This passage from Paul is one we usually see in weddings, so we’re accustomed to it as a stand-alone passage. And it has a lot to teach as a stand-alone passage.
But Paul wrote it as part of an answer to the Corinthian church, teaching them about spiritual gifts. In the previous chapter, he explained how all of the gifts come from the same Holy Spirit, and how each of those gifts has a purpose for the church, the Body of Christ. Ignoring some gifts, or paying too much attention to others, he said, will leave the church unable to do God’s work.
Paul knows a bit about human nature, though, and he knows how likely the Corinthians are to still want to try to find ways to rank themselves more important than their fellow Christians. So he continues to unwrap the idea of spiritual gifts this way. Strive for the greater gifts, he says, and I will show you a more excellent way. There is in fact a spiritual gift greater than the others. In fact, without this spiritual gift, the others are worthless.
That gift is the gift of love. Not mushy feeling love, not movie-screen passion love, but the real love that God shows each of us and asks us to show him and each other. In order for us to truly love as Christ loved – which means loving the most unlovable people we can imagine – we need God’s help. At least I know I do.
The gift of love enables us to use our other spiritual gifts the way they’re supposed to be used. If my gift is leadership, for example, and I combine it with the gift of love, then I won’t lead by dominating or bullying or insisting on having my own way. I will understand that the only way to lead as a Christian is to lead the way Christ lead – as a servant. After all, remember who put on the towel and washed everyone’s feet.
Now, I appreciate Paul’s wisdom here, as well as his discernment and his clear teaching. But I also appreciate something else: He’s being real sneaky. And I love that.
Think about it. We know what people are like. We know we’re prone to want our own way, and we’re prone to forget God should be at the center of things and try to put ourselves there. We’re prone to the sin of pride. Some more, some less, but it’s in all of us.
Paul knows this as well, and he knows that the Corinthians will still probably debate and argue about the greatest spiritual gift. So he gives them one. And it’s the one that will short-circuit every prideful impulse we have. If we truly seek the gift of love, if we truly let God grow that gift in us, well, then we’ll find we don’t have much concern for things like who’s the greatest and who shows us proper respect.
If we don’t have the gift of love, then we have everyone with his or her own gift, sitting around waiting to get what we believe is our proper respect. Our just due. A bunch of Christians who hang around and wait for everyone else to notice just how important we are and to act in the proper manner. Except for the people with the gift of humility, of course, who are waiting around until no one notices them.
And as we can imagine, nothing gets done. But love doesn’t care about proper stations, and it cares a lot less about receiving honor than giving it. We noted how a loving leader looks for ways he or she can empower people to do what they’re called and gifted to do. We seek that character in all of us, and we pray that, through the Holy Spirit, it can be given to us.
Paul finishes by reminding us of what remains, of what’s eternal. Faith, hope, and love abide, he says, these three. But the greatest of them is love.
The greatest leader, the greatest teacher, the greatest preacher, the greatest servant, the greatest healer – the greatest anything we might want to label – they will be remembered for only a short time unless they lead, taught, preached, served or whatever else with love.
It goes back to the original mystery that God has given us. What we do matters, he says. And what makes it matter is why we do it. If we want to know how to make it matter the most, to make the most difference, then we need to pay attention to our Lord, to see what he’s done, and why.
He brought us good news, and he was good news. The gift of love itself.