“Spiritual Gifts”

Luke 4:21-30 (Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
Folks may be tiring of hearing me say this…when looking at a biblical text, take a moment to look at what comes immediately before and after the text at hand – it can be illuminating! Let’s look at the verses which bookend 1 Corinthians 13:
But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way (12:31)
Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts (14:1)

Clearly, Chapter 13 is related to Paul’s concept of “spiritual gifts.” That’s all the clearer when one looks at the gifts that Paul addresses in Chapter 12, beginning with these familiar words:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  To one is given through the Spirit…to another…(12:4-8).
These gifts include: speaking in tongues (12:10, 28, 30); prophecy (12:10, 28-29); and knowledge (12:8). Clearly these gifts are…well, gifts. They are good. But in Chapter 13 Paul reveals a “more excellent way” (12:31). And, to doubly reinforce the connection being made here, the more excellent way is contrasted with the very gifts that Paul has just sung the praises of:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing (13:1-3, emphasis added).
Other than the pure beauty and loveliness of Paul’s great hymn of love, why does he open Chapter 13 with rhetorical questions that seem to minimize the very gifts he has just powerfully described and affirmed? The answer lies in the middle section of Chapter 13, where Paul describes what love is not; which is in contrast to what the Corinthians are:
Not envious (13:4/but see 3:3)
Does not boast (13:4/4:7; 5:6)
Not puffed up (13:4/4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1)
Does not delight in injustice (13:6/6:7-8)
Remember, 1 Corinthians is first and foremost a pastoral letter, written by a pastor to a community that is struggling with sin, brokenness, and division. So, in this context love is held up as the antidote to the problems that are tearing the community apart. (Here I am indebted to the biblical scholar Christopher R. Hutson for the contrast described above, and for the image of “antidote.”)
Many a congregation looks to a familiar list of solutions to solve any and all problems: more members, money, volunteers; no change, challenge, discomfort. And it’s true than many of these are good and salutary things. But, the “more excellent way”- the thing that ought to be “pursued”- is love:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (13:4-7).
This is a love that stands in contrast to our human nature, which is indeed envious. Love stands in opposition to our tendencies towards arrogance; and towards our speech which is often rude. Irritation and resentfulness are everywhere in society. And, who doesn’t like getting one’s own way? Is that human, yes; is that love, no. Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (vs. 7).
In a congregation that seeks to grow; more members, money, and volunteers are needed. (Just as in Paul’s community, tongues, prophecy and knowledge were needed.) But, that which is “needed” cannot be a complete solution, nor can it be the final word, nor a silver bullet. All is in vain if there is no love; and all is possible with love.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (v. 13).