Week 4: “A Great Crowd”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Wednesday, 13 March 2013; texts: Hebrews 11:1-3; 12:1-2, 12-13; John 17:1a, 6-19
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Last weekend a number of people from Mount Olive were privileged to worship at Great Vespers at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in St. Paul, where our administrator Cha Posz is a member. Some of us arrived an hour early and were able to witness a baptism as well. It was a beautiful evening and the hospitality and welcome of the people of Holy Trinity was gracious and warm.
As in most Orthodox places of worship, the walls and ceiling of the nave and chancel were covered in icons, and the icons at Holy Trinity were almost overwhelmingly beautiful. We spent a little time after Vespers with Fr. Jonathan as he gave an introductory talk about them. The place of the icon in Orthodox liturgy is a topic which requires far more time than we have here today. But I wanted to share one impression that I had throughout the evening, as a Western Christian worshipping for the first time in a place where these faces surrounded us all, faces mostly of Biblical figures, but also some of more recent years. At more than one point in the Vespers, I looked around and was deeply moved by the sense that I was experiencing a little of what the author of Hebrews was describing, that I was “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” These people of faith whose faces, and in some cases, whose words, were before and behind and beside, surrounded our prayer and our song, even encouraged and strengthened our prayer and our song. It was an experience of the holy that I’ll not soon let go.
This might be the best part of this sermon to the Hebrews, the part we’re considering today, the claim by this ancient preacher that we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us as we journey through our lives. One almost gets the image of a great stadium with this author’s language of running “with perseverance the race that is set before us.” It’s as when in the Olympics, the marathon runners run their course with crowds encouraging them from the side of the road all along the way, and then at the end the runners arrive in Olympic stadium to a massive roar from the rest of the spectators who are gathered to cheer the finish. It’s thrilling beyond description to think of our lives as so surrounded, so supported, so encouraged along our road, and to consider the greeting we will find at the finish of our own race. And as we experience that pilgrimage of our lives, at whatever place we now find ourselves, it’s tremendously comforting and a great gift from this author to us.
There are several ways in which this great cloud, or perhaps we could say, great crowd of witnesses are God’s gift of grace to us on our journey.
The first is the witness of faith that those who have gone before us offer us.
The preacher to the Hebrews makes this point movingly in chapter 11, after the opening verses we heard just now. After introducing the topic of faith, Hebrews moves to a great litany of people of faith who are for us models of faith and trust in God’s goodness.
Abel, Enoch, Noah. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. Moses, the people of Israel at the Red Sea, Rahab. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah. David, Samuel, all the prophets. All these people, like those in the icons at Holy Trinity, are offered to us as witnesses of what it is to live in faith.
“Faith,” Hebrews says, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s a little hard to hold some days.
And these witnesses that Hebrews offers us, along with a list we would also add from the New Testament, were we to write this chapter, people like Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, Mary and Martha, Stephen, Paul, these witnesses are our encouragement. Because they are like us and yet lived in faith, we can learn from them and be encouraged and strengthened by their witness and experience.
And we have beyond these biblical witnesses those whom we call saints, some known to us and others known to the world, who are also such models and witnesses.
As I understand it from Cha, in the Orthodox church only those who have formally been called saints are referred to with that term. In the West, we use it more freely to include both those officially recognized by the Church and those whose lives are lived in Christ, even to we ourselves as baptized children of God.
But that means that we in effect each make our own list of witnesses who have helped us. Some are those shared by many, people like Francis, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, Julian of Norwich, countless saints whose lives have been and continue to be witnesses to us of what it is to live in faith. The Church has an abundance of blessing in the sheer numbers of such witnesses.
But then we all have our more quiet list of those saints who have modeled the faith to us in our lives or to our families, those whom perhaps few others know but without whom we would not believe as we do, would not be able to journey as we do.
And this is the great crowd which shows us a life of faith in the wilderness, which helps us see a path, helps us understand our own faltering steps.
But this preacher doesn’t limit the crowd to those who have witnessed in the past. There is also confidence that we all are companions to each other on this journey, in profoundly important ways.
The gift of the community of faith that Jesus gives is that we do not journey through this wilderness of life alone.
As some of you know, I’ve been in a spiritual direction group with three other pastors and a spiritual director for 14 years. It’s been a tremendous gift of companionship having these four people on my journey of faith and in my ministry. And that has been the metaphor that has best described the experience: these are companions who walk on the same path as I, and they are looking ahead with me. They help me see potholes, catch my arm when I stumble, and help me as I reach a crossroads to discern which path seems best.
This is what Hebrews says we all are for each other. We are given the gift of community in Christ, and this is no small gift. As companions in our journey together, we surround and care for each other and look to the needs and concerns of each other, we “lift drooping hands,” as the writer says, “strengthen weak knees, make straight paths for the feet”. This is Jesus’ gift of the Body that he creates, that others help us as we walk the path of our lives, help us navigate the tricky parts, even help smooth out the rough parts, as Hebrews says. Knowing that we do not walk alone, but are strengthened by our fellow travelers sustains and refreshes us again and again for the journey.
But if you look at these words, this is not only comfort, but exhortation, that we take seriously our role as companions of others on the journey. Hebrews exhorts us all to be this to each other, not simply to bask in receiving it from others.
And at our best, as a community of faith, we both receive and give help on our pilgrimage, because we do it together. And that companionship is also simply the comfort of having fellow travelers, who share our stories, pass the time, laugh with us and cry with us, who make our journey lighter by being with us and we with them.
There is one more element we’ve not considered about this “crowd” of witnesses, and that is the word “cloud” that Hebrews uses.
When the writer says we are surrounded by so great a “cloud” of witnesses, we are given an image which suggests the very real presence of those who have gone before us, the hosts of heaven. This is not simply the role we’ve already considered, that these are past witnesses of faith, either in our lives or the history of the Church and before, the people of Israel. This is something much more.
There is in Hebrews, and subsequently in the theology of the Church these past 2,000 years, a pervasive sense that those who have gone before us are even now surrounding us and encouraging us. This is the role of saints as those who cheer on the sidelines at a marathon. They who have gone before us and who are at the throne of God now surround and cheer us on in our race, our journey.
There is much we don’t know about what it is like to have died and still have the world awaiting Jesus’ return and the full restoration of the kingdom. There are some who pick up on hints in Paul that we simply all sleep, and all are raised at the last day. That may well be.
But there are also these hints, which the Church has deeply rooted into its theology and powerfully in its hymnody, that those who have died and gone before us are not asleep but actively worshipping at the throne of God even now, and as Hebrews suggests, surrounding us.
Hymn after hymn speak of the saints who worship God and who are joining us in prayer and praise. Our Eucharistic prayers frequently invite those who have gone before us to join in our prayer and thanksgiving. And frankly, many of us have experienced a sense of this presence, this surrounding cloud, as comfort and hope in our journey of life.
Therefore, Hebrews says, let us run with perseverance this race set before us.
With such witnesses past and present, models and encouragers, cheerers-on, we now take our turn in the journey, and focus ourselves on our pioneer, the perfecter of our faith, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose death and resurrection we also hope and find life. He is the One who, as we hear in his prayer in John, specifically asked the Father to support us as a community, that we might be together even when he is gone. He is the One who asks this of the Father in order that we, his community, might have his joy completed in ourselves.
This is the joy which sustains us in our race, our pilgrimage, our journey. We are not alone, with Christ ahead of us and all the witnesses around us, and so we move forward with hope and confidence toward the life God is even now making in us all. And best of all, toward that life which we will only know fully when we finally arrive at the stadium and finish our race to the cheers of those who have already finished and are celebrating our arrival.
In the name of Jesus. Amen