If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIV)
Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians, confronts us with a very visual representation of the Christian and a church fellowship. We can either be a resounding gong, or a clanging cymbal.
The resounding gong is in tune with everything around it, while the clanging cymbal is harsh and out of tune. To our modern ears we imagine Paul is speaking of a symphony orchestra where the sound produced by the percussionist either harmonises with the music, or is discordant. While Paul would not have a symphony orchestra in mind it is a useful picture for us to use in trying to understand what he is saying.
The main message here follows on from the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul introduces the spiritual gifts and ends with his desire to reveal a ‘more excellent way’. The examples he uses at the beginning of chapter 13 (tongues, prophecy, faith and giving) aren’t meant to be seen as an exhaustive list. They are purely examples of those things we might strive for, to the detriment of what really matters – love. Paul is pointing out that any church fellowship that concentrates on the gifts, but ignores love and its expression amongst Christians, is merely a sham – a clanging cymbal. However, a fellowship that uses the gifts for the ‘common good’, within an atmosphere of love, is in tune with God – a resounding gong.
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