A faith that can move mountains

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Together with the 23rd Psalm, and perhaps John chapter 1, First Corinthians 13 is among the most popular chapters in the Bible.  It is read at weddings and at funerals, at state ceremonies, hospital bedsides, school assemblies.  It is the go-to Scripture for any and every occasion.  It is often simply known as St Paul’s “love chapter”.  And people think of it as a kind of Scriptural bubble-bath – warm and soothing and inoffensive.

Nothing of the sort!  When the Corinthians read this portion of Paul’s letter, they would have been devastated, angered, rebuked and only then comforted.  For the Corinthians – and for us when we’ve read it properly – this chapter is nothing like a bubble-bath.  It’s more like a scalding hot bath full of antiseptic!  It exposes our cuts and bruises.  1 Corinthians 13 hurts.

In its first paragraph (verses 1-3) it revolutionizes our thinking.  In its second paragraph (verses 4-7) it strips us bare.  Only in the final paragraph (verses 8-13) are we given hope.

Today let’s look at this first paragraph:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Corinthians thought of themselves as very spiritual.  They loved supernatural signs, hidden wisdom, ecstatic encounters, incommunicable mysteries, uncontrollable experiences.  But Paul will say in this chapter that such ‘spirituality’ is utterly bankrupt without love (or charity as the KJV perhaps unhelpfully has rendered it).  He dreams up the most spiritually gifted people imaginable only to say that such people are nothing without love.

In verse 1 we meet the ecstatic worshipper.  He speaks in indecipherable languages and everyone is very impressed.  Except God.  To God it’s like a “sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.”  All noise and no love.  Here is an empty spirituality – self-focused, proud and loveless.

In verse 2 we have another spiritual caricature – the profound prophet.  The kind of person who sweeps up into the pulpit and knows Greek and Hebrew and they can quote Augustine in Latin and give examples from Homer the poet and Homer the Simpson.

In addition, this person has incredible leadership skills.  That’s what it means to have ‘a faith that can move mountains’.  Here is a leader that can inspire and direct people towards a goal.  The leader sees the potential, trusts that it’s the way forward and they can motivate many to share in the vision.  Their faith moves mountains.

We are mightily impressed by the profound prophet – a spiritual leader with intelligence and authority.  But, again, God is not impressed.  If such a person has not love they are nothing.  They are a spiritual zero.  They do not show up on Jesus’ radar screen.

Paul’s teaching here is dynamite.  What he is saying is this: there are gifted leaders in Christian ministry who are not Christians.  They are nothing.  They have the gifts of the Spirit but not the Spirit Himself.  Without love, gifts mean nothing.

Now do you start to see why this chapter is not a bubble-bath?  It is profoundly disturbing.  Paul is saying that people can exercise incredible gifts within the church yet not actually belong to Jesus.  (Of course Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 7:21-23).  How do we respond to this?

Well perhaps we think, ‘I know what Paul is saying: We need to stop investing in the flashy super-natural gifts and get on with sacrificial service.’  Is that it?  No, he’s not saying that either.  Look at verse 3…

In verse 3 we see another caricature: the stoic do-gooder.  Paul imagines this no-nonsense servant giving away everything – even their very life – ostensibly in the cause of the kingdom.  And yet, it’s possible to do all this without love.  There is loveless sacrifice. (That’s why ‘charity’ is a poor translation.  Charitable works are not the point at all, it’s love that counts).

Love is not simply a ‘decision of the will.’  Love is not reducible to acts of service.  You can choose to do outwardly loving things and still not have love.

And what do you get for it?  Nothing.  Again, this kind of spiritual person does not show up on God’s radar.

How do you picture a properly spiritual person?  What is it to be a Christian who is really ‘going for it’?  Some of us will picture the ecstatic worshipper, some of us will picture the profound prophet, some of us will picture the stoic-do-gooder.  Paul says we are all wrong.  All of those people – even if they are incredibly gifted at what they are doing – have missed the point entirely.  The point is love.

Do you see how absolutely necessary love is?  Not groovy experiences, not profound thoughts, not busy service – actual love. Love for Jesus and love for others.  Love is the source and substance of the Christian life.  Without it we are not even Christians.

When someone asks you how you are going in the Christian life, how do you tend to answer?  Some will speak of their experiences, some of their gifted ministry, some of their sacrificial service, but those are not true barometers of our spiritual life.  Those things are not connected to the state of our soul.  Such gifts and performances might be in over-drive and yet we have missed the main thing.   Is the love of Jesus in you?  And does it come out of you?  Those are the questions we should be asking.

This chapter is not a bubble-bath.  It’s a deeply uncomfortable antiseptic bath and it exposes all sorts of wounds.  But in future posts we will see healing too…

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