As I write this, I’m preparing to head off to a wedding rehearsal. The wedding itself is tomorrow. During the sermon, not surprisingly, I will read 1 Corinthians 13 and use it as a springboard for talking about love in a marriage between Christians — just as I have done many times before, just as other ministers have done in countless other weddings.
Paul, of course, wasn’t writing about marriage at all, but the practical side of the unity between Christians. The Corinthians had asked a question about spiritual gifts; Paul responded by teaching them what it meant to be the body of Christ, with a diversity of gifts expressed in and through their unity in the Spirit. He ended that chapter with reference to something “even better” (1 Cor 12:31b, CEB) than the pursuit of spiritual gifts. In today’s parlance, the word he uses might suggest something that would “knock it out of the park.”
That something, of course, is love.
Paul opens chapter 13 with statements that would have rattled the cage of anyone in Corinth who was guilty of loveless spiritual pride:
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. If 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. If 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. (1 Cor 13:1-3, CEB)
Pointedly, he begins with speaking in tongues, the spiritual gift that was probably creating some controversy in the church. It doesn’t matter if one has the gift of eloquent speech, or even speaks in the heavenly language of the angels themselves (think of the social implications of church members believing they were actually speaking like angels, even if no one else had a clue what they were saying!) — without love, Paul says, it’s no better than noise.
Indeed, the “clashing cymbal” may be a reference to an instrument used in pagan worship. If so, the implication was a slap in the face to someone who was overly proud of his or her gift: You may think you’ve reached a higher spiritual plane, but without love, what you’re doing is no better than idol worship.
Paul isn’t denigrating the gift of tongues, or prophecy, for that matter, which is the next gift he mentions. As chapter 14 will show, Paul thinks very highly of prophecy — but for reasons that have nothing to do with the spiritual superiority of individuals. What matters is love and the edification of the church as one body. Here, he begins with tongues and the knowledge of mysteries because these are the things that have tempted the Corinthians to think and act in arrogant and divisive ways. In the absence of love, their spiritual status symbols are no better than clanging cymbals.
We’ll look at the remainder of Paul’s opening words in the next post.