The great cloud of witnesses

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight.. and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.. ‘ Hebrews 12: 1

This is one of those great inspiring passages from the Bible that I’d like to commit to memory, just in case.. These are such words of encouragement, words to cheer us all on in the journey of life. We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..

When you are reading the letters part of the New Testament, it’s easy to get carried away thinking its all about those images from the law courts. Are we ‘justified’ by faith? Are we condemned or free? Whose testimony will be heard? But when we think about the great cloud of witnesses, these are not witnesses of the legal sort at all. This is an image from somewhere else completely. It’s the language of the Greek and Roman games. And indeed it’s not very far from the games we are watching now.

You have to imagine yourself, if you can, at the very end of a long run, perhaps even a marathon. At the very last stage of the race you’ve entered the arena. Every muscle is burning with pain, but you press on for the final lap to the finishing line. The crowd cheer and leap to their feet to urge you on. Among them are all those who have trained you and encouraged you, all those who inspired you, who have loved you through countless disappointments and failures, been beside you in all those early mornings and celebrated with you in all the small triumphs. Some of your friends got tickets too and have travelled miles to support you. You can hear the voices of your nearest and dearest and the familiar strains of a song you know well. But above all there is the cheering and clapping and shouting. And you hardly notice the pain now. You keep going. You have so great a cloud of witnesses. With their encouragement you could run a second lap. The wind is beneath your feet and you run..

I realise that for many of us here to think of ourselves running a race takes a large amount of imagination. But I think that even if you can now barely walk you can remember or imagine what it might have been like and what it would mean to have so great cloud of witnesses. The witnesses are the spectators in the arena and they are loving you on. The writer to the Hebrews wants us to know that this is how our forebears in the faith are for us, and what kind of impact the saints and heroes of our faith have on our lives. They are not perfected souls who sneer at how feeble in faith we are by comparison. They are simply struggling and persevering runners like us who are cheering us on.

Sometimes you know I hear the stories of the great people of the faith; the Bible heroes, but also others since like Bonhoeffer or Theresa, Romero or Francis or Gladys Aylward – and frankly I just feel like giving up because I could never be like them. What are my feeble efforts at faith or self-giving compared to their’s? How could I ever imagine I could walk in their shoes? But this passage from the letter to the Hebrews says that that’s not the right way to think of it at all. The great cloud of witnesses are not sitting smugly satisfied, they are cheering me, and you, on. They want us, as God does, to join the real race of life and they want us to be the best that we can be. They’ve come to cheer us on – so the least we can do is run! I find that liberating – to imagine that I am surrounded by the living and by the dead – somehow part of a great tradition and company – and that all of it and all of them are willing me on.

I worshipped not so long ago in an Orthodox church where every bit of the wall was painted and covered with pictures of the saints – from ceiling to floor. I’ve assumed that the idea is that I look at them, admire them and perhaps try as I can to learn from them. But this letter suggests that it’s they, in a way, who are looking at me, and looking at me with encouragement and blessing. ‘Go on’ they are saying, ‘You can do it!’. “Keep going’, ‘Carry on with the race that we were once running where you are now..’.

And I realise, as I look back, over my life, that I have had many who have cheered me on, and some I didn’t even notice at the time. To think of the heroes of the faith, with all their mixed up stories and adventures, cheering me and you on now, like a great cloud of witnesses, seems to me incredibly moving and sustaining. On days when faith feels like hard work or when I might be tempted to step out of the race and sit on the side lines, I need a great crowd of witnesses to keep me buoyant and undeterred. When I feel as though I’m not doing very well, it’s good to know there are those who will and do encourage me. We all need that. We all need each other.

Of course the wisest of the witnesses have also know that the race we are running is not the usual kind of race, with the usual kind of end. It is the race that Jesus marked out and that Jesus ran, a race that led to the cross. Roman triumphs in the arena, like Roman victories in the field of battle, were marked by a triumphal procession, with a laurel wreath held above the victor’s head and the crowds cheering, waving branches and throwing petals. But we know that the victory of Jesus is seen in the cross – in the very form that the Romans thought shameful, degrading, not a victory at all, but the ultimate defeat.

Christ’s victory and his finishing line was the cross. For the Romans, a triumphal parade would sometimes begin with miles of crosses lining the route, a great road of suffering going into Rome. But what God does in Christ is to make the cross itself the sign of victory, the suffering God the sign of triumph over all that threatens, diminishes and degrades us. What God has done in Christ is a more decisive and final victory than Caesar Augustus or any Roman Emperor, ever had, a victory won by a magnificent defeat, a victory displayed ironically and powerfully by a cross, and a victory completely unlike those we strive for ourselves. God has done it. And it is this kind of victory to which we are called and to which we are being cheered, as many of our forebears testify. Christ’s self-offering on the cross both began and perfected the kind of race we are running and to which we are summoned.

One of the great heroes of anyone from the Congregational tradition has to be Eric Liddell. Part of his story was of course famously told in the film Chariots of Fire. He refused to run on the sabbath. So missed the heats for the 100 metres, but he ran in the 400 metres and won. But his true greatness was revealed later in his life, when he died in a prisoner of war camp in China. One witness said afterwards,

“The entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days, so great was the vacuum that Eric’s death had left.” According to a fellow missionary, Liddell’s last words were, “It’s complete surrender”, in reference to how he had given his life to God.” Eric Liddell, I believe, is now cheering us on in the faith.

One more story. Perhaps you have heard of Eric Moussembani – who swam in the Olympics in the year 2000. He was there because of a programme to help people from developing countries who didn’t have proper training facilities. Before coming to the Olympics he had never seen an Olympic size swimming pool – and he practiced in a lake and then a 12 metre hotel pool in Equatorial Guinea. Because the other two swimmers in his heat made false starts and were disqualified, he won the heat unopposed.  He later said,

‘I remember that when I was swimming, I could hear the crowd, and that gave me the strength to continue and complete the race.’

There was a great crowd of witnesses.

You may feel that you are a long way back in the Christian life. You may feel that you have made many false starts. You may feel tired after many years on the way. But know that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on in the life you have chosen, that it is God’s grace that will mark your steps and the Holy Spirit that will give you breath. Whatever assails us and wherever we go, the saints of our faith, the mentors we have known and the people who have encouraged us in the faith, are with us still at every step. Listen hard, as you pray, for the sound of cheering – a great cloud of witnesses has turned out for you.