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When Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana, the immediate result is that his disciples believe in him. I suppose John means that up to this moment their faith was embryonic – not fully formed. But now, seeing the miracle Jesus performs, their faith suddenly becomes, not just an option they are exploring, but the defining factor of their lives.
What brings people to faith in Jesus Christ? Put it another way: what stops people believing?
We assume the answer to that question is mostly about overcoming doubt – resolving intellectual issues. But that is not the whole story. Chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel describes three encounters in the ministry of Jesus which sum up the classic moral issues which people confront on the journey of faith, the issues of money, sex and power:
- Sex: some Pharisees approach Jesus asking for his views on marriage: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? Jesus sets out a demanding sexual ethic of lifelong commitment. He tells the disciples that anybody divorcing his wife and marrying another is committing adultery. In Matthew’s version of the story the disciples respond that this is thoroughly bad news: if this is the way things are then it’s better not to marry!
- Money: a rich young man shows up asking what he needs to do to inherit the life of the age to come. Jesus tells him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and come and follow him. That is too much for this man. He goes away “grieving, for he had many possessions”.
- Power: James and John approach Jesus with the request that they occupy the positions of his left- and right-hand men “in his glory”. In other words, when the time comes for handing out Cabinet roles, they want the best jobs. Jesus tells them that this will require that they drink his cup and undergo his baptism. They think this is no big deal and airily reply that of course they will. Jesus responds that, yes, they will drink his cup and undergo his baptism; but he makes it clear that this will not work out quite as they expect. They don’t realise it but following him is going to involve suffering. And in any case, the top jobs are not in his gift.
St Augustine was born in North Africa in the year 354 to a Christian mother who prayed fervently for him. He was later to become Bishop of Hippo and one of the greatest of all Christian theologians. But for many years into adult life he resisted the Christian faith. Part of his problem was a philosophical question about the nature of evil. In the end he resolved that issue but was still held back by his long-standing addiction to sex.
He made a succession of excuses to put off the decision along the lines of “not yet”, “give me a bit more time”, “I’ll do it soon”. He confesses to asking God to make him chaste, but not now. He was afraid God would answer his prayer and cure his addiction to lust too quickly. In truth he wanted his lustful cravings satisfied rather than eliminated.
One day Augustine and his friend Alypius received a visit from a fellow African named Ponticianus. In the course of conversation Ponticianus casually picked up a book lying around and was surprised to find it contained the letters of St Paul. Augustine admitted that he was a keen student of Paul. Ponticianus then told them about Antony, the Egyptian monk, who had wandered into a church while the Gospel was being read:
‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’Matthew 19.21
Antony had taken these words of Jesus as a personal command to himself and proceeded to do exactly as instructed.
The story of Antony’s instant and unquestioning obedience to Jesus was like a punch in the solar plexus for Augustine. He was in turmoil. He was confronted with what he had become and the terrible state of his soul. When would he consent to be free of his sins? When would he stop saying “tomorrow” to God? He wept with bitter sorrow.
At that moment he heard the voice of a child in a house nearby repeating the words “Tolle, lege, tolle, lege” (“Take it and read it, take it and read it”). Was this chanting part of some child’s game? Not that he could remember…
Suddenly, recalling the example of Antony, he decided this must be a divine command to pick up the volume of St Paul, open it at random and read whatever his eye fell upon. He rushed back to where Alypius was sitting, grabbed the book, opened it and read these words:
… not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.Romans 13.13-14
He didn’t need to read any more. The effect of the words of Scripture was instantaneous. Immediately his soul was flooded with light: darkness and doubt were gone.