Ecstasy in Reverse - thrive UMC Official Blog

Ecstasy in Reverse

1 Corinthians 14:1-6

            Before we share our scripture reading for today, I wanted to give just a little bit of background to the text.  In this morning’s passage, Paul is going to talk about ‘speaking in tongues’ and he’s going to talk about ‘prophesies and prophesizing’ –which are probably two things that most of us don’t do on a regular basis. And since we aren’t intimately familiar with those events and experiences, we might not fully grasp what’s going on in the text.  So, very quickly, speaking in tongues was a specific kind of mystical experience. What would happen was that a divine spirit of some kind would enter someone’s body, and it would inspire them to speak a new language. Supposedly the language spoken was some kind of heavenly or spiritual language; it was not a human language.  So to the person who is having this mystical experience, it feels like something glorious and powerful is happening, but to everyone else standing around listening to it, what comes out of their mouths sounds like gibberish.  In other words speaking in tongues is a solitary experience.  And it is also an ecstatic experience, but I’ll say a bit more about that later.

            Now, in contrast to speaking in tongues, prophesy is the simple act of speaking a divine message.  To use a technological analogy, a prophet is just like an email-reader app for blind people.  Heaven shoots an email to the blind community, but no one can see it; so the prophet recites that message out loud in everyone’s hearing. In the Jewish tradition, they would often speak of prophets as God’s human mouth.  A prophet doesn’t necessarily predict the future –but sometimes the message is about the future.  But the prophet’s job is to speak the message.  Are you following me?

            Hopefully that provides a clearer image for what Paul is talking about.  And remember, for the entire chapter preceding this one –the chapter we read last week- Paul spent the whole thing talking about love. So let’s get to the reading.  Our text today comes from 1 Corinthians 14:1-6

            14 Pursue love, and use your ambition to try to get spiritual gifts but especially so that you might prophesy. This is because those who speak in a tongue don’t speak to people but to God; no one understands it—they speak mysteries by the Spirit. Those who prophesy speak to people, building them up, and giving them encouragement and comfort. People who speak in a tongue build up themselves; those who prophesy build up the church. I wish that all of you spoke in tongues, but I’d rather you could prophesy. Those who prophesy are more important than those who speak in tongues, unless they are able to interpret them so that the church might be built up. After all, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation, some knowledge, a prophecy, or a teaching? 

            So here Paul is giving the church in Corinth a spiritual growth plan.  Think of this as being a kind of exercise regimen for your spirit. And the language Paul uses here is very forceful. Step 1, he says: ‘aggressively chase’ love. ‘Care violently!’ We lose a bit of the chutzpa in the translation.  But Paul says Strongly prefer more! Step 2: sizzle for the spiritual gifts. Once your love is powerful and sustaining, then direct your passion at developing a gift.  And don’t shoot for just any old spiritual gift –Paul wants everyone in the community to aspire to gain the gift of prophesy.  Shoot for the stars!  The world needs more prophets!

            Then after that Paul goes on for a really long time comparing speaking in tongues to prophesying. In fact, he has twice as much to say about that topic as he does to say about love. And over and over again he affirms: speaking in tongues is the lesser gift. It’s better to prophesy. If you’re reading First Corinthians straight through from the vantage point of 21st century America, this part can seem like a kind of a weird turn –especially as you get to the end of this chapter. But the reason Paul spends so much time on the topic, and the reason he is so emphatic in this distinction is clear: “those who prophesy speak to people,” Paul declares, “building them up, and giving them encouragement and comfort. People who speak in a tongue build up themselves; those who prophesy build up the church.”

            You see, the gift of prophesy and the gift of speaking in tongues take people in different directions.  Prophesy is a communal, shareable gift.  It provides a positive benefit to other people, and to the community as a whole.  Speaking in tongues, on the other hand, is just for the individual having that experience. From Paul’s vantage point, speaking in tongues doesn’t have a benefit for anybody else.

            Now there’s a whole lot going on here, because remember: the church in Corinth is made up of a primarily Gentile body –these are people who had formerly participated in the Greek/Roman cultic and spiritual systems. They were not Jewish; they did not grow up hearing toe words of the prophets or the stories about Moses. They had a very different kind of religious background, and a very different set of spiritual experiences. And much of their prior religious orientation was focused on ‘ecstatic experiences.’

Of course we’re all familiar with the word ‘ecstatic’ –I could say Kristen is ‘ecstatic’ for the return of peppermint mocha lattes’, and for most of us that statement is comprehensible. But the words ‘ecstatic’ or ‘ecstasy’ were actually inherited from the ancient Greek language. Ec-stasis literally means to come out, or be removed from, your standing.  And it originally had a very specific religious application: ecstasy is what happened when a god or a daemon (which is a lower god) would enter into and possess a human body. The god would enter in, and the human soul would leave –it’d go somewhere else, or inhabit another state.  By the way, this is also where we get our word ‘enthusiastic’: en-theos means ‘god-in in Greek. So if you were to describe yourself as a golf enthusiast, then that means you voluntarily and routinely give your body over to the god of golf. Anyway in the ancient Greek religious context, ecstasy was thought to be the highest spiritual state a human being could attain.  Their whole devotion was aimed at ecstasy: they wanted to get out of where they were –they wanted to get out of their bodies- to be somewhere else.  You might even be able to say that that was the whole orientation of pagan religion.

            To have an ecstatic experience meant that the heavens noticed you!  And it mean that whatever or whoever was up there thought you were special enough, or worthy enough, or good enough for them to condescend the spiritual realm and visit you. And they could not imagine a better or a more precious gift than that –to get out who and where you are. To escape you.

            So built into that pagan spiritual atmosphere, there were all kinds of methods and rituals for aspiring to ecstasy.  Sometimes people tried to achieve ecstasy by entering into a meditative trance until your eyes rolled back in your head and you started convulsing and shrieking; sometimes the ritual may have involved psychedelic substances; sometimes it was just getting really, really drunk on wine at a lunar festival and waking up pregnant.  Those were just a couple of the many, many ways you could set yourself up for ecstasy. But Paul, who is speaking to these ex-pagans who haven’t totally left their past behind –he’s telling them: I want to show you a better spiritual gift!

            And the better gift –the thing that ranks above ecstasy and tongues under Christ’s dominion is prophesy.  Prophesy, in Christ, is still enthusiastic: God still shows up and is present in you. But here there’s a key difference: prophets get to stick around for the encounter.  They get to stay in their heads and in their body. Their experience still makes sense –and best of all, they have something to pass on for the good of others. I want to repeat what Paul says again, because I think it’s so important for us to hear: “Those who prophesy speak to people, building them up, and giving them encouragement, and comfort.”

            That’s how you can tell God showed up and that your experience was real: other people were built up, they were encouraged, and they were comforted.  Of course I know I’ve already gone on too much about Greek words today, but I just want to point out that if you look at the original words Paul uses here they all have a very clear and overt social emphasis.  So I think you could also translate that verse, verse 3, to say: ‘Those who prophesy speak to people, building them up, and advocating with them, and becoming personal with them.’ Those are the three outcomes of prophesy, as Paul describes them:

1.) people are built up –as individuals and as a community together;

2.) people have a shared voice and call that speaks for their communal hearts and their communal needs;

and 3.) people can speak intimately and personally with one another, because they are mutually known. 

            That’s the direction our faith takes us.  It takes us more deeply into our connections, more deeply into our awareness, and it builds us up –personally and socially.  If you’ll notice, that is the exact opposite of ecstasy. Here we are approaching a season that prepares us for Christmas: Christmas is the opposite of ecstasy.  Christmas is all about the Spirit of God setting up shop as a person. In that event, God condescends heaven to enter into all of the messy, fleshy human unpleasantries. And if you know the stories in the bible about Jesus, you’ll know that he cast out the spirits and the daemons that prevented people from inhabiting their own bodies.  He healed people who were possessed –and he did it by returning them to their senses and their right minds.  In other words, one of the things Jesus did was save people from the exile of their ecstasy.   

            Siblings in Christ, Paul’s message about the progression of spiritual gifts is just as important for us now as it was 2,000 years ago.  The world is still full of people chasing after ecstasy.  Our churches are still filled with people trying to have ecstatic worship –where they try to escape their lives by coming to church.  We still say things like, ‘I just want to lose myself in the hymns;’ and we lift up pagan mantras like ‘less of me, more of you Lord!’ We even call the room we gather in ‘the sanctuary’ because we want to imagine that the roof and the walls can take us out of the problems we stand in out there.  And many of us still devote ourselves to escaping earth so we can get to heaven.  But all of that falls far short of our greatest gift from God.  Far beyond just wanting us to have an experience where we can feel that we’re loved by God, God can, with life-long devotion, empower us to serve prophets. And the main difference between prophets and ecstatics are that prophets are profitable. They’re helpful.  They pass on the gift –the blessing they’ve received- to others in a way that invites them in! 

In verse 6, Paul says “After all brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation, some knowledge, a prophecy, a teaching? “  That’s the question we all need to be asking ourselves: how can I help….?

            In just a few days, we’re going to celebrate Thanksgiving as a nation.  Today I want to encourage you to intentionally carve out some time this week to dedicate to an exercise in gratitude.  I want to challenge you all to think about all the people who have been there, connected with you, invested with you, been there for you –try and name everyone who has ever built you up.  Teachers, friends, family, co-workers, 3rd degree acquaintances.  Who are the people who have helped you become a little bit more you?   Write down the names of all of the people who have encouraged you, and taught you, and shared with you something you treasure?  That’s the first part. And it might take you a little bit.

            And second, I want you to take an inventory of your spiritual gifts.  What are at least 3 practical ways you can pass on your gratitude –to keep that spirit of thanksgiving alive?  Because there are two parts to our celebration, right?  There is ‘thanks’ –the appreciation.  But then there is also the giving: the passing on of the gratitude we have for what we have received.

            And that’s the secret to living like prophets: we speak about the good God has shown us.  We build people up.  We advocate with them. We grow personal relationships with them.   Let us prepare ourselves to share the gift of prophesy.