Christian, are you tooled up?

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one…” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough,” he replied. Luke 22:35-38

Jesus has just celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples. He will shortly go with them to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will bow before his heavenly Father in an agony of prayer. Then will come his arrest in the garden, his abandonment by his disciples, his betrayal by Simon Peter, and his lonely trial and terrible crucifixion.

But before he heads off to Gethsemane, he needs to make various things clear to the twelve. One of them is about how they need to be equipped for their mission after he has gone from them.

And so we get this strange conversation (a conversation which Luke alone has preserved for us). In essence, Jesus tells his friends that one phase of their ministry has gone for ever, and that they must now approach that ministry in a new way – even to the extent of equipping themselves with swords. “But now…” are the key words.

Two big questions stand out.

  1. What has changed to require such a dramatically different approach?

When Jesus first sent the disciples out to preach the kingdom of God he told them not to trouble themselves with luggage or with plenty of cash (see Luke 9:1-6). Everywhere they went, they would be provided for. Yes, there would be hostility and danger. But there would also be people who welcomed them, giving them a bed for the night and food in their stomachs. Relatively speaking, they would have an easy ride. And it would be only for quite a short period anyway.

But now, all that is about to change. They will be the followers of a condemned and crucified master, not of one respected and admired. And so they must expect that same animosity to be directed at them. So now, he says, take your purse! take your baggage! And if you are able to get hold of a sword, well, do that too! Get tooled up!

How might this apply to us today? The simplest answer is that most of the church, two thousand years later, is in a similar position to the disciples after the crucifixion. We too minister in a hostile world, not a welcoming one. And so we need to be clear-headed and practical, as well as deeply spiritual. Even in those easier, early days for the disciples, they were told to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). How much more now!

Shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves… it’s a tricky balance to achieve. But if you look at Christian people you love and respect, I think you will find that this is one of their hallmarks. Pray that it will become more and more one of yours.

In a word, times change. And while God’s word is unchanging, God’s people need to learn how to adapt themselves to new circumstances.

  1. Did Jesus really want his disciples to equip themselves with swords?

I suppose it’s just possible that Jesus was giving them permission to defend themselves in dangerous situations. But it seems to go against the whole tenor of his teaching: love your enemies, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek to those who insult and attack you.

Indeed, it’s worth noticing that just a few verses later in this same chapter we get the story of Jesus rebuking the disciple who drew his sword and injured the servant of the high-priest. (John 18 tells us that it was in fact Simon Peter, and that Jesus plainly told him “Put your sword away!”)

We have to conclude, I think, that when Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords, this was a vivid figure of speech, a way of underlining the need to be on the alert in every practical way as they went out to carry out Jesus’ great commission. The gospels as a whole show us that Jesus was fond of striking and even quite disturbing figures of speech – you only have to think of his command to “gouge out your eye” or “cut off your hand” if they lead you into sin (Matthew 5:29-30).

If this is so, it means that when the disciples triumphantly produced two swords, and Jesus said “That’s enough”, he wasn’t saying “Fine, that should do it.” No, he was saying, sadly and wearily, “Let’s drop it – you obviously haven’t understood.”

I wonder how often he feels that way about our shallow understanding of his truth?

Lord Jesus, in this troubled and puzzling world, help me to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. And, by your Spirit, please help me to understand your words aright. Amen.

Riches that kill

Don’t be overawed when others grow rich, when the splendour of their houses increases; for they will take nothing with them when they die… People who have wealth but lack understanding are like the beasts that perish. Psalm 49:16-20

The Bible has a lot to say about wealth – about how it can get a grip on us, how it can become virtually a god (“mammon” as Jesus referred to it), how it can cloud and corrupt our thinking, ruining our sense of priorities and even our relationships.

There was an article in the paper the other day about various high-powered business-people. Apparently they go to extraordinary lengths in order not to lose even a few seconds of their lives that could be devoted to making money. There was a woman who got her exercise by walking on a treadmill at the same time as working at her desk (complete with high-heeled shoes). (She would also watch television at double-speed: “It’s fine,” she said, “you get the drift quite easily”.) And a man who wore exactly the same outfit every day so as not to have to take up valuable micro-seconds making a choice.

You hear such stories and you shake your head and think: “Why? What’s the point?” After all, when somebody dies and the question is asked, “How much did they leave?” there is only one right answer: “Everything”.

And this is the point of Psalm 49. It’s an unusual psalm: rather than prayer or praise addressed to God, it’s more like something out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. The writer is addressing his fellow-Israelites and, in effect, preaching them a sermon. Verse 12 sums up his message well: “People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish.”

Well, we might say, this is very true – but of course, it doesn’t apply to me: I’m not rich!

But wait a minute. You don’t have to be a millionaire, or like the people I’ve mentioned, for money to be a danger and a trap. There are two things to notice.

First, many of us are in fact pretty wealthy compared with millions of our fellow human beings. And second, even relative wealth can have an addictive quality. As the saying goes, the more we have, the more we want: we can all get sucked in.

Wealth itself, of course, isn’t bad. It’s what we choose to do with it that matters – the psalmist says that it’s people who “have wealth but lack understanding” who are like the beasts that perish. In other words, wealth combined with wisdom about using it in a godly way can be a good and creative thing.

Jesus taught about this. Two people in particular whom he met prompted him to comment.

First, there was the man who tragically clung to his wealth: the so-called “rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-22).

He asked Jesus “what good thing” he needed to do to gain eternal life, and Jesus pointed him to the Ten Commandments (or, at least, to the five commandments which deal with our relations with other people). No problem, he replied, I’ve done all that. To which Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At which, Matthew tells us, “he went away sad.”

“Perfect” doesn’t mainly mean “sinless”, but “complete”, “mature” or “fully formed”. (Remember, all of Jesus’ followers are called to be perfect – Matthew 5:48). But the message is clear: anyone who puts earthly riches before spiritual treasures is going to end up “sad”.

Second, there was the woman who had next to nothing – but was willing to give it to God (Mark 12:42). She put two small copper coins into the temple treasury, and so, according to Jesus, she “put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”

If that story doesn’t challenge those of us who claim “Well, I’m not really very rich”, then I don’t know what will! It certainly challenges me…

The perils of material wealth… I’ve no idea why I felt drawn to write about this today – it took me rather by surprise, in fact. But I can only assume that it’s a word somebody reading this needs.

In fact, I suspect that that “somebody” is in fact “everybody”… this is a topic that’s relevant for all of us. So, I suggest, “whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”.

Or, in a slightly more colloquial translation: if the cap fits, wear it.

Heavenly Father, thank you for the material things I enjoy in this life. Help me to remember that one day I must let them all go, and therefore to use them for your glory and the good of others. Amen.

Pure in heart and mind

Finally… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Philippians 4:8

I knew somebody once who had a particular sense of humour which didn’t always go down too well. It wasn’t that it was coarse or vulgar. No, in fact it was clever and witty, even quite intellectual, but it had a slightly acid, sarcastic tone; it had the effect, sometimes, of putting you down, making you feel small.

I knew this person well; and I knew that he was a nice person who would not deliberately set out to wound or humiliate. So it puzzled me that he should have adopted this particular style of humour. I wondered where he had got it from.

Then one day I happened to be reading a novel that was very popular around that time. And suddenly the scales, so to speak, fell from my eyes. Yes! Here it was in the character of the main person in the book – exactly that slightly disagreeable type of humour. I also happened to know that my friend rated this book highly, and was a fan of the author.

All right, it could have been just coincidence. But I doubt it. I strongly suspect that my friend had subconsciously absorbed that mentality and made it his own.

And if I am right, then it is actually quite frightening. Because, of course, this wouldn’t apply to just my friend, but to all of us who open our minds to outside influences (and which of us doesn’t – you can’t avoid it, can you?).

The point I’m making is simple: Eat bad food and your body will get sick; and, by the same token, absorb bad influences and your mind will get sick. Not, of course, in the sense of mental illness, but in the sense of being tainted, soiled, tarnished.

In Philippians 4, as Paul draws this short, affectionate letter to an end, he urges his Christian friends in Philippi to become a particular type of people: a rejoicing people (verse 4); a gentle people (verse 5); an unanxious people; a praying people (both verse 6). And then he offers them (verse 8) this beautiful list to soak up: true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. “Think about things that are like that,” he says. “Focus your minds on them” – as The Message puts it, “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” Take care what you allow into your mind!

All the words in Paul’s list are worth reflecting on. The one translated “noble” occurs hardly anywhere else in the New Testament, but perhaps it sums up well what kind of people Christians should be: “noble-minded”.  (And if that sounds old-fashioned, so be it.)

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined nobility as “a mild and seemly gravity”. (That probably sounds old-fashioned too – but never mind!) “Mild” suggests humility and meekness. “Gravity” suggests a basically serious attitude towards life, shunning everything shallow and vulgar. “Seemly” suggests an awareness of how to conduct yourself in a dignified and appropriate way in differing situations. I see Jesus there, don’t you?

The prophet Hosea scolded Israel for turning to false gods, and commented that “they [Israel] became as vile as the thing they loved” (Hosea 9:10). Yes, that’s what idolatry does to us; it destroys spiritual depth and moral purity.

In Psalm 115 the psalmist mocks people who create their own gods. Oh yes, he says, these gods have got mouths – but they can’t speak! Eyes – but they can’t see! Ears – but they can’t hear! Noses – but they can’t smell! Hands – but they can’t feel! Feet – but they can’t walk! And then he adds a comment which should make all of us sit up: People who make such gods will end up like them (verse 8). And what precisely does that mean? In a word: Dead.

We end up resembling the things we most admire – and that is bad news if those things are not good.

Well, I’ve come a long way from a novel which, if my suspicion is correct, had a corrupting influence on someone’s character. But the question is there and isn’t going to go away: What bad, deadly influences are we permitting to poison our minds? How noble-minded are we?

Let’s remember the words of Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart. And let’s remember too that another way of saying “blessed” is “happy”…

Lord Jesus, I so much need the beauty of your person and the power of your Spirit to maintain my purity in this corrupt and fallen world. Give me, I pray, a true hunger and thirst for righteousness. Amen.

How much thanking does God want?

Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

I urge… that petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority… 1 Timothy 2:1

I have a problem. In fact, it might be truer to say that I have a failing, a weakness, in one particular area: I am very easily distracted when I should be worshipping.

There I am in church, supposedly praying to God, or singing his praises, or listening to his word, and all sorts of other thoughts come elbowing their way into my mind.

Prayer is one of the most testing areas.

I wrote some time ago about public prayers that are over-loaded with that infuriating, maddening little non-word “just”. As in: we just want to thank, Lord, for loving us; we just want to thank you that we can be here today; we just ask you to speak to us and bless us; we just… grrr! Just stop it! There’s nothing just “just” about worshipping God!

Once or twice (Lord, forgive me – this will demonstrate just how pathetically unspiritual I am) I have even found myself totting up the number of justs throughout the course of the service (will they make it to fifty?). Oh dear!

Well, we recently visited a church where, no doubt to my shame, I discovered another source of distraction in prayer…

I think that twenty or thirty times (no exaggeration) in the course of various prayers we started by thanking God: thank you, Lord, that we can worship you today; thank you for the gift of Jesus your Son; thank you for loving us; thank you for being with us every minute of every day. And then, fifteen minutes later, another sequence of thank-you prayers pretty much identical to those already offered.

And (oh dear, this is probably seriously bad of me) I found myself wondering if God is perhaps – dare I suggest it – getting a little bit bored? I picture him up there in heaven drumming his fingers (so to speak) and saying “All, right, I am very grateful for all these thanking prayers, and I don’t doubt your sincerity in offering them. But I did actually hear them the first time, thanks very much (not to mention the second, the third, the fourth and…”).

Isn’t there a world to pray for? Isn’t there a rather alarming man sitting in the White House in America who needs our prayers? Aren’t there ordinary men, women and children suffering terribly in Syria? Aren’t there untold thousands of people around the world being persecuted for their convictions, Christian and otherwise?

Doesn’t the New Testament teach us to pray for rulers of nations, for people of influence and power? Don’t we in Britain have a prime minister who has to grapple with issues most of us wouldn’t have a clue about? (Not to mention a somewhat wacky foreign secretary?)

Let’s not forget that praying for someone doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them or approve of them; no, just that in some wonderful way our prayers can affect the way our world develops.

What about our church leaders, both local and national? Don’t they need our prayers? What about the tragedies, the crises, the tensions we read about in our papers every day? What about the gangs? The drugs? The young children soaking their minds in on-line pornography?

And what about prayers we need to pray for ourselves and our own circle? Nothing wrong in that: the Bible is full of them.

Please don’t get me wrong. Giving thanks to God is a vital part of our praying and worship. Of course. Of course! But how much thanking does God actually need or want? Have we slipped into the mistake of being so afraid of “shopping-list” praying that we forget to ask him for things?

But God delights to be asked for things! “Ask and it will be given you,” says Jesus (Matthew 7:7). He teaches us to pray that “God’s will will be done and his kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. Paul tells his protégé Timothy that “petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving should be given for all people – for kings and all those in authority” (1Timothy 2:1-2). Jesus’ brother James, in finger-wagging mode, tells his readers that “you do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).

So… what about it? Is it just me? Am I just a far worse Christian than even I feared? I’d be interested to know if anyone out there feels the same way.

Lord, teach me to pray! Amen.

Risen indeed?

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said…” Matthew 28:5-6

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” John 20:18

There was a report in the paper the other day saying that a quarter of Christians don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

If you are a Christian who accepts the historic teaching of the church you might find that statistic rather depressing. But I don’t think you need to. Apparently many of the people canvassed had described themselves as “Christians” even though they are not part of any church and don’t have any particular “religious” beliefs, the resurrection or anything else. To them, presumably, their Christianity was simply part of their birth-heritage.

Very likely they were born in Britain, christened as a baby, perhaps even sent to Sunday School. They reckon themselves to be reasonably good people, at least by human standards – honest, law-abiding, hard-working – and they do good to others when they can. Isn’t that what being a Christian means?

And if you were to say to them, “Well, in fact, er, no – that isn’t what being a Christian means!”, they might be quite offended.

But you only have to think for a moment to realise that there are plenty of people – Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, you name it – who are also decent, honest people living good lives. And they might be quite offended if you suggested that they were Christians!

It isn’t for us to rubbish such people, or the people in that survey – all respect to them for seeking to be good people. But the fact is that being a Christian hinges on the matter of belief. Christianity claims that certain things are historically true. And if a person doesn’t believe these claims, then they are not in fact Christians in any meaningful sense.

If you were to draw up a list of these truth-claims, right at the top would come belief in the resurrection. When the angel said to the women on that first Easter morning, “He is not here; he has risen!”, and when Mary Magdalene, breathless with excitement, told the disciples “I have seen the Lord!” they were speaking hard facts. Either you believe those facts or you don’t…

What a story it is! – this story of Jesus risen from the dead.

The scene is a garden. The sun is shortly to rise. The new morning is still quiet and dark. A group of Jesus’ female disciples come to pay their respects to his dead body.

But what do they find? The different Gospel accounts vary from one another in a way that it’s not easy to harmonise. (We shouldn’t let that bother us, by the way. If nothing else, it blows right out of the water any suggestion that the Gospel-writers got their heads together to concoct the story – if that were the case, well, they didn’t do a very good job!)

The basic facts are clear in each Gospel: the tomb was empty; angelic messengers told the women that Jesus had risen; and Mary Magdalene and the other women, followed by the male disciples, met him and worshipped him. (There’s more there, by the way, that scotches any idea of a conspiracy – you would need to be incredibly stupid to invent the detail that the risen Jesus was seen first by women, given that a woman’s testimony counted for nothing. That detail can only have been included because, well, that’s what actually happened, even if it amounted, you might say, to the Gospel-writers shooting themselves in the foot.)

Jesus was really dead – and is now really alive again.

Two things need to be said.

First, of course there can be no absolute proof that these accounts are true. But the evidence is solid, as various sceptics with lawyers’ minds have found when they have decided to investigate. They have discovered that it is extremely difficult to account for these stories in any other way than by accepting that they are true.

But second, mental assent (“OK, I accept that things must have happened pretty much as described”) is not enough to make you a Christian. Mary and the others met the risen Jesus. And so must we.

True, we cannot meet him in the same way – they touched him; they talked with him. But we can know him in a personal way: for every believer the Christian life begins with a meeting with the risen Christ. And it goes on like that, day by day, until the day comes when, as John puts it, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Do we have this hope? If our answer is Yes, then let’s live every day in the light of it! If our answer is No, then let’s humbly seek until the truth becomes clear to us.

Christ is risen. Hallelujah!

Lord God, thank you for the death and the rising of your Son. Help me to understand these things not as just a comforting story or a theoretical possibility, but as hard truths which change my life and the whole history of our world. Amen.

The tree of death – and life

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree… 1 Peter 2:24

I love these words. They are only a part of a longer sentence, but, crisp and compact, they sum up perfectly the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. When, later this week, we hear again the story of Good Friday, these words can capture for us the essence of what happened on that momentous day: Jesus became our sin-bearer.

Let’s take Peter’s statement to pieces and reflect on each part.

He himself…

At the heart of our faith is Jesus Christ: “he himself”. It might seem ridiculous to state something so obvious, but perhaps it’s necessary, because we can lose our focus. Christianity is not about “religion”, or church buildings, or rites and rituals. It’s not even mainly about the Bible, or about good behaviour, or about right doctrine. It’s about Jesus.

There are times when we need to clear away the accumulated clutter of our minds and simply look at him. A film camera may shoot a scene of thousands of people going about their business in, say, a busy city centre. But then it gradually homes in on just one person, until all you can see is that one person’s face: everything else falls away.

The Writer to the Hebrews says we need to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), and let everything else fall away. Is it time you stopped, thought, prayed… and did just that?

…bore our sins…

From the day we are born we human beings have a problem. The Bible calls it “sin”. This little word conjures up the fact that we are in the wrong with God: made to love and enjoy him, we in fact rebel against him and disobey him. Our natures have become twisted and corrupt.

Often we may enjoy our sins and think they don’t matter. But they have a nasty way of building up on us and crushing us, like a heavy load on our backs that we can’t unstrap. And what Peter is saying here is that Jesus has taken that load onto his own shoulders.

Where does he get this idea from? Almost certainly the answer is: Isaiah 53. In the later part of Isaiah, the prophet talks a lot about a mysterious person whom he calls “the servant of the Lord” – that expression crops up several times. And it all comes to a head in chapter 53, one of the greatest chapters in the whole Bible. Says Isaiah: “My righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities… he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:11-12).

Peter, along with the early church as a whole, couldn’t help identifying Isaiah’s “servant” with Jesus. Can you blame them?

So… Are you fed up with carrying the weight of your sin? Well, stop doing so! Confess them to God, and Jesus will carry that weight for you.

… in his body…

This “sin-bearing” isn’t some vague, obscure business. It’s not some kind of purely “spiritual” transaction between Jesus and his heavenly Father. No: it’s a physical thing; Jesus bore our sins “in his body”.

When God chose to send us a saviour, he gave that saviour a body like ours: Jesus ate and drank like us, slept like us, got tired like us. And he experienced pain like us. And his body became the place – if that’s the right word – where our sins were perfectly dealt with: “This is my body, given for you,” says Jesus to his disciples (Luke 22:19).

The Jewish people were well used to the idea of animals being brought to the altar of sacrifice, their blood shed and their bodies offered up by fire. And so the body of the sacrificial Lamb of God was given for us.

… on the tree…

That word “tree” can be translated in various ways: wood, stake, beam, pole, cross, even gallows. Why Peter doesn’t use the more usual New Testament word for the cross isn’t clear, but I think he will have had in mind the words of Deuteronomy 21:23: “…anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse”.

In Roman times the cross was a symbol not just of terrible pain, but of condemnation and punishment – indeed, as Paul sees it (Galatians 3:13), a symbol of God’s curse. Jesus took our place and soaked up God’s judgment on our behalf.

So… let’s put it back together again: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”. This is the message of Good Friday; this is the good news of the gospel.

Is this the message you need to hear?

Lord Jesus, thank you for carrying even my sins in your body on the cross. So help me now, in turn, to die to sins and live for righteousness. Amen.

Are you a miseryguts?

A cheerful heart is good medicine… Proverbs 17:22

A happy heart makes the face cheerful… Proverbs 15:13

I will praise the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. Psalm 146:2

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Philippians 4:4

Are you essentially a cheerful person? Or perhaps (pardon the slightly vulgar Sedgwick-family-speak) a bit of a miseryguts?

A friend of mine was walking past the local shops one day when he met a man he knew just a bit. Being a friendly sort of chap he greeted him: “Morning, how are you today?” To which came the never-to-be-forgotten answer, “What’s it got to do with you?” (Oh well, I suppose it’s no bad thing to know where you stand with a person…) If ever there was a miseryguts that man was it. But surely he didn’t have to be that way?

The Bible suggests that, to some extent at least, it’s possible to choose our moods. That might seem quite a startling idea – choosing your mood!? But it comes across in the verses I have quoted – and, believe me, there’s plenty more where they came from. I’m sure it’s not the whole truth, but I’m sure too there’s a strong element of truth in it.

I read about a Christian man who had quite a hard life, but who was always positive and cheerful. Someone asked him how he managed it – what was his secret? He replied: “Well, every time I wake up in the morning I realise that I have got to make a decision: am I going to be happy today or am I going to be miserable? So I choose to be happy.” Which meant, among other things, that he spread happiness to others too.

As I said, this is certainly not the whole truth. The Bible doesn’t want us to paste onto our faces a false, plastic smile and pretend to be other than we are. Those verses are not the kind that we should ever quote glibly to people passing through times of real distress – with a child sick in hospital, perhaps, or a disintegrating marriage, or crippling money worries. Thank God that the Bible also has plenty to say about sadness and tears!

We shouldn’t forget, too, that natural temperament comes into this. Some people are blessed, quite apart from any “religious” factor, with a sunny disposition. I know someone who, as far as I am aware, is not a Christian or in any way religious, but who is unremittingly cheerful in spite of some pretty hard knocks. Just being in his company for five minutes makes you feel better. (In fact, it strikes me that in this respect he probably puts many of us Christians to shame.)

But having said all that, the basic “default mode” of the Christian, if I can put it that way, is a trust in God as our heavenly Father, and a resulting determination to confront even the trials of life with an optimistic spirit. Have you ever thought about the fact that in Paul’s list of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) the second quality mentioned, immediately after love, is joy: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…”?

Trust in God, then, is the key. We’re not talking here about “Always look on the bright side of life” or “Every cloud has a silver lining” or even “the power of positive thinking” (though no doubt there’s good in that), or other trite clichés. We’re talking about an attitude to life in which we have to school ourselves as we reflect on the fatherly love of God. Yes, we can teach ourselves, little by little, day by day, to be positive.

As I look back over my Christian life, now more than fifty years, I can’t help but notice that many of the finest Christians I have known have had this hall-mark of a cheerful trust in God. And they haven’t always had it easy – not by any means. Some of them have suffered a lot.

How grateful I am for them! How much good they have done me! What light and hope they have brought into my life!

Oh to be more like them!

Lord, please help me to rejoice in you always; please give me a happy heart and a cheerful face. But please help me too never to forget those for whom happiness seems an empty and cruel illusion. Amen.

What a waste!

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:4,7

What do these things have in common? An electric drill; a “My Book” computer storage device; a ukulele; a French dictionary the size of Buckingham Palace; and an Ipad 2.

Can’t guess? All right, I’ll tell you. They are all gifts I have received from my wife over the years, but which, I am ashamed to confess, have never, or barely ever, been used. (To be fair, given that the French dictionary the size of Buckingham Palace and the Ipad 2 were only received today, my birthday, the jury is, as they say, still out on their likely usefulness in the future.)

Stupid, isn’t it? I’m afraid it says a lot about my practical gormlessness (not to say about the kindness and generosity of my wife). Imagine receiving gifts and then leaving them to collect dust on a shelf!

But come on now… who would claim never to have received a gift with sincere gratitude – “Thanks very much! – I’ll really look forward to using/wearing/watching/enjoying/ eating that” – only then to file them away in that compartment of life labelled “Really must get round to this some time”? I suspect we’re all guilty.

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is writing to the Christians of Corinth about “spiritual gifts”. He wants them to understand, among other things, that there is no such thing as a Christian who has not been gifted by God with one or more such gifts – and that God expects us to use those gifts. He lists just a sample: wisdom… knowledge… faith… power to heal… miraculous powers… prophecy… discernment of spirits… tongues-speaking… interpretation of tongues (verse 7-11). (You can find a different list in the same chapter, verses 12-28, and in Ephesians 4:7-13.)

Sticking with 1 Corinthians 12:7, there are two vital principles which jump out and demand to be taken seriously.

First, gifts are given by God “to each one”.

Some Christians are afflicted with a false sense of humility. “Oh, I couldn’t do anything like that,” they say, when there is a need for some kind of service in the church: “Sorry, but I’m just not clever or gifted enough for that.” They are like Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield: infuriatingly ‘umble.

Christians who talk like that are, in effect, making God a liar. He has told us plainly in his word that “each one” of us is gifted by God. All right, our gifts may not be particularly striking or spectacular; but they are there all the same, and if we are, in effect, sitting on them rather than placing them at the disposal of the church, then we are in the wrong.

Over my time in the ministry I can think of people who were wonderful with children – but who never offered to help with the children’s work; people who had great musical gifts – but who could never be persuaded to contribute to the worship of the church; people with great administrative and financial gifts – but who declined to help out in these important areas of church life.

All right, to be fair, perhaps they had good reason for this: it’s not for me to judge. But sometimes – just sometimes – one couldn’t help but wonder if in truth they simply didn’t want to roll their sleeves up and get involved.

Is anyone reading this presently sitting on a gift that could be of use to your local church? I would encourage you to think and pray it over.

Second, gifts are given by God “for the common good”.

Literally, those words could be translated “for benefit”, “for advantage” or even “for profit”. But I’m sure that “for the common good” captures Paul’s meaning well, because one thing he is certainly not saying is “to make you feel better about yourself” or “as a badge to show how very spiritual you are”.

This is a trap some sections of the church have fallen into throughout history: they have stressed the value of “spiritual gifts” as a kind of proof that a person really is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This applies particularly to those gifts that are most obviously “supernatural”. I have known Christians quite stressed out because they didn’t have the gift of tongues: how much better about themselves that would have made them feel!

But that is to miss the point completely. The church is a community, and the various gifts are given so that the community is built up and strengthened – not in order to satisfy our personal need for self-assurance.

Is this a reminder any of us need?

Father in heaven, please help me to be clear about what particular spiritual gifts you have given to me, and then to place them at the disposal of the church. And so lead me to that day when I will hear the voice of Jesus saying “Well done, good and faithful servant”. Amen.

(By the way, I have also given gifts to my wife which have been barely used. Just thought I’d mention that… Oh, and anyone out there who knows how to tune a ukulele?)