Editor’s note: This Advent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
By Rev. Dr. Jana Childers
I love the way Paul throws himself around. “Is it like this?” “No!” “This?” “No!” “This?” “No!” (vv.29-30). As a rhetorician he is such a cowboy. No holds barred. You gotta love it. But the verbal arm-waving can be disorienting.
By the time we get to this last paragraph in I Corinthians 12, I am thoroughly confused about what Paul means by “great.” The long passage immediately preceding this one goes around the barn two or three times to make the point that in the Body of Christ “great” is not great and “inferior” is great. (For example, v. 24b, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.”) So when Paul says, “strive for the greater gifts,” what gifts exactly are we supposed to envision? Are prophets’ gifts greater than preachers’? Is speaking in tongues a greater or lesser gift than interpreting tongues? Or maybe we are all supposed to be remembering that what seems great may in God’s sight turn out to be “the least of all?”
“Strive for the greater gifts.” It’s an example of a text in sore need of a soundtrack.
I am going to go out on a limb and say that when the words first came out of Paul’s mouth what he said was, “Strive for the GREATER gifts.” Greater than prophets’ gifts, greater than “various types of leadership” or the ability to speak in tongues. The greater gifts are the gifts that best serve the Body of Christ — and the world. Surely that is chapter 12’s bottom line and Paul’s main point.
Which I think rockets “healing” right to the top of the Paul’s list (vv.28-30) or anybody else’s. Strive for gifts of healing (v. 28). For “various forms of assistance” (v.28) that heal. For any and all “deeds of power” (v.28) that heal the world, the church, the soul. And in the word “strive,” I think there is a note of encouragement for all of us who enter this season of the church year doubtful or discouraged. Some or all of these uber gifts — these ultimate gifts — these gifts to be desired above all others — even gifts like healing — are in our reach, Paul suggests. “Strive,” he says. Reach out for the gift of healing with both spiritual hands and all twenty fleshy digits. If I am reading Paul right, this striving will lead us smack into chapter 13. And that’s a greater gift.
Rev. Dr. Jana Childers is dean of the seminary, vice-president of academic affairs, and professor of homiletics and speech communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary.