so that we may be bold enough to go beyond our comfort zones. And, through the ways we live and love, may we see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly, day by day. Amen.
The Rev’d Jenny Mills, Minister at Newport Pagnell URC and West End United Church, Wolverton and Convenor of the Children and Youth Work Committee.
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