Some familiar words: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If 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 do not have love, I am nothing.
I imagine that most of us will have heard these words before; they’re the opening lines to one of the best loved passages in all of Scripture. They’re sometimes called the Ode to Love, and they’re by far the most popular choice of reading at Christian marriage ceremonies—which is precisely where many of us will have heard them.
However, Paul wasn’t writing about romantic love, but about caring love. He was actually lambasting the Christians in Corinth – for their spiritual pride, their selfishness, their festering internal divisions. The point he was making to the letter’s original recipients was this: For all your impressive gifts, you’re just empty noise; for all your impressive faith and understanding you're a waste of space; because you've lost sight of what it means to love one another.
Some people here will have noticed that I’ve spent the last two or three minutes talking not about this morning's NT reading – the second half of 1 Corinthians 12, but about 1 Co 13—the passage immediately following on from it. And I’ve done so because the two adjacent passages shed light on one another—they were written to be read at the same sitting. The passage about different parts of the body was written as a lead-up to the Ode to Love. And in it we find the reasoning, the justification, for Paul’s conclusion: that caring love is infinitely more important than all the impressive gifts, the pride and the factions that you find in every church including our own. In fact, it’s to help us understand why caring love is essential that Paul asks us to think about a human body in the first place.
He begins very simply, by pointing out that a body has many different parts: parts that look very different and perform very different functions. My hand, I think you’ll agree, looks nothing like my ear; if you could see my pancreas, which I’m glad you can’t, and you’re probably equally glad you can’t, I’m sure you would never mistake it for a kneecap. But as Paul points out (v12), all these many parts form one body, and the church is similarly one body. However different we may be as individuals, we’re all part of an overriding oneness, a unity of being, based (Paul says) on the shared gifts of baptism and the Holy Spirit that make us Christians.
This may at first sound a little trite, but when Paul illustrates his point by referring to Jews and Gentiles, and slaves and freemen, it stops being trite and becomes radical—even threatening. Because Jew and Gentile, slave and free were the deepest divisions the Christian church has ever seen. Beside them, the deepest divisions in the modern church – male and female, gay and straight, high and low, traditional and modern – are skin-deep by comparison. And if such divisions as these are meaningless, then a lot of fresh thinking is needed if we’re ever going to be more than ringing gongs and clanging cymbals.
So Paul’s first point was that the church is like a body with many different members. And his second point is that all the different members are needed for the body to thrive. As he says (v17), If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? And Paul’s conclusion, which he clearly intends his hearers to apply to the church, is this: God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. Once again, this is radical when applied to our own setting and all our diverse types: evangelicals and anglo-catholics; those different from us in gender, sexuality or marital status; our quiet contemplatives and our happy clappers; our organists and our guitarists, our preachers and our cleaners, our flower arrangers and coffee makers… In Paul’s words, they are all different, all needed, all where God wanted them to be.
And finally, Paul warns us that no one member can tell another, you don’t belong. (v21) The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, he continues, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we (have to) treat with special honour. In other words, not a single member of the church is dispensable, and what we think of them is quite irrelevant. It’s all too easy (Paul is saying) to honour the gifted and influential members, the people who in a human body would be brains and tongues and hearts. Paul challenges our value system: the more humble someone’s position in the church, and the less influence they wield, the more we should value them.
It should be getting clearer how all this relates to the following chapter with its famous “ode to love”. We can easily fail to see the connection, because in our culture we use the word ‘love’ so carelessly: I love chocolate, I love my best mate, I love my children, I love God – quite a different meaning in each case. But when Paul wrote of love, he used a Greek word that means something quite specific: namely, the kind of love that Jesus showed when he died for us on the Cross – in others words, the kind of love that we show when we make sacrifices for the benefit of others.
Jesus promises that if we show this kind of love to one another, everyone will recognise us as his disciples. Paul warns that without this kind of love we are nothing, no more than noisy gongs and cymbals. And in case there should be any doubt as to the kind of love he’s writing about, he goes on to describe it in detail, in those famous words: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, 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. Paul’s famous ode reaches its climax with the observation that until Christ comes again we have to rely on three things: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these, he says, is love.
I was going to end on that note, but I can’t finish without mentioning that today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day each year when the world remembers the six million Jews and four million others who were massacred by the Nazis (including Romanies, Homosexuals, Freemasons, people of mixed race, the elderly, the disabled, the disfigured, and religious dissidents like the famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
One of the most unforgettable experiences of my life was visiting Auschwitz less than two years ago, and witnessing the horror of what a Christian society – let me say, considerably more Christian than Britain today – was capable of doing when adherence to rules and cherished traditions became more important than love.
The world hasn’t learned from the Holocaust. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are very much a continuing part of the modern world. Before I finish, I’d like us to spend a few moments in silent respect for the victims . . . .
Heavenly Father, we’re sorry for all the ways we have failed to show love to those inside and outside the church. Help us to be more than clanging gongs and clashing cymbals. In the name of Jesus…..