Summary: Forget gifts for a moment. Let me show you the best way to demonstrate your Christian maturity. If you want to show just how mature you are as a Christian, then show it not by the way you exercise the gifts God gives you, but by the way you bear the fruit
Today we return to 1 Corinthians, but it’s been over a month, so I thought I should bring us all up to speed again. Let me remind you of where we got to last time. Paul has been addressing the question of the nature and function of spiritual gifts in the congregation. Corinth is a place where spiritual gifts have a high profile. It would seem from the comments he makes in both chs 12 and 14 that speaking in tongues was highly valued and presumably being promoted as the ultimate sign of being a spiritual Christian. But, he says, it’s clear that not everyone has every spiritual gift. What’s more if you wanted to rank gifts in terms of their importance or value to the congregation, tongues is fairly low on the list. So be careful, in your search for spiritual maturity that you get your value system right. Seek the higher gifts before you start looking for something like speaking in tongues.
But then he takes a completely different tack. He says, forget gifts for a moment. Let me show you the best way to demonstrate your Christian maturity. If you want to show just how mature you are as a Christian, then show it not by the way you exercise the gifts God gives you, but by the way you bear the fruit of the Spirit. Show it particularly in the way you demonstrate God’s love to those around you.
Why love above all the other fruit of the Spirit? Because love is the one fruit that will endure to eternity.
As I was reading through this passage it made me think of a symphony orchestra. And so I’ve entitled the three sections: Love is the Melody line; Love is the harmonising element and; Love is the tune that stays with you when the symphony is finished.
Love is the Melody line
Have you ever been to a symphony concert and watched the orchestra play? I love sitting up in the balcony looking down at all the musicians as they play their instruments. And I particularly love watching the percussionist. He or she will sit there waiting and every now and then they’ll get up and give a few thumps to the kettle drum, or bang the cymbals together, or ding the triangle. Then they sit down and wait for the next time. It seems like such a frustrating instrument to play. It’s not like a rock and roll band where the drummer is playing along the whole time making as much noise as he can. In an orchestra they’re there to add their contribution to a much larger production.
But imagine if the percussionist decided that they weren’t getting enough attention so in the middle of the piece they started to just bang their cymbals in time with the music. You can imagine the hubbub that’d be caused can’t you. Beethoven’s 5th symphony begins da da da dah and the cymbal goes clash clash clash clash. It’d totally ruin it wouldn’t it.
Well that’s the sort of picture Paul is painting here. When gifts like that of speaking in tongues are exercised without the broader context of love it comes out like a clashing cymbal or a noisy gong. Rather than adding to the harmony of the church, it disrupts, it annoys. If you’ve ever come back into the church on a Sunday you may have heard one of the kids sitting at the drums banging on the cymbals and it’s a really annoying sound. So too, gifts exercised in the absence of love, are wasted. In fact they might as well not be exercised.
He says, even if I have all sorts of prophetic powers, if I can see into the future, if I have outstanding faith, if I’m the pinnacle of generosity, but don’t exercise these gifts in love, then I’m nothing, I gain nothing. You see love is the melody line. Love is the thing that gives shape and beauty to what we do and say. Love is the thing that gives substance to our exercise of the Spirit’s gifts. And without it all we do is to repel people, or annoy people by our noisy exhibitions.
Without love the exercise of our gifts fails in its primary purpose, which is bringing glory to God. That, I think, is why Paul says without it we are nothing. You see, it’s possible to have a successful ministry, on the outside at least, to be admired and applauded for the amazing things we do for God, but if at the heart of our ministry is something other than God’s love, it’s wasted as far as God is concerned. The Corinthians thought that those who exercised spiritual gifts were the VIPs of the Church, but in fact they were nothing if their motivation didn’t come from love.