IN JESUS’s time, the city of Rome was a marvel simply by virtue of its size (about one million inhabitants, living in a densely populated fortified settlement). Most people at that time lived and worked on the land, in small communities. Now, in the developed West, a far greater proportion of people live — or at least work — in cities, and, for them, the countryside is more a place for holiday and recreation.
The city of Jerusalem was set on a hill, and fortified, to protect those who lived there from attack. And she was a holy city; for all her faults, she was not a Babylon, or a Rome — a sink of iniquity, crime, and pollution (Revelation 18.10). She was worth defending; and she was protected by a divine promise, even though most of the people living there found it easy to neglect that fact.
The scene for the Old Testament reading is a fortified boundary of Jerusalem. The writer is on the lookout for an enemy attack when he records his famous teaching, “the righteous shall live by their faith.”
Apart from this statement, and a memorable musical setting by Charles Stanford (“For lo, I raise up”), Habakkuk is an obscure prophet whose entire output amounts to less than one standard undergraduate essay. Yet that half-verse became a key component of Paul’s theology. In course of time, Martin Luther identified it — in (arguably) an act of eisegesis — as his central doctrine: justification “by faith alone”.
Habakkuk’s prophetic witness is directed first at nations rather than individuals. It must be recorded accurately; for it comes from God. Scripture is emphatic about the importance of honesty in witnesses: the ninth commandment (Exodus 20.16) is only the most famous among many examples. Deceit is corrosive, and ultimately dangerous in both private and public life. If witnesses lie, or fail to speak out when they should, the guilty go unpunished, and the innocent suffer.
Declaring a vision is risky, though, because it can drive policy and change the future. If the people are misled by false witnesses, disaster will surely result (1 Kings 22). Habakkuk’s message is positive: those who hurry to respond to the vision will make it a reality. But there is a warning too, for the proud.
Habakkuk’s “appointed time” tells us that human life is not only lived in the moment: it has a past — and God promises a future, too. His idea of reliability and trustworthiness develops into a way of approaching God which is founded on the belief that he who calls us is faithful (1 Thessalonians 5.24).
That divine vision for an actual city takes a fresh direction in Paul, who imagines a metaphysical structure built on a foundation of faithful people who are bonded together by the keystone, Truth: Jesus Christ himself. Paul’s building is living and growing. It becomes a “holy temple”, composed not of stones, but of Christians, who are the dwelling place of God. This visionary building is a glimpse of one of those unseen realities to which the apostle bears witness.
So, we come to Thomas. The change of date from a December commemoration (BCP) to one in early July (CW) means that most clergy are ordained, and celebrate the eucharist for the first time, on or about the feast of “Doubting” Thomas.
That is timely reassurance for ministers that, even if they endure times of struggle with the fundamentals of faith, this will not make them unacceptable to Christ. Those who are called to ministry have Thomas to inspire them. He wanted good reasons to believe; he got them. He recognised the Lord, and died witnessing to faith in him.
Unlike ordinations, confirmation services happen throughout the year. With confirmation comes participation in eucharistic fellowship. I encourage new communicants to find, from scripture or liturgy, words to pray as they wait to receive the body and blood — words that speak richly to them. One of the options that I have long commended is a traditional choice — the words of Thomas — for the moment of receiving holy communion: “My Lord and my God.”
A commentator has called these words “the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel”; for they reveal for the first time that one can apply the same title to Christ as to God. Not a bad epitaph for the apostle whom even Christians have long stigmatised with a belittling epithet.