So, after a few weeks we find ourselves back where we started, with Paul’s famous words to the Corinthians dealing with love, the greatest, he says, of the things that remain. And we get caught up in the poetry of the words here and the romanticized notions of love that this has come to represent and if we aren’t careful we’ll miss what’s happening here, because what Paul is really doing is unloading both barrels on the church in Corinth.
I mentioned at the start of this series that the conflict in the Corinthian church came from a desire of the members to all be first, to all be seen as the leader or the most important, to use their roles in the church to boost their standing outside of it. They are, as Bachelor contestants would accuse them of, “in it for the wrong reasons.” There’s no greater sin in Bachelor Nation than to be on the show, not in the hopes of finding love amidst all the drama, but to build up your own personal brand and attempt to be able to market yourself afterwards. The people of the church at Corinth are there for the wrong reasons, they believe that if they are able to present themselves as important to the church it will benefit them in the outside world as well. And what Paul says in this chapter, pretty as it is, is “you people could not be more wrong. You’re wrong about what you’re doing, you’re wrong about how you’re doing it, and you’re wrong about the motivations you have for anything you do.”
“If I speak with the tongues of men or angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging symbol.” Speaking in tongues was apparently the gift that the Corinthians treasured the most. They believed that if you began to speak in a language people couldn’t comprehend you must be speaking the language of heaven and had reached some sort of special plane. The potential problem, for the cynics among us, is that speaking in tongues is one of the easiest spiritual gifts to fake. And we can make a pretty good assumption that Paul sees that too because he spends chapter 14 explaining how to tell if that kind of speech is authentic. But we’ll save that for another day, what matters for our purpose is that Paul says if you have that gift but you don’t have love then it isn’t any good. The best words, without love motivating them, are just noise. If you can speak prophetically or have insights and knowledge no one else does, or even have the kind of faith that tells the mountain to move and it does but you don’t have love as your motivation you don’t have anything. If you give everything away and offer yourself up as a martyr but your motivation isn’t love then you’ve missed the point.
Love, is patient and kind. The Corinthians, we can read between the lines, are not. They are envious and boastful and all the things that we read are the antithesis of love and that’s a problem because it is love that sets the Christian community apart. Love is the thing, according to William Rich at Trinity church Boston, that brings people to Christ. He says “what convinces the believer… that God is trustworthy and true is the experience of love within the Body of Christ. Experiencing that the same love which God poured into the world and was embodied in Jesus is still alive and flourishing in life-giving ways in the community of faith: this is what convinces the believer that s/he has come home to a trustworthy community in the midst of the vagaries of life.” Love within the community is what is supposed to convince people that there is more for them here than if they joined book club. And the Corinthians had missed that. And I wonder if sometimes we do. I wonder if, like the church of Corinth, we get so distracted by other things, good things, that we lose sight of the need to have the right motivation too. What this chapter reminds us is that our “why” matters. Our work doesn’t do the kingdom any good if its being done for our own glory.