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1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This familiar passage is a challenge for Christians to set their identity in Christ above all else. When we are not reflective of Christ, our practices are just noise, like clanging gongs and cymbals. Paul wants to remind the Church of the greater things – faith, hope, and love – so that in uniting our practices with these God-given gifts, we can beautifully reflect Christ as the Body.

For many years now, I have played percussion. So, Paul’s first analogy is kind of a shock to my sensibilities. I quite enjoy clanging cymbals and resounding gongs! For me, I can hear the music in my head and in my headphones, which accompany the crashing, splashing, ringing that sound around me. To me, it sounds beautiful. However, I am sure that they are less enjoyable for those who hear my practice and can’t hear the accompaniment; can only hear the cymbals and drums. To them, it may sound rather disconnected to anything beautiful. Unless we hear the fullness of the music together, how can we enjoy the art? Paul uses this analogy among others, not so that we might learn something about his music preferences, but so that we might realize something about our life as Christians.

1 Corinthians 13, known as the “love chapter” by some, does not take place in a vacuum. Paul’s call for the Church to prioritize love takes place in the context of a larger message to the believers in Corinth. For the Corinthians, there was a disconnect between the way they were taught about Christ and how they lived out their faith in practice. They fought over pastoral leadership preferences, wrestled with issues of morality, accountability, and authenticity in their worship and everyday life. Paul speaks about these issues, among others, throughout his letter. Paul’s address crescendos here in chapters 12-13, where he reminds believers that their identity is not in a pastoral leader or in some particular spiritual gift or worship practice, but the love of God in Jesus Christ.

It is through Christ that the Church comes into being and through the love of God that the Church operates. It is through Christ that the Holy Spirit has filled believers and it is to Christ that spiritual gifts bear witness. These gifts are evident throughout the life of the Church in apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power, healing, assistance, leadership, etc. (1 Cor. 12:28). However, these gifts are just the surface level expressions of the “greater gifts” at work. Faith, hope, and love, are the greater gifts and hold these practices of the Church together with their identity as the Body of Christ. If we are the Body of Christ, love is our oxygen, the means by which we live and operate in our various functions and vocations.

The spiritual giftedness and practices of the Body are like the instruments of each individual member, and only when they are connected in faith hope and love, do they resemble the beauty of the Christ. If what we do as the Body is not connected to love, it will not resemble anything beautiful. If I play drums with no reference to music or accompaniment, it will be just noise. our practices. Likewise, when our “Christian” practices are unaccompanied by love, they are resounding and clanging noise – nothing. Yet, we are fond of our “clanging cymbals,” aren’t we! Christians have become rather attached to their ideologies, habits, and ways of life with or without critical evaluation in light of God’s love. The Church too is protective of practices, programs, and ways of “doing church.” We celebrate them even when they are not accompanied by love, making them intangible and rather unbeautiful to those around us. Paul’s words remind the Church that it is Christ that defines the life of the Church by faith, hope and love. Without love, we are nothing.

This is not the first time that God’s messengers have warned God’s people about their “noise.”

The Prophets speak to God’s disgust for a disunity between worship and righteous living. Amos 5:23-24 proclaims, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Again, God says in Isaiah 1:14-17,

“Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” 

Because the worship practices of God’s people were disconnected from love of God and neighbor, they were abhorrent noise to God’s ears. It is safe to say that they were also damaging noise to the widow, orphan, immigrant, marginalized, and oppressed. Worship that God deems beautiful looks like doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly (Micah 5:6). When our worship does not love our neighbor, it does not glorify God. We can lift all the songs, sermons, tithes, offerings, and programs to God, but if they are not done in love, they are nothing. Walking hopefully with God by faith means living a life of love.

Therefore, during the season of Epiphany, in which we focus on encountering the person and ministry of Christ in anticipation of the cross and resurrection, we discover in Jesus the fullness of love. God defines what love is for us and how we see it, and love looks like Jesus. Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude; Jesus is not irritable or resentful; Jesus does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth; Jesus is love. This love revealed in Jesus fulfills the very name of God from the early pages of Scripture. God names himself, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Exodus 34:6).” Through the love of God in Jesus Christ, we can bear, believe, hope, endure. Faith, hope and especially love is found in Jesus and lived out as we live in him, and he never fails us.

This is good news for the Church, who is often weary and worried about a changing world. The way that the Church operates on the other side of this pandemic will look different. Things will not go back to the way they were, and in some cases, this is for the best. It is a reminder that, just as prophesies and tongues will cease, so too will many of the practices that we hold near and dear to our identity as the Church. That which will cease and is temporary includes our institutional expressions of ministry. Church buildings, worship services, discipleship programs, may change in how we use them or cease as we know them, but the love of God in Christ is eternal. So then, in all that we do as Christians, both collectively and individually, we do it for the glory of God; we do it in love. Paul reminds us that, in the end, God is there, we will know God in fulness, and God is love. The life of the Body of Christ is a beautiful express of worship when its practices are grounded in faith, hope, and love.