For this reason, as we are fully encircled by such a cloud of witnesses, having set down every weight and the easily entangling sin, we should run with endurance the course laying before us.
This week, I’m going to explore a bit more the theme I introduced last time. Last week, I focused more on what worship means across physical space and briefly mentioned the concept of worshiping across time as well. I’d like to press into that latter point.
Certainly, this seems to be part of what is at play in the Hebrews passage here as the author lays out the claim that we should run course given to us, presumably the course of our lives that God has called us to run, in large part because of the many saints who are now cheering us on now. Giving weight to that interpretation is fact that Hebrews 11 lists several of the members of that great cloud.
To be sure, these weren’t exceptionally faithful men and women, though we often think
them such. The witness to faithfulness that they are is not a witness to their own faithfulness, that would make little sense in context. Rather, they are witness to the
faithfulness of God. Jephthah, a man whose most well known act is to make a vow in the midst of faithlessness, and Abraham, a man known for lying about his wife twice, for not believing God would start a nation through him and was considered righteous for believing God once, are not men known because of their great faith. Instead it is because God was faithful to them. They are witnesses to the faithfulness of God.
In the same way, you are part of that cloud. When the Author of Hebrews describes the cheering crowd of this cloud of witnesses, you, the believer, are simultaneously the athlete for whom they are cheering, and also part of that crowd. The language of cloud encircling you is very specific. It is not just a stadium around you, it is one into which you are fully enveloped. You are in the very presence of these people and they are in yours. While we are presently unable to be present incarnationally with the saints of our local community, for when God justifies you by faith you are made a saint, we are nevertheless spiritually, present with the saints throughout the ages.
Language to our Prayers
Not infrequently, I will pick up the Book of Common Prayer. To be sure, I come from a non-liturgical tradition (Baptist). While I did attend an Anglican Church during our time in England, it was what might be termed “low church.” So the book of common prayer wasn’t absent, but it wasn’t something you needed to read from every service. My affection for the old Anglican prayer book goes back much further than this anyway.
The book of Common Prayer was originally the work of Thomas Cranmer in the Sixteenth Century, however it was, in many ways, a collaborative effort. Over the years the book has been slightly adapted and modified, the language has been updated, but its core has remained largely unchanged. The book has been used for almost 500 years among English speaking saints.
I went to an interdenominational divinity school. The faculty member with whom I became closest was the Revd Dr Wilton Bunch, who was also an Anglican Priest. I had started attending, in addition to my Baptist Church services, some Anglican early morning prayer services at a fairly high church Episcopal Church in College. During my time at divinity school, I continued the practice by attending the midday Anglican service.
One day, while talking to Dr Bunch about Anglican traditions and the book of common prayer. I commented on the beauty of its language. I asked him what he liked most about it. He looked at me and said “The most wonderful thing about it, I think, is that it gives a language to your prayers when words fail you. When you are too full of sorrow or too full of joy, we can reach for the book and find a language, one that has been spoken by many before us, to help us express our inner most feelings to God.” This has stuck with me over the years.
We read the book of Psalms in much the same way. It’s easy to think of the Psalms as a hymnal of sorts, indeed some Psalms likely were sung. But it’s interesting that there are more Psalms of lament and imprecation (asking for God to bring calamity upon enemies) than there are of praise and thanksgiving. At their root, the Psalms are prayers of Ancient Saints. This does not exclude them from being songs as well, but when we read them as giving us a language to our inner hearts, they come alive in new ways.
This past Sunday the church I attend (virtually for now) began with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, some version of which has been recited in churches since at least the second century. We concluded, as we do every week, with the Doxology (also known as the Old 100), finding a different way to join with the saints in a song sung for three hundred years (first sung in 1709). Perhaps your church finds other ways to connect with host of Saints from decades, centuries or millennia past.
Regardless, as you get up and go about your day, perhaps not straying from the house even once today, as you pray or read, or even think about God, in a very real and very important sense, you do not do so alone. You are encompassed and enveloped in a great cloud of witnesses. You too, bear witness to faithfulness of God, as Christ was faithful to you, not only unto death but beyond it to new life. So praise God with all the saints.