Anne Atkins, Novelist, Columnist and Broadcaster, May 25th 2014 – Job 19:6 – 27. Acts 8:26 – 39
Worcester Chapel Oxford, Evensong. Sunday 25th May 2014
Job 19:6 – 27. Acts 8:26 – 39
“I wish I had your faith,” my husband Shaun was told yesterday, by a colleague
whose mother is dying. “But you can’t make yourself believe, can you?”
I wonder. I’ve often heard friends say they’d love to have faith. And if Christianity
is true, faith is infinitely more precious than wealth, health, happiness or any other
gift we might long for. So is it true that it really is only for the few, the elect, and
there’s nothing we can do about it? Or is faith available for anyone who wants it?
And if so, how?
There are so many examples of doubting disciples in the Bible that I found it hard
to choose our New Testament reading: most of Jesus’ followers at some point
struggled to believe. In the end I asked for the story of the Ethiopian ruler because
he goes from uncertainty to faith in five clear and simple steps. If he can, why not
the rest of us?
First, he does his research: we initially encounter him studying the scriptures. Contrary
to New Atheist propaganda, faith is not a blind leap of superstition, a matter
of shutting your eyes, jumping off a cliff and hoping for the best. It’s based on evidence,
as science is, as any decision is. So the obvious place to start is by weighing
that evidence. And by far the fullest, most detailed and most reliable history of the
life of Jesus of Nazareth is found in the Gospels. Ask any expert in ancient documents:
the four Gospels are far better verified, many times over, than any other
writings from the ancient world; and much more objective, for instance, than anything
we have on the life and achievements of Julius Caesar.
Mark is the shortest: you could read it in one sitting. Matthew is similarly accessible;
Luke too, with slightly more emphasis on the women in Jesus’ life. John is
finely laced with commentary.
You may feel you want more guidance. What’s the second step the Ethiopian takes?
Next he finds a teacher. “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?”
He was fortunate: he came across someone who could. So are you. You have your
College Chapel, and your Chaplain; you have the University Christian Union; you
have a choice of good churches. If you want to know what Jesus’ taught and why, I
suggest you find a place of worship where Christianity is clearly explained. Attend
regularly for, say, as long as you set aside to study your degree? After a couple of
years or so you should have a fair idea of what Christianity is about, why Christians
believe and what difference it makes to them.
Thirdly, the Ethiopian asks questions. Always a good way to find out more. Test the
evidence. Challenge the thesis. Request more information.
Consider someone who has gone down in history for his scepticism, Jesus’ disciple
known as Doubting Thomas. The name Thomas means twin. I wonder what his
brother was called? Perhaps their parents couldn’t tell them apart, and called them
both Thomas. “Thomas, come here! Yes, Thomas, I mean both of you.” Twins are
used to mistaken identity. How often had Thomas been blamed for breaking his sister’s
toys, filching his father’s supper, flirting with a girl when he was miles away?
Overnight, the leader that Thomas had followed for years was executed and discredited.
Like all the disciples, he was plunged into doubt. Then his friends told
him some cock and bull story about their leader returning, alive, when Thomas
didn’t happen to be there. What would your reaction be? Especially if you were a
twin. Exactly. He insisted on evidence.
The critical thing about Thomas is that when he saw the evidence, he accepted it
instantly, and also acknowledged its implications. “My Lord and my God.” People
often say they won’t believe until they have evidence. Quite right too. But then
when they have the evidence, they sometimes capitulate and say it wasn’t the evidence
As Jesus pointed out to Thomas, most of us can’t have first hand evidence because
we’re not living at a time when first hand evidence is available. Do you believe in
the Holocaust? Of course you do. Why? Because there is good, reliable and credible
witness from the people who were alive at the time. And yet there are people who
deny it, so belief is not inevitable.
Almost all the decisions we make in life are based, not on absolute certainty, but on
reasonable probability. Shaun and I came here this evening by car: it was by no
means sure our car would get us here. I married Shaun because he told me he loved
me: was it guaranteed that he would go on doing so? When you leave here you’ll
make decisions about your future: will they be based on certainties?
Like any decision, faith requires evidence: but not inevitability. I can’t be sure Jesus
Christ is who He claimed to be. I can conclude that it is a reasonable deduction
from the facts. I believe, the most reasonable.
Fourthly, the Ethiopian took action: he asked to be baptised; he made a statement of
faith. Consider another doubting disciple, the father who brought his epileptic son
to Jesus. The boy’s fits threatened his life, often throwing him near fire or water.
“If you can,” the father said, “take pity on him and help us.”
“If you can?” Jesus echoed. “Everything is possible, if you believe.”
“Oh, I believe!” the desperate father responded. “Please, help my unbelief.”
Clearly he had doubts. But he was so keenly desirous to help his son that he put
them on one side and acted anyway. Faith is as much to do with behaviour as belief.
Behave as if you believe and belief usually follows.
Could you be sure that an unmanned rowing boat in an Arctic sea at midnight is
completely safe? Of course you couldn’t. But if you were going down on the Titanic
you’d get in it anyway. You’d be saved, not by any feeling of certainty, by but the
action you took.
The Ethiopian can’t have been sure about everything, still had questions, there was
lots he didn’t know. But he decided to give it a go anyway.
Finally, he rejoiced. He was happy with his decision and he let everyone know it.
If you want faith, I suggest you do what he did. Read the Bible. Find someone to
teach you. Ask questions. Make a commitment. Finally, celebrate!
And what do you do when doubts come again, as they almost certainly will?
I take great comfort from Job’s reaction in our Old Testament reading. The story of
Job is one full of uncertainty, agonising doubt and theological dilemma. Everything
goes wrong for him: he loses his vast wealth, all his children and finally his health.
Life could hardly get worse. His friends tell him it must be his fault. He can’t have
felt sure of anything, least of all the love of God.
But his statement of faith of nearly two and a half thousand years ago is perhaps
the most rousing in the Bible. He didn’t feel it, but he said it anyway. I know that
my Redeemer lives, that one day He will walk upon the earth and that after worms
destroy my body, in my own flesh I will see God.
Some years ago we were going through a very difficult time, here in Oxfordshire.
We lost our home, our health, our children’s prospects. Worse, it was the church
that was doing it to us. When you get that low, you don’t necessarily lose faith
because something convinces you it isn’t true. You lose faith because you haven’t
the heart to go on. Have you noticed that marriages often break in the face of tragedy,
I believe because couples just haven’t the energy any more.
One day, near despair, I said to Shaun, “What’s the point? God doesn’t answer
prayer. Christians behave worse than anyone. Why should we go on believing?”
“Look at the character of Jesus,” he replied. “Who else do you think He could be?”
I thought back to a vivid illustration in the Bible I’d had since childhood, of the
Good Shepherd gently carrying a lamb over His shoulders. I’d never felt less like it.
But I decided to keep going anyway.
Who else do you think he could be?