Paul has been talking about spiritual gifts. The gifts are to the Church, and essential for the sound functioning of the Church. Each has a unique and specific purpose for the Church. But not everyone in the Church has each gift, nor in like degree. The gifts of preaching, healing, helping, and prophesying are intended to meld seamlessly within the body of the Church in the same way that eye and hand and bat combine to connect with a ball and drive it deep into the October night (to bring the analogy into our day).
Paul wants the Corinth church to strive for gifts. But he also takes pains to urge them to subject those gifts to something higher, stronger, purer--to what he terms the Most Excellent Way--the way of love. Regardless of what lofty speech may pour from the mouth, if it is not animated by love, it is pure noise. Doctorates, theses, even the unlocking of the genetic code, apart from love, amount to worthless knowledge. Even faith itself, faith the size of a mustard seed or a mountain, without love is nothing. And no sacrificial act, no forfeiture of goods has any true impact if love is not its driving force.
The Scottish preacher Henry Drummond delivered an address on the text of 1 Corinthians 13 at Oxford in 1889: The Greatest Thing in the World. His speech had such impact that it was printed and re-printed in the millions, and remains in print today. I highly commend it to the attention of anyone who wants to understand and live the truth of this chapter--which is itself the heart of the Gospel. I'll quote just a bit:
"A man is apt to recommend to others his own strong point. Love was not Paul's strong point...The hand that wrote, 'The greatest of these is love', when we meet it first, is stained with blood."
Love may not be my strong point either. It may not be yours. But there is nothing more worth praying for, hoping for, believing in, giving one's life to, than the love which excels all. May we in the church never, ever forget that.