Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. —Hebrews 12:1-2
The book of Hebrews is written for Jewish Christians who are being persecuted and under pressure to give up their faith in Jesus. In this passage, perhaps the most recognizable of the book, the author encourages the people by referring to this Great Cloud of Witnesses. The image of a cloud was often used for crowds or throngs of people. The word witness refers to those who see and confess something, but in Greek it the word from which we get the word Martyr. The early witnesses died for their faith.
The author of Hebrews is saying that because we are surrounded by these great heroes of the faith we can find strength to lay aside the things that hold us back and have endurance in following God’s will. We do not worship these saints. The text clearly states that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” And they are not present with us as ghosts. They are, however, present with us by their example and because we are standing in the church and in the tradition that they built. Part of them is with us because of what they poured into our faith
I started to think about this differently in my recent visit to England. I visited a number of churches there and was astonished by the presence of the Christians who had gone on to glory. Many Christians were buried in the actual floor of the sanctuaries. Some were memorialized with statues and with plaques on the wall. You had to pass by graves to get into most of the churches. Everywhere you turned there was a reminder of those who had gone on before being there with you.
We Protestants don’t do that kind of thing. Admittedly, there can be problems with this kind of approach. In some of the chapels I saw in England it was not altogether clear who was being worship—God or these graves. But I also wonder– is there a strength that can be found if we, like Hebrews suggests, remember this great cloud of witnesses?
So I decided to represent this in my own congregation. On June 28 in worship we created a Cloud of Witnesses. It is a wooden cloud on which we are writing names of people that have died who have poured into our faith. It might be parents, grandparents, a child, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, or a person from your church that mentored us in the faith. Many of my own mentors have not joined the cloud yet because they are still alive, but I have been influenced by writing and stories of great figures like CS Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. Maybe there is a particular Bible character or historical figure that has inspired our faith. It might even be a person like a camp counselor who we don’t remember their name but they had an impact on our faith.
Over the next few weeks the cloud will be available for more names to be added. It will eventually be displayed as a reminder of those who have gone on before us. My prayer is that it will inspire us to live our faith with endurance.
Do you think the protestant church has missed something? What are the dangers of talking to much about those who have gone before? What other ways might we represent this cloud of witnesses?