Summary: Our gifts and service are great, but they are nothing without Christ's selfless 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. I remember a mission trip I was on a little less than a year ago. We were putting siding on a house. We had run the starter strip and the first piece of vinyl all the way around the house. Then a group of us started putting up the siding on one side of the house. In a single afternoon, we got the siding all the way up to the eaves, at which point we had to cut angles in the pieces of siding. Do you know that last piece of siding took us almost two hours to get in because we kept cutting the angle wrong? It was late in the day and we were tired and ready to go home. We must have tossed aside four or five pieces that we had spent time measuring and cutting because we kept getting the angle wrong. All that work for nothing.
In a sense, this is what Paul is cautioning us about in our Scripture lesson from this morning. 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, our message from Paul this morning 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 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.
I believe this is 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 know 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 creek. 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. Because, you see, the work of anyone’s hands tells us something about the workman. “Love never ends because God’s eternal love is the [basis] for all human loving.”
Paul uses a great analogy to share with the Corinthians the under-girding 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 very powerful imagery. 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; but if you’re like me in the midst of such a racket, all you want to do is run! This, says Paul, is what it’s like to exercise the spiritual gifts apart from the love of God. It is disastrous and 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!