“So Great a Cloud of Witnesses”
August 18, 2013, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
There is a distinct scent to older churches. Some combination of wax from years of flickering candlelit Christmas Eve services, hymns and Bibles that have been opened and closed by a great many people over a great many years. Even in Berean Hall, which was built only 18 years ago, there’s a feel of history: the meals that were served there, the community that has grown from that space. When I imagine the cloud of witnesses, this is what comes to mind: that very apparent lived-in feel of a church that has had a great many witnesses.
There’s a similar sort of feeling that I get from time to time around Jesup. This is a place that has respect for the traditions that have come before it in the past 153 years. People speak with pride of the sesquicentennial celebration just a few years ago. Many have followed in family footsteps to farm the same land or to work at John Deere as your parents had before you. Walking around Young Street you can feel the cloud of witnesses that have decided to live life together in Jesup over a great many years.
Many religious traditions have their own built in routine of showing respect for their foundations. I am reminded of Chinese culture portrayed in Disney’s Mulan and the relationship that she has with her ancestors, praying for them to intercede on her behalf. The Catholic faith lifts up people from throughout Christian tradition as Saints, praying for them to intercede on their behalf, one Saint encyclopedia website I saw even referred to Saints as “extended family in heaven.”
Though in Presbyterian tradition we do not pray to saints or ancestors to intercede on our behalf, we do affirm the “communion of saints.” This can be rather confusing. Though we call them “saints,” we are not referring to the Catholic canon of saints, but rather, the collection of everyone who has, is, and will be faithful to Jesus Christ. In this larger communion of saints we affirm a fellowship united through Christ. We see this greater fellowship with all Christians in our passage today, in the phrase, “cloud of witnesses.” Before the familiar, conclusive, mission focused part of this passage that beings with “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” we hear several rather troubling accounts of our faith ancestors over time.
It a quite gory twelve verses we hear of all the opposition these “witnesses” have encountered, including: war, drowning, lions, torture, and desert wanderings. We are told, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
Sort of strange thing to think of, “they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” The author of Heberws acknowledges the interconnectivity of the experiences of both the historic martyrs and those currently living out the faith. Not only is their witness important to our lives, and our understanding of how to run this race of faith, our experience is important to those who have come before us. Our experience gives purpose to the work and suffering of those who have come before us.
In our passage today we read: “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” This word that is most often translated as surrounded, perikaimennon in the Greek, also carries the meaning “bound.” This affirms that we are bound to those who share our faith in history, in the present, and in the future.
There’s this book I’ve read called, “Spiritual Care for Persons with Dementia.” I started reading this book primarily to be able to have a bit more insight in how to show specific care towards people with dementia. Though this book does have concrete practical examples of ideas on how to care for people with dementia, it also has many great theological statements on the temporal nature of health and how the Bible frames the worth of all people.
In one particular essay in this book, “To See Things as God Sees Them,” Stephen Sapp writes, “In contrast to the radically individualistic attitude espoused by contemporary American society, Christianity strongly affirms that human beings are more than merely autonomous beings who exist as separate atoms in discrete moments of time, able to do exactly as they please whenever they please…. God sees humans not as such radically disconnected individuals but as social-historical beings who are undeniably linked with others, living in community and changing over time in ways over which they do not always have control.”
In our baptismal vows we affirm our participation in a greater body of faith. This understanding of each other as Christian family binds us to one another. When we stop seeing one another as competition or a burden, and instead wield to the fluidity of our interconnectedness, we are able to more fully participate in the greater cloud of witnesses. This is affirmed in scripture by another familiar passage, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
The last couple of verses of this passage are particularly important, “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
When we look back at Hebrews 12:1 and read, “let us run with perseverance this race,” it can at first have the appearance of a competition. People running against each other to make sure that they are more faithful than others, or that they are a greater witness than others. But when we look at it in the Greek the word “race” is there, but it can also be translated as “gathering.” Though images of race bring about ideas of competition, bringing in the element of gathering shows this as more of a journey that we’re all taking together. We are not racing by ourselves.
This is one of the reasons I enjoy being a part of a denomination. While some say it is divisive to have denominational affiliations, I see it rather that our denominational group is the equivalent of a running group. These are people who take time out to be together with one another. They set goals together and work our plans of how they may go about achieving them. They support one another through injuries and work together in relays. Most importantly, they run alongside each other. This is how I see our denomination: people who have decided to stick things out together, and run this race alongside one another, surrounded by the larger and greater cloud of witnesses.
As a church family we are also a cloud of witnesses unto ourselves. We are tasked with living into our baptismal promises of uplifting one another, of bringing God close in this space and in our relationships. Who are the people in this church who have been that cloud of witnesses for you? Those who have supported you in a way that has allowed you to go forward in your faith journey OR those who are growing up in the church and giving you hope for the future of the church. Hebrews tells us that we need both those who come before and those who come after in order to fully be perfected in faith. May we acknowledge these “witnesses” in some way this week, whether a note or a prayer or a call, may we affirm those who run this race with us.
1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” This causes us to look to the greater body of faith. Who is it that needs help running this race? How can you strengthen them? Perhaps you could help with WOW or with Sunday School. Maybe God is calling you to be more intentional about reaching out to a friend or family member who has not yet formed a relationship with Christ.
We are called to a part of the great cloud of witnesses. We are called to run with one another, supporting one another in faith. God calls us to honor the cloud of witnesses from our past, support the cloud among us, and cultivate a future for the witnesses to come. It is my prayer that this week you may pay attention to who needs support and to find ways to run alongside them. Amen.