Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sunday Paul: Ephesus 4

Here are the earlier installments of this particular chapter of the novel:

Ephesus 1
Ephesus 2
Ephesus 3

And now today:
The last big question in their letter had to do with dispensations of God’s Spirit to individual believers. The whole problem made Paul sick to his stomach. Here were all these people turning gifts from the Holy Spirit, meant to build up the whole assembly, into a competition for who was the greatest in the church.

The problem especially centered on the use of angelic tongues in worship. Several in Crispus' household--and now Erastus and several other of Apollos' converts--were turning the Corinthian assembly into chaos. This was a group of people in great need of clear instruction, of a prophetic word. But Sosthenes and even Crispus himself could hardly get a word in for all the chaos. Their assembly often became a wild, disorderly free for all.

The experience of tongues was not foreign to Paul. On several occasions, including one in particular when he ascended in spirit to the highest sky where Christ is, he had felt the heavenly language pour out of him. This language must be the language the Spirit uses to intercede for us to God, he thought.

But he did not speak much of these experiences. They were very special and private moments in Paul's life. Not everyone experienced them.

And they were controversial among the Jews. There was a whole movement on the rise called Merkabah, named for the chariots of Ezekiel's visions. Jews who followed the movement, including many Essenes, aimed to ascend in spirit to heaven and worship with the angels. In the Testament of Job, a fairly recent Jewish writing, Job's daughters themselves had this special gift.

Indeed, several of Crispus' daughters had latched on to this writing and aimed to emulate Job's daughters. Paul didn't mind. He rejoiced in their gift. But he could see that it was puffing them up, along with the others who were having the experience. It was dividing the body of Christ.

Apollos had not helped matters. These mystical experiences were highly prized in Alexandria. He had grown up around intellectuals like Philo who saw these experiences as a higher kind of knowledge, the highest philosophy. It was knowing God in the parts of him that cannot be known with our reason. He had taken a highly controversial experience among Jews and put it center stage.

So Erastus and many of Apollos' converts had sought these experiences, and many had spoken in angelic tongues in the process. They were turning worship into an attempt to worship with the angels, and instead of everyone coming together, the assembly ended up with a host of individuals enjoying their own individual experiences.

Beyond the extreme narcissism of what was going on, Paul saw a bigger problem with any Gentiles who might come to the assembly. Although what was going on was thoroughly Jewish in one respect, an outsider would immediately have made a connection to the Eleusinian mysteries and the kinds of Bacchanalian experiences that were associated with Greek mystery religions.

In fact, Paul believed that Apollos had completely missed what was going on with Erastus and others. They were simply mimicing the kinds of experiences they had had at Eleusis before they became a Christian. It was yet another spot where Paul felt that Erastus had not made a clean enough break with his former pagan life.

His solution was to set down guidelines. He didn't want to tell the Corinthians not to speak in tongues in the assembly, didn't want to quench the Spirit. But he wanted to bring order to it as well. And he wanted them to see the bigger picture, instead of the very selfish and self-centered one they were currently painting.

He began tactfully, using a well known Stoic image of how each part of the body has a different role to play, but that all the parts function for the good of the whole body. It was his subtle and indirect way of telling the tongues speakers that they should not think themselves to be more important to God than the others in the assembly.

But he and Sosthenes wrestled for several days over how to approach the question of the tongues speaking itself. One afternoon Paul felt particularly inspired. He had inserted into the middle of his discussion of meat sacrificed to idols his own example of how he had personally surrendered his freedom and rights to better. Now he felt he should do the same here.

"Even if I speak in the languages of mortals and of angels, if I do not have love, I have become clanging metal." It was the solution to all the problems of the Corinthians, love. Indeed, even as Jesus had said, all the commandments hanged on love.

Then he felt ready to get more direct. Tongues was a very edifying to the person speaking them, but unless you could interpret them to the rest of the assembly, they were of no use to anyone else and, indeed, could do potential harm to unbelievers. Paul had never known anyone to interpret angelic tongues. It seemed safe for him to tell the Corinthians only to allow tonuges in the assembly if someone could interpret them.

But what the Corinthians really needed was a prophetic word, a voice from God's Spirit to lead them in the right path. God had been trying to speak through Sosthenes and Crispus now for a long time, but the church was too preoccupied with their "knowledge" and their connection to the world of spirit to hear the Spirit genuinely.

Two or at the most three prophecies when they met together, one at a time. They shouldn't simply believe them but should test them. Two or at the most three instances of tongues, one at a time. But only if God graced them with an interpretation.


Pastor Al said...

Ken or Prof. Ken,

You were placed in my favorites some time ago. Your writing can be a little intimidating at times.

I am taking MIN453 at present and we are reviewing two of your position papers. Not sure if I will be taking a class from you...perhaps some day.

Read this post and will review the three prior posts as possible. Thanks for posting your thoughts out there.

Ken Schenck said...

Al, I'll see you at graduation if we don't end up in an online class together. I hate to admit it, but as good as I may be at blogging :-), I have rarely been a very good online teacher. I know how, I think, I just have never managed the rhythm.

Tell me what you think of the pieces you're reading. You must be in the Theology of Holiness class, yes?

Ken Schenck said...

By the way, Al, I hope you don't take this particular series of posts too seriously. It's meant to be a novel. That means I'm not even guessing on a lot of things--I'm being creative. My thought is that someone could use this novel in an introductory New Testament class not only to introduce students to the world of the first century, but also to raise a host of issues. A typical assignment might ask the students to tease out the possible from the probable from the improbable.

Bob MacDonald said...

Novel or not - such things are a teaching vehicle - just look at Harry Potter. Narcissistic is the wrong word here. Speaking in tongues is self-edifying as Paul himself says, and if the Spirit is building a person, you can be sure their end will not be that of Narcissus. There might be a risk of self-indulgence, but again, do not doubt that the Lord Christ has the wherewithal to disciple a disciple.