“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” We recognize these words as the enduring message of a great man. What generally escapes our notice is that these are also words from one who probed his own psyche with rigorous candor. Paul is writing to the church at Corinth, but he is also preaching straight to his own heart. Let us not overlook the “I,” that dominates Paul’s opening statement. “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Paul has endured fierce hardships and withstood great tortures. He has offered God amazing acts of stewardship. He has gained deep insights into God’s character gleaned through excruciating suffering and courageous sacrifice. But though Paul seeks to build the faith of others, he has also searched his own soul and discerned a fundamental truth: all of his acts of stewardship, all of his feats of service, all of his sacrifices in behalf of God’s Kingdom, are worthless if he ever loses sight of the preeminence of love. For all of his great acts of faith, Paul knows that if love is not the cornerstone of his own faith, then he has lost touch with God. If he ever loses sight of the preeminence of love, then, for all his stewardship, sacrifice and service, he admits plainly, “I am nothing.” In God’s Kingdom, love is the preeminent act, the basis of all true spirituality. So Paul admits, even if I give away all that have, if I have faith so as to remove mountains, if I deliver my body to be burned, but I don’t stay connected to God’s love, I gain nothing. He will have missed the Kingdom of God entirely. For love is preeminent.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” These were great words long before they were famous words. For even as Paul wrote with one eye upon his own soul, he was also squarely focused on the needs of the divided and divisive Corinthian church, a church that has been arguing over the nature of spiritual gifts. Paul was saying to those Christians in Corinth, ‘So, you desire to know what is the greatest spiritual gift? Well, the greatest spiritual gift is what holds a congregation together and allows it to function as a harmonious family. Paul argues, you may have the gift of speaking in tongues and be able to speak like an angel, but it will not save your church. You may have great Biblical knowledge, but that will not save your church. You may be gifted with the power of prophesy, so that you can see the future with clarity, yet this gift will not heal your wounds. You can author great acts of stewardship, but you cannot buy spiritual stability and peace. Great acts of faith, even the willingness to die as a martyr, cannot guarantee a church security and longevity. There is only on spiritual gift that everyone can practice and has the strength to unite a fellowship together — it is the power of Christ’s love. Love is preeminent. Now, I know – I know! – I have read this passage in wedding after wedding. But Paul did not set about in the thirteenth chapter of Corinthians to define love. Rather, he was writing this chapter to define church. He was identifying a spiritual fellowship’s key ingredient. He says the great spiritual gift that binds us, that unites us, that heals us and holds us together is the preeminence of love.’ Paul’s words have been around two thousand years; but have any of us fully grasped the radicality of this insight?
Paul, of course, was a great preacher, and perhaps he was never greater than in crafting this passage. When he said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” – he expressed the preeminence of love in language that was sublime and lofty. But a great preacher knows that he cannot leave a great truth sublime and lofty. Great preachers know that lofty and sublime theological truth must be expressed in hay that the goats can eat. That is why Paul speaks not only in language sublime and lofty, but also articulates how that ideal is experienced in real life. He says, in the nitty gritty real world, love is patient and kind. True love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. True love does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong. Rather, love rejoices in that which is right. This is not lofty and sublime language. This is language describing the character of love as lived amidst ordinary life. Patience, kindness and gentleness, the rejoicing at that which is right and good – these are words that describe how one lives in an attitude of love amidst ordinary life. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. Love never ends. These are not lofty and sublime words. These are simple, common, ordinary words drawn from the context of mundane living. Yet the love Paul describes is anything but ordinary. One can only live that kind of love when one is rooted in the Spirit of God. Only someone rooted in the Spirit of Christ can love in the fashion that Paul describes.
The radicality of Paul’s thought about God’s love often escapes the inquiry and understanding of even brilliant theologians. One of the esteemed theological minds of the twentieth century was a man named Martin Marty. Martin Marty once described a children’s sermon gone bad. A young minister had told his children the story of a boy who had stolen another boy’s bicycle. The minister had asked, “Do we still love and accept the thief?” A kid piped up and said, “No! Not until he gives the bike back!” Marty agreed, saying that to love and accept the thief before he made restitution and returned the bike would be cheap and easy grace, an act of weak love. That seems reasonable. But sometimes great theologians can be wrong. Marty was wrong in this case. The kind of love that Paul is talking about is love that loves even in the face of injustice. I think of a Protestant Church of the Brethren that split during the time of Nazi Germany over the issue of whether or not to accept the loyalty oath to Hitler. Half of the congregation did, and their lives during the war were relatively easy. But almost everyone in the half who wouldn’t take the oath to Hitler lost at least one or two family members to the horrors of the concentration camps or died in the gas chambers. At war’s end, the two halves of the Brethren looked at each other and wondered, ‘Can we possibly reconcile and reunite?’ How could one group make restitution to the other? Those gassed and buried bodies could never be restored to the fellowship. The wrong could not be righted. The families who had lost nothing could not “make it up” to families that had lost everything. How could they reconcile? There was no way one side could ever “give back the bike.” Yet, to the amazement of onlookers, the two groups agreed to reconcile and merge. In the wake of their reunion an astonished reporter asked, “How could this happen?” One of the elders replied: “We simply came together. And then we were one.” That’s the kind of love Paul is describing when he says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” The love Paul was describing was a love that perseveres even in the face of injustice.
As Christians, we believe in a basic proposition: God is love. If that is true, if the very character of God is love, then we should see love as the most powerful force in the universe, the force that binds the universe together. So why is that we often think of love as something weak, powerless and sentimental? We should have sense enough to realize that love is the world’s most constructive force. When Abraham Lincoln was asked how he could reunite his polarized, war-torn country, he resorted to theological language, the language of love: “With malice toward none and charity toward all.” Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, observed, “Do you know what amazes me more than all else? The impotence of force to organize anything. There are only two powers in the world: the spirit and the sword. In the long run, the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.” Physical force can repress and restrain. Hatred can coerce and destroy. But only love can bind people together as a lasting force. Only love can eternally motivate.
I confess to you that as a young man I regarded certain verses in this chapter as out of place. I thought that Paul had erred in his ode to love when he interjected this observation: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” As a young man, I thought that observation was not germane to his argument. Age and parenthood have given me a more appreciative perspective of Paul’s genius. For, as any parent can tell you, the essence of a child’s life can be summed up in two words, expressed repeatedly: ‘I want! I want! I want my way! I want what I want! And, by the way, I want it now!’ Some people never outgrow that attitude. Yet, Paul was noting, that as we mature and grow in love, faith, and spiritual insight, our particular wants recede. We come to realize that love encompasses the wants and needs of others. Love expands our inner self to come to want what others want and need. As our faith matures, our wants recede, and instead we want what God wants. Our obedience to God often means that we set aside our wants and embrace God’s wants and thus practice the preeminence of love. As we mature, our life ceases to be about what we want, and we focus instead upon what God wants and upon answering the summons of what the world might need.
When we seek to implement the preeminence of love that love covers a multitude of sins. Indeed, love makes beautiful the lives of those bound by love, lending a tint of gold even to difficult and painful actions. Those who do not become bitter in a bitter world create an aura of joy about them that is infectious. Those who practice the love of which Paul speaks overthrow the narrow moral calculus that seems to govern our world. I read of a black man who ran into a burning trailer and pulled a family to safety. Onlookers were bewildered by the act because flying prominently above that trailer was a confederate flag. The moral calculus of the world would say, “Let the people burn! They probably hate you anyway!” But when asked why he rescued that family, he responded, “Love creates possibilities for understanding and reconciliation.” Such love overthrows the narrow moral calculus of the world. When a man spots people in a downed aircraft and puts himself in peril, saving dozens of lives from drowning, but loses his own life in the process, who among us can criticize him? No, we honor him, because his action is rooted in the very nature of the universe. One of the saddest stories of my life happened years ago when the van of one of my seminary buddies stalled on an interstate bridge. A Good Samaritan stopped to help, but in the process hit my friend’s car and nudged it forward, jostling my friend so that the infant he held slipped out of his arms and fell over the bridge. Without hesitation, my friend leaped over the bridge in pursuit of his child. Both fell to their deaths. But who among us could criticize his action, rooted as it was in the impulse of selfless love? Love is preeminent!
The famed apostle of old was no sentimentalist, even about love. He knew, not only is our knowledge imperfect, not only is our prophesy imperfect, our practice of love is imperfect, too. Even in our best intentions, we injure without intent. One of my great pastor friends observed that he could walk into a room of a hundred people and speak to seventy–five of them warmly. But if, in a distracted moment, he walked by the seventy-sixth person without speaking, he admitted they might feel slighted. He confessed that he might have done more damage in that one unintended silence than he did in the seventy-five intentional conversations. Who among us does not know of what he speaks? I used to keep a Peanuts cartoon in my office. It was of Charlie Brown trying to pay Lucy a compliment, but botching it. Instead of complimenting her, he maladroitly insults her, enraging her as a result. She gives him a tongue-lashing and stalks off. Charlie Brown looks out at us and says these memorable words, “I remember once, about five years ago. I said the right thing.” Even at our most loving, we injure; even at our best-intentioned, we wound, saying the wrong thing. But Paul assures us, it is alright. There will come a time when God will redeem all our imperfect acts of love. There will come a time when our intentions will be fully understood, and we will fully understand the intentions of others. God’s perfect love will be preeminent.
Some years ago a young and reckless scuba diver became disoriented while exploring caves in Florida. Realizing that he was hopelessly lost and soon to die, he used his remaining oxygen to etch on the cave wall that would serve as his tomb a stark and simple message to the family and friends who cherished him. He wrote these words: “I love you.” With his dying breath this young man realized that this last statement was ultimately all that really mattered. Paul reminded the church in Corinth, ‘There are three great common gifts. Faith! Hope! Love! These abide. But the greatest of these is love. Love is preeminent.’