The Mountain Top Experience
Have you ever had a "mountain top" experience, one of those moments which glowed, which filled you with overwhelming feelings of unity with creation and/or others and which gave you a deep sense of your own worth and the beauty of life?
If you have not, I grieve for you as these are almost necessary experiences in living in order to transform some of the mundane aspects of daily living.
Worship can at times produce such mountain top experiences. Gathered together with persons you know and love, and centered on the presence of God in our midst, we can experience that presence in a profound and moving way, and sometimes that leads to spontaneous prayer or song. Prayer groups, especially charismatic prayer groups, seek and have such experiences.
Anthropologists would teach us that "ecstasy" is found in many religions and becomes the basis for faith for many persons. A few Christian denominations speak of "being baptized in the Holy Spirit" and the manifestation, therefore, of speaking in tongues. Other charismatic churches forbid such speaking in tongues, which is technically called "glossolalia".
Anthropologist Margaret Mead gave one of the best explanations of this phenomenon in my opinion when she described it as a religious experience in which one is so overwhelmed that he or she cannot speak in the normal cognitive way but end up in what others would call a "babble" of sounds.
The Corinthians were a "modern" Church in their day, new Christians filled with the Holy Spirit and zealously seeking to show their faith to Greeks around them who believed in ecstatic ways. Their gatherings for worship were quite extraordinary and included a meal and drinks combined with an early form of the Eucharist. So Paul finds it necessary to write to them to clarify what being a Christian is about.
First he writes about their worship behavior and stresses there should be no "fractions among you" nor should they "eat the bread or drink(s) the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner...."(check out 1 Cor 11).
Next he speaks in the passage we hear today of the "gifts of the Spirit" which are manifest in the life and worship of the Christian community. He states first that ecstasy in and of itself is not the goal of such gifts, but rather that they focus on Christ so that one can say with conviction: "Jesus is Lord."
He stresses: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor 12:7). This is a central New Testament theme. The mountain top experiences are for the purpose of strengthening one's personal faith in order that he or she may build up the Christian (and human) community. Gifts are given to be used for others! What a profoundly simple but simply profound statement! The gifts and talents we have are to be used for others both in the Church and in the human community of which we are a part.
It is easy for new Christians to want to experience again and again a mountain top style experience which made their experience of the Lord so powerfully real, but even Jesus had to go down the mountain after what we describe as the Transfiguration (Mk 9).
But we cannot play Bach until we have learned to play the scales on a piano, and learning to play the scales takes regular discipline and is frequently boring. We can find corporate worship boring because we have not yet learned to invest ourselves in prayer and worship on a regular basis. Some meals are terrific experiences and others are just necessary for sustenance. The terrific meals require special preparation, the right setting, sharing with others, and such circumstances.
Finally Paul teaches the Corinthians (and us) that speaking in tongues or using many other gifts for ourselves alone is like a "noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." The greatest gift of the Spirit is love. It is time for all of us to put away childish ways of trying to have a great experience every time we pray or join others in worship and embrace an adult faith which practices the scales daily and occasionally plays Bach with great zest.