Seek the Higher Gift

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

This passage comes after Paul's discussion of the charismatic gifts and before his great explanation of love. What makes this striking to me is his style. He begins with 'If ... but have not love ...'.

In the first verse, he mentioned about the speech gifts. Imagine, being able to speak in any language - preaching to everyone about the Lord. But without love, everything said is noise.

The second verse tells of other charismatic gifts - prophesies, knowledge and abilities to work miracles - these are proofs of God's power - but without love, the person is nothing.

The third verse speaks of giving away what we have. So called acts of charity like almsgiving and even martyrdom, done without love, gain us nothing.

What then do these three verses prove? Love is the only gift of the Spirit that gives value to all the other gifts. Very often for renewed Christians, we get too focused on the charismatic gifts that we forget what is important.

This was seen in the the church in Corinth. It was becoming more of a social organization rather than a community of believers.

The letter tells us of the many problems in that Church. Paul admonished them for accepting someone who was living with his step-mother. Then the Church was divided into four factions. Then there was this question of Paul's authority, their irreverence to the eucharist, food offered to idols, marriage, the charismatic gifts and the resurrection. Does that sound like some of our churches today?

One thing the letter to the Corinthians tells us is that a Christian community is far from perfect. We will definitely have people who have different values from us. If we look at how Paul handled the issues in the community, we see how it is to act in love. We see where he stood firm and where he was more liberal.

With regard to morals, doctrine and charity, Paul was very firm. Fornication (and other sexual sins) was definitely not tolerated. In fact, Paul told the church to get the sinner out of the community - hoping that this will bring about repentance. The same with the way the Church was to treat the eucharist. Paul said that if we do not accept the bread and wine without recollecting ourselves, we bring judgement on ourselves. (This also reinforces our belief that the bread and wine IS the true body and blood of Jesus). Lastly the question on the resurrection was something that was made clear in chapter 15.

However, with regard to other issues, Paul allowed the believers to make their own decision - as long as the decision will not be a scandal to others. This is clearly seen in his discussion on eating food offered to idols and whether it was right to get married. Interestingly also, Paul spoke against breaking a marriage for the simple reason that the other party was a non-believer. With this, he reinforced the sanctity of marriage.

What can we say in conclusion? If we are to act, we have to do them with love. And love is not just letting others do what they want - or pursuing what we want. Love is considering how our actions will affect others - always with the thought for what is best for others - even if it means hurting them and ourselves in the process.

To paraphrase Paul, 'Let us desire the higher gift - and in the end, these three remain - faith, hope and love. And the greatest is love.'

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