Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 3, 2019
1 Corinthians 13: 1-13 (CEB)
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.
4Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things.
8Love never fails. As for prophecies, they will be brought to an end. As for tongues, they will stop. As for knowledge, it will be brought to an end. 9We know in part and we prophesy in part; 10but when the perfect comes, what is partial will be brought to an end. 11When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, reason like a child, think like a child. But now that I have become a man, I’ve put an end to childish things. 12Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. 13Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and 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, that moment when we think to ourselves, “All that work for nothing.”
In a sense, this is what Paul is cautioning us about in our Scripture lesson. 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, the message from Paul 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, or a spoon. 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.
Paul uses a great analogy to share with the Corinthians the immense 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 a very powerful image. 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! 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? 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.
Two years ago, a friend of mine nearly ditched being a pastor. He started focusing only on the negatives of his job: the Saturday night sermon-anxiety attacks, a pitiful raise, the disintegrating basement tiles in his parsonage. After 10 years of frantically meeting needs, pleasing people and tracking down plant stands for funerals, he was burned out. He told me: “A dangerous ice slowly spread throughout my heart—the ice of cynicism, an attitude that didn’t care if people changed because, of course, they didn’t want to anyway.”
Thankfully, God didn’t make it easy for him to escape his call. Instead, God resurrected his call to ministry during his family vacation. While he was reading and praying at a park, three children with bag lunches, dirty clothes, and dirt-streaked faces plopped themselves down on the grass beside him. Before he could move, the oldest child launched into a complicated story of dysfunction: “Hi, my name is Deanna and I’m 12-years-old,” she said. “My sister is Kristy and she’s 10; and my brother is Henry. Actually, though, we all have different dads. My dad is dead; Kristy’s dad disappeared; and Henry’s dad beats him up, so my mom is divorcing him. My mom and her boyfriend are at the casino because they need time alone, so she bought us all a burrito at the gas station and told us to stay at the park for two hours. Can we sit by you?”
My friend said, “Yes,” and then asked them if they lived in town.
“No,” Deanna answered. “We used to live in-town, but my mom lost her job. I don’t like living in a tent. By the way, what’s your job?”
“Well,” my friend said, “I’m a pastor.”
After a long silence, Deanna asked, “Mister Pastor, can you tell me something? I’ve heard stories about Jesus walking around healing people, loving people. Why doesn’t he do that anymore?” The three children were now simply staring, with big, love-hungry eyes at my friend.
He started talking to them about Jesus. And with tears welling up in his eyes, he said, “Deanna, Kristy, Henry: Do you know how much Jesus loves you right now?”
That’s how God rebuilt my friend’s call to ministry. God broke his heart again with God’s love for these three children. As long as there is anyone in this world who is hurting, those who are walking with Jesus will hurt as well. Love hurts with those who hurt. Love is “patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
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 God. 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 in service. 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!