It’s Sunday morning, and you’re at church, chatting with a friend. She pauses, then her voice drops as she asks you to pray about an ordeal she’ll be facing later that week. You nod understandingly, and promise to pray. Wanting to encourage her further, you add, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” It’s a way of saying, I can’t be there, but I don’t want you to feel alone; I’ll be thinking about you and praying for you, and in that way, I’ll sort of be with you. The comment is well-meant, and she appreciates it. And hopefully, of course, you don’t neglect to actually pray as promised.
“I’ll be with you in spirit.” What does that really mean? Paul uses a similar phrase with the Corinthians, but with a different intent. We’ve seen in previous posts how some members of the congregation have been undermining Paul’s authority in his absence. As their founding pastor, he must deal decisively with some troubling behaviors that have been reported to him, not least of which is an egregious case of incest.
We don’t know as much as we would like about Paul’s relationship to the church when he was with them, but it’s a safe bet that this wouldn’t have happened if he had been there. How does he handle this from a distance? To those who are spreading rumors that he’s never coming back, he warns, Lord willing, I’ll be there soon! Then, having scolded them for not seeing the matter rightly as a cause for great grief, he begins to prod them to take action:
Though I’m absent physically, I’m present in the spirit and I’ve already judged the man who did this as if I were present. When you meet together in the name of our Lord Jesus, I’ll be present in spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus. (1 Cor 5:3-4, CEB)
The congregation will need to do something about the situation, to make a decision when they are gathered together. Paul is not just saying, “When you meet, I’ll be thinking about you and praying for you”; he means, “I want you to act as if I were right there in the room with you.” There are, after all, proxies: they have his letter in hand to read aloud in the assembly, and he has already sent them Timothy as an in-the-flesh reminder of Paul’s teaching and way of life (1 Cor 4:17).
But more than this, Paul is with them “in the spirit”: interestingly, the New Living Translation chooses to render this as “in the Spirit,” the Holy Spirit. He has already told them they are, as a congregation, the temple of the Holy Spirit (3:16), and later in the letter will insist that the Spirit is the source of the congregation’s unity (12:4). Here, it’s as if Paul wants to say: I may be miles away, but don’t forget what binds us together. When you meet in the name of Jesus (5:4), remember this–we share one and the same Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus himself, the Spirit whose work you’ve seen in my own life and who should be at the center of yours (cf. 3:3).
If, when the congregation meets, the discussion is dominated by a debate over “what Paul wants us to do,” all will be lost, for that way of framing things will simply reignite the divisions that already exist. Rather, they must remember and rely upon the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who makes it possible to see the situation as Paul does.
Because when we forget, we lose our way.