This week’s readings are all about faith, and how to keep it alive. I guess once we have been baptised, or as young adults received confirmation, things can often seem a bit dull unless of course you happen to be a Pakistani or Syrian Christian. Yet the simple fragility of human life remains an issue for all of us as we, or friends and family, are faced with sudden serious illness or death, loss of livelihood and all the things we depend upon to make life comfortable and liveable and yet continue to witness to Jesus.
Our Old Testament reading from Habakkuk, (1:2-3; 2:2-4), and our reading from 2 Timothy, (1:6-8, 13-14), reflect these great uncertainties and were both written in times of crisis to sustain believers in the faith. Their aim was to encourage believers to understand the relevance of their faith in times of stress. You may find this rather hard to believe, for both readings have been so mangled by the compilers of our lectionary as to obscure this. Habakkuk was written in the late 7th century BC when the Babylonians were becoming very powerful and threatening the people of Israel and is a portion of the prophet’s vision of the reason for the national collapse in which he advocates faith in the God of Israel as the solution to their difficulties. The message is about listening to God and following his ways and not one’s own.
The crisis was imminent and real, for we know that in 587 Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the people were sent off into exile. The story of how they kept their Jewish faith alive throughout that period would be the story of their learning to adapt and develop their beliefs without the temple, and their growing development of the Jewish law and practice. Because they could adapt to the change in circumstances the faith survived.
Paul’s letters to Timothy was written during Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome and is full of the apostle’s urgency and concern for a fledgling Christian church, probably based in Ephesus where Timothy was its bishop. Paul was deeply concerned that circumstances, including the rich and powerful pagan cults of the city, and also news of his impending death, might frighten believers into reneging on their faith. We have to remember that at this time Christian communities probably only numbered 30 or so in each city; statistically insignificant and therefore easily subdued by their pagan neighbours. He writes therefore ‘to his beloved son,’ Timothy, to address the need for his diligence at this critical period in the life of the infant Christian community, deeply aware that the whole enterprise could go down the pan if the Ephesian church failed; in short, that his entire life’s work could be in jeopardy.
I wonder if any of us have this sense of the significance of our contribution to the Church. Perhaps we just think we are insignificant and that others, more important will ensure its survival. Paul’s second letter to Timothy insists that this is not the case. The work of each individual believer is of vital importance to the life of the Church, and we can never afford to think either that our own contribution or that of others does not matter, however little they seem to be. The witness of those previously unknown 80 Pakistani Christians martyred for their faith in Peshawar last month illustrates this very aptly; for no doubt they did not think of themselves as very significant when measured against the story of the Christian faith over the centuries and yet, suddenly, they have become beacons for the rest of us.
Our gospel from Luke, (17:5-10), makes this point. We have faith already; it isn’t a matter of somehow accumulating more so that we can then ‘do’ something in the future. Our role or ‘duty’, as the gospel puts it, is simply to be what we are already called to be through our baptism; there is not going to be a moment when we are better fitted to proclaim the Good News because of some great effort we have made; we quite simply do it with our lives as Christians. Sure, as any devout Catholic knows, we need to nourish the life of faith by prayer; devotions; a life well lived; and this should include study of the scriptures; but these will all be ways in which we ‘fan into flame’ the graces already received by our baptism. Our role as servants or rather, as ‘slaves’ of the Good News lies precisely in our persevering day by day, month by month, year by year with our faith. At any moment you or I may make that decisive act for Christ, in some ways quite unconsciously, that marks us as His, and shapes the entirety of our lives.