From Pots and Pans to Drum Bands
Grace United Methodist Church
February 7, 2010
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 (NIV)
1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Have you ever spent a great amount of energy working on something only to discover that your work was in vain? I know this has happened to me on a few occasions; most particularly when I’m working on sermons. I’ll spend hours, crank out a few pages feeling pretty good about the work, and then I go back and read over it and realize it’s not all that good at all. So I scrap the whole thing and start over. Or maybe you can sympathize with my friend, who works for an architecture firm. My friend and some of his co-workers were assigned to a contract. They began designing the buildings, and then a few weeks into the job, the contract got pulled from the firm; in fact, the project was halted altogether. The work that my friend and his co-workers had done in those few weeks was completely useless. I’m sure we’ve all been there in one way or another. I remember a mission trip I was on a little less than a year ago. We were putting siding on a house. We had run the starter strip and the first piece of vinyl all the way around the house. Then a group of us started putting up the siding on one side of the house. In a single afternoon, we got the siding all the way up to the eaves, at which point we had to cut angles in the pieces of siding. Do you know that last piece of siding took us almost two hours to get in because we kept cutting the angle wrong? It was late in the day and we were tired and ready to go home. We must have tossed aside four or five pieces that we had spent time measuring and cutting because we kept getting the angle wrong. All that work for nothing.
In a sense, this is what Paul is cautioning us about in our Scripture lesson from this morning. This passage from 1 Corinthians 13, is one of the most famous in the Bible; read at countless weddings in celebration of love. But if we think of this passage only in that context, we miss its greater meaning. Having just put forth a strong word about the spiritual gifts and the importance of all of us offering those gifts as members of the body of Christ, Paul now says, “Wait. I will show you the most excellent way.” In a sense, our message from Paul this morning is this, “the spiritual gifts are great, and putting those gifts to use in serving God is an incredibly important discipline, but it is empty, meaningless, and useless work if it is done without love.” Our gifts themselves are incomplete and even damaging if they are not used in love. No matter how magnificent the accomplishment, power, or action, when love is missing our work is simply work, not service, and it becomes vain, selfish, and fruitless. Without love, we are nothing. We might as well just close up shop and go home!
I believe this has something to do with what Paul is trying to press home when he says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” Corinth was famous for its mirror manufacturing. But the Corinthian mirror was not like the modern mirror we have in our homes today with its perfect reflection; that did not emerge until more than a thousand years later. The Corinthian mirror was made out of highly polished metal and, even at its best, gave an imperfect reflection; like looking into the pond or a pool. Making use of our spiritual gifts in service to the Kingdom is part of reflecting God to the world, but it’s only some of the picture; just like looking into a dull, warped piece of metal. When our service in the Kingdom grows out of the unconditional love that God showers on us, then we are truly serving God and reflecting God’s love in the world and it is like looking into one of our modern mirrors; or even better, like seeing face to face. The love that we show becomes a window to God’s love. Because, you see, the work of anyone’s hands tells us something about the workman. “Love never ends because God’s eternal love is the [basis] for all human loving.”
Paul uses a great analogy to share with the Corinthians the undergirding importance of love in the sharing of our spiritual gifts. He says to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Let’s ponder this for a moment because it is very powerful imagery. I believe we have all had the opportunity to see a young child’s fascination with hitting things and making noise. You can almost imagine the two-year old sitting on the kitchen floor with a pot in one hand and a metal spoon in another. Just thinking about it is almost enough to make you want to cover your ears; but if you’re like me in the midst of such a racket, all you want to do is run! This, says Paul, is what it’s like to use our spiritual gifts apart from the love of God. It is disastrous and very unappealing. But when we have love; the kind of selfless unconditional love like that of God, the whole picture changes. It’s like suddenly that child on the kitchen floor is playing a steel drum, with a beautiful, rich melody filling the air!
But how do we get to that point? It’s not like we can just put down the pots and pans and suddenly be drum virtuosos. How do we use our gifts in service with love? How do we reflect God’s love? Like so many things, I believe the answer to that question lies in the example of Jesus Christ. In Romans Chapter 15, Paul says, “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” And the key to doing this is the example of Christ himself. Jesus showed love by pointing not to himself, but to the one who sent him. Jesus showed love and patience by forgiving the sinners, and even those who had wronged him. Jesus Christ saw the good in others where others saw none and in love, he lifted that up. Jesus showed love and kindness in healing the sick. Jesus showed humble love by bringing good news to the poor and exalting the lowly. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was focused not on himself, but on the needs of the people around him. This is love. Love is using our gifts in the world around us. Love is putting the needs of others before your own desires.
Have you ever thought what it might look like if we took this passage literally? Certainly, many debate the finer points of Biblical literalism and argue about the meaning of certain passages. But what if we started living the literal message of the Bible and in particular this passage. What would happen if we took Paul’s message to heart, and really lived as if the words had the divine quality of authority (which they do)? What would our lives look like then? Relationships would be renewed and restored. Grudge would be an unknown word, as would hypocrite. We could trust again and not have to worry with suspicion. Just think of how different our relationships with one another would be if we were all convicted by the words that “love is not arrogant or rude.” And what about a world where divine love reigned? Let’s imagine such a world for a moment: tensions would cease, energy would shift from arguments and judgments to ceaseless acts of kindness. The culture wars would die down; religious and ethnic bitterness would lose relevance. Love would triumph – right action over righteous talk, results and not speculation. Divine love would be a verb again, not just some pious abstraction. Literally.
Several years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out. “Is it true, ma’am, that you have visions of Jesus?” asked the archbishop.
“Yes,” the woman replied simply.
“Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins I confessed in my last confession.”
The woman was stunned. “Did I hear you right, Bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?”
“Exactly. Please call me if anything happens.”
Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. “Please come,” she said.
Within the hour the archbishop arrived. “You just told me on the phone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?”
“Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession.”
The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed. “What did Jesus say?”
She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. “Bishop,” she said, “these are His exact words: ‘I can’t remember.’”
God looks beyond our greatest weaknesses and shortcomings, even forgets them, and simply loves us unconditionally with the kind of love that Paul describes. If we were asked to describe God in one word, many of us would say, “God is love.” Sometimes I like to think about what that looks like. We have plenty of artwork that tries to capture in pictures this great God we worship, but no matter how hard we try, I don’t think there’s any way any one picture could capture all that God is. As for me, when I think of God, I think of arms spread wide; ready to embrace any and all who walk toward them. To me, that is the God of love. That is the Lord I worship. But even our own imaginings still don’t really show us God. We see God through people lovingly sharing their gifts to serve. The best picture of God is people putting others’ needs before their own. God’s greatest work of art is the body of Christ spreading love in the world. We can be more than “resounding gongs and clanging cymbals;” with Christ’s love filling our hearts and leading our lives, we can be God’s great symphony!
LET US PRAY: Heavenly God, we thank you for your word, laid down in the pages of Scripture across the many centuries, speaking to us plainly. Help us read your Word with courage, that it will enter our hearts and move us forward to love-filled action. Amen.
 J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol X (Nasvhille: Abingdon Press, 2002), 954.
 Ray Waddle, “A Standing Invitation” in Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions 2010 (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010), 37.