1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (NRSV)
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Outside the chapel at Columbia Seminary, where Davis and I received our divinity degrees, was a white board where the seminary community listed prayer concerns. Unless I was in a hurry, I stopped to scan the board on the way in or our of chapel to see what was going on people’s lives and in the community. It was like Facebook before there was a Facebook.
One day, taped to the white board, was a copy of a dated black and white pastel sketch – of a preacher. In his black robe, with the doctoral stripes. His brows are furrowed. His nose sharp. One hand resting on the Bible. The other cupped as if holding truth itself inside those curled fingers. What’s left of his hair, sticking straight up on his bald head. His mouth is wide open. He is preaching hard!
And the illustrator is listening. You can tell because he’s printed the sermon on top of the preacher. It says: Words, words, words, words, words words. Literally, “Words” is printed in all-caps block print all over the face and into the air around the preacher.
I’m not sure who posted that picture outside the chapel. And I’m not sure if it was meant to be an indictment or an inspiration, but that image came flooding back to me as I read the scripture passages for this week.
Paul says to the Corinthians: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” So if a preacher preaches in the tongue of Memphians, but does not have love, she is full of words, words, words, words, words.
Love is the answer for Paul. It is eternal. It is truth. It is powerful enough to change the course of lives. Anything not stemming from love is – well – just empty words. And words are but a noisy gong.
I learned from a commentary that the noisy gong Paul is referring to is different from the gong that came to my mind. Another word for noisy gong is echoing bronzes. These instruments were used in Paul’s time to reverberate sound in theaters. You know - to help with acoustics. Old timey amplifiers, used to help resonate the sound of human voices, which otherwise would have been lost in their wooden theaters.
So in other words, Paul is saying, you – church in Corinth – you, church in Memphis – you can speak beautiful, even passionate words, but unless they’re rooted in love, you’re just amplifying some one else’s message. It’s best to begin instead, with love.
They knew that, of course. They were committed to following Jesus. But even churches lose their way sometimes. The church in Corinth that Paul was writing to was a thriving church. I imagine they had robust ministries and programs that had been designed to showcase God’s love, but like any church, they experienced conflict and maybe even a midlife crisis. Maybe they were arguing over the direction of the church, or maybe they were arguing about the latest hot-button argument of the day, but what we can easily pick up on is that the church is in disagreement.
From this letter, we can surmise the church community had grown impatient with one another. They began to act in unkind ways. They had grown irritable and resentful. Some were rejoicing in wrongdoing. They weren’t bearing each other up. Some had quit believing. Some had lost hope. Some gave up altogether, saying they were having to sacrifice too much to be a part of this community.
And to them, Paul says:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
Paul knows the congregation well. And he has zeroed in on the areas of their life together that are lacking in love. He’s calling the church in Corinth and this church in Memphis, I think, to consider how we stack up against love.
Everything is on the table. Even the elements of ministry that are cherished in the congregation – and maybe this is partly why the Corinthians were so upset.
Even the ministries and accomplishments they were the most proud of, Paul is
bringing them out and inspecting them through the lens of love. It would be like Paul coming to our church and probing deeper about our family-like community, our outreach ministries, including the soup kitchen, clothes closet, state ID’s program, food stamp program, and how we treat people coming to the door for help.
Paul would want us to tell him more about our super awesome fun social activities… And our session meetings and committee meetings and, most assuredly he would be analyzing this worship service.
And the question would be – Is love the reason you’re doing this?
Every act of service that flows from our Outreach ministries.
Every decision the session makes.
Every Sunday school lesson
Every administrative function
Paul wants to know: Is love the reason you’re doing this?
You can see how the Corinthians might have felt put on the spot.
But I hope we can see, too, how freeing it might have been for the Corinthians to have a renewed and refreshed sense of its priorities. Everything should flow from love.
It’s not a bad thing for congregations to point with justifiable pride to certain aspects of their life and ministry. Quite often churches’ identities are shaped by the things they do well. We’re known for our Soup Kitchen and outreach ministries, as well as the caring, family-like feel of our congregation.
The question this passage raises is, “Are these things done with love?” Or it could be phrased, “How might they be done with greater love?” The gong may not yet be noisy and the cymbal not yet clanging, but how might these things we, as a congregation do well be enhanced with more love?
And, of course, Paul’s letter was written to a community of believers, but the advice is just as pertinent for us as individuals too. If Paul were to come to your house for dinner tonight, and he had you tell him about your day, your week; your job, your volunteer commitments; your friends circle, your family life, your routine…
You two sit there politely sipping a glass of water as Paul sifts through your life,
inspecting every aspect through the lens of love. Everything is laid bare on the table.
Paul wants to know: Is love the reason you’re doing all of this?
Is love the basis of all your relationships?
Maybe it’s better that this communication from Paul came to the Corinthians in the form of a letter and not a personal visit. He might have been chased out of Corinth the way Jesus was chased out of the temple in his hometown!
The true measure of a church is how loving we are.
The true measure of a life is how loving we are.
The good news this morning is that LOVE already abides in us. Love was there in the beginning when God created and called all of creation good…
Love carried the Israelites in times of exile and anguish…
Love flowed into the psalmists as they wrestled with God…
It was love that welled up in God, and caused him to send his Son, Jesus, to live among us and show us how to live and how to love.
Love is what unites us with God. And it is love that unites us together as the Body of Christ.
Love is eternal.
Love is the truth.
Love never ends.
The true measure of a life is how loving we are.
How will you love this week?