Summary: The gong is only mentioned once in all of scripture. Why would Paul use it to start the famous "Love Chapter" and what warning does it contain for us today? (This sermon was preached as part of the series by this name preached by Jeff Strite.)
Dearly Beloved, we have gathered here today to celebrate the love…is often the words we hear preceding the reading of 1 Corinthians 13. It is good that we read what has come to be known as the Love Chapter at a wedding, because it reminds us as we are uniting a couple in love for the rest of their lives just what that love looks like. But in so doing, we often gloss over the warning that Paul was writing to the church. Each of these verses proposes good things for Christians to be doing, but only if they are motivated by God’s love. Because of the sermon series we’re doing this month, the message today will focus mostly on the first verse. (read 1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
For the month of January, we’ve been taking a look at some of the sounds of the Bible that are often overlooked. We started with the shofar, which was blown to usher in the new year, representing a time of atonement and fresh starts. Last week, Jeff taught us about the sound of cherubim wings and how they accompany the judgment and mercy of God. This week, we take a look at the sound of a gong.
Now, the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of a gong is an Oriental throne room with a large gong being struck to announce the entrance of a dignitary. It might sound something like this (play sound of a gong). But as I was looking for something to demonstrate the sound of the gong, I came across these attempts to play the gong, that some of you may recognize. (play there is a video of clips from the first season of The Muppet Show with Gonzo finishing the theme song with a series of mishaps while trying to play the gong).
Did you know that this is the ONLY time a gong is ever mentioned in the Bible? So why would Paul choose this instance in this letter to illustrate his point with a gong? What imagery came to the mind of his readers when they read this passage? Scholars point to three possibilities:
1. The Greeks, including those who were in Corinth, built these large, stone, open air amphitheaters. In those days, you could sit in the nose bleed section and still clearly hear what the actors were saying. How could they do that without the skills of a sound technician adjusting the volume? They used gongs strategically placed throughout the seating area. The actors learned how to position themselves so that the gong would reverberate with the sound of their voices, amplifying their words throughout the theater. The downside for this is that it created a false, hollow sound in their voices. The result wasn’t true; it came off as empty. So that could be what Paul was referencing here.
2. Another possibility scholars point to was the dual use of a shield as both protection in battle and a gong for sending signals or marching orders to the Roman troops. You heard the sound of one gong being struck a bit ago, now imagine being lined up for battle and having hundreds, even thousands of them being struck over and over as your enemy approached. I’m sure that not only was it painful to the ears, but would cause the earth underneath your feet to shake as well. Those who go with this option point out that it goes well with the idea of a clanging cymbal because that was often the instrument used in the same manner by the Jewish army of that time period, so Paul could be making sure he's covering all his bases in making his point to both the Jews and the Greeks that this is a sound of conflict.
3. The third use of a gong in those times, and the one I believe is the most feasible, is that many Corinthians owned and used gongs as part of their worship of the Greek/Roman gods. They believed that the banging and clanging of their gong helped them to achieve a type of spiritual ecstasy. Can you imagine walking down the street and continually hearing people clanging their gongs? Oh, the headache that would produce, I would think. I liken it to living near the train tracks. They say you get used to the sound of the train going by, but let’s face it- there are times when enough is enough. We had friends in Chicago whose apartment was near the el. Every time a train went by, their apartment would shake. I can’t imagine trying to get used to that.
Regardless of which of the three types of gongs you believe Paul is referring to here, it is clear that he is warning his readers. You see, the Corinthian church had been struggling with divisions over several issues. Paul had just addressed many of them (elitist snobbery- Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ; sexual impropriety- looking the other way when knowing a brother was caught up in sin; personal preferences- elevating matters of conscience to standard of salvation; and divisive conduct in worship- abusing the Lord’s supper, elevating certain spiritual gifts over others) and is now pointing them to a more excellent way- Love.