“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….”
I love this verse. I love the image of being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.
I assume the author has in mind the fuzzy white things in the sky. But today we have a new set of associations with the word “cloud.” The cloud is where computers store information. And the computer cloud is not a bad way in to our reading from Hebrews.
I am weak on the technical details. But in some mysterious way, we can store information in the cloud, we can access that information from virtually anywhere, and we can share that information as we choose.
The cloud of witnesses in Hebrews is the collection of all the saints and heroes of the Christian faith. The cloud of witnesses is the accumulated wisdom and inspiration that has been “uploaded” through the centuries. We can access all that wisdom and inspiration at any time and any place, and we can share it with each other. That is good news.
Hebrews lists a whole series of people who have become part of the cloud of witnesses available to us. And if you know very much about some of them, you know that the heroes of the faith were not in fact always heroic.
Samson is one of the best-known people mentioned in our reading. If you do not know his story, I commend it to you.
But the reason Samson is worth knowing may be surprising. It is because Samson was such a jerk. Samson was an Israelite hero. But Samson was also obsessed with Philistine women, he routinely violated the laws of God and misled others into doing the same, and he fought the Philistine oppressors not so much because of God’s call but because of his own wounded pride. The more closely you study Samson, the more of a jerk he seems.
And yet we can learn from Samson. We can learn from Samson’s struggles. Samson seemed to have wasted the incredible strength that was God’s gift to him. But at the end of his life, in the midst of his humiliation, Samson learned to pray. Samson died courageously. Ironically, Samson accomplished more in his death than in the rest of his life combined.
The Christian cloud, the Christian life, is not about being perfect. The Christian cloud helps us muddle along as best we can, helps us trust that God is with us, helps us learn a little something along the way, helps us slowly but surely live into our baptisms, helps us gradually become the people God calls us to be. If Samson can do it, so can we. We may not have Samson’s gifts. But at least we aren’t jerks! That is a perverse kind of encouragement.
Here is a second lesson from Hebrews. Not everything in the Christian cloud comes from the Bible. Hebrews draws heavily on the Bible, but it draws on other sources too. Hebrews can do that because God’s people have always “uploaded” material. God’s people continue to “upload” new material every day.
For many of us, the most important contributors to the Christian cloud are not the great saints. They are people in our lives, people who help us to love God and help us to love our neighbors.
When my brother and I were young, we often spent the night at my Grandmother’s house, and she would tell us Bible stories. The one I remember best was the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Mostly I liked the sound of their names. Who knew that my Grandmother was laying the foundation for a lifelong love of the Bible? Grandmother was not a perfect woman. But she is definitely part of my cloud of witnesses.
Every once in a while, we should pause to give thanks for the people who have contributed to our cloud and to reflect on what they have taught us.
But we cannot stop there.
In our opening prayer, we asked God to “give us grace to receive thankfully . . . and to follow daily.”
Hebrews is saying the same thing, just in more flowery language. “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, [for which we should give thanks, let us follow daily;] let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
The point of the Christian cloud is not to make us feel good, though that is a nice benefit. The point of the Christian cloud is to help us live as Christ would have us live, to love as Christ would have us love, to follow daily in Christ’s footsteps, to run our race with perseverance, always looking to Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
But the list of names in Hebrews also illustrates a problem with our Christian cloud. Most of us have limited access. We do not know enough. Some of the characters and stories mentioned in Hebrews are pretty familiar, but a lot of them are not. I know from teaching Old Testament to a bunch of Christian students in the heart of the Bible belt that many faithful Christians have trouble identifying people like Barak or Jephthah. It is like our processors cannot open some of the files stored on the Christian cloud, which defeats the whole purpose.
Thankfully, we can increase our access. We can learn more about Scripture and our tradition. Hopefully we have fun doing it. But the ultimate goal of Christian education is to increase our access to the Christian cloud, the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. If your access to the Christian cloud is not what you would like it to be, commit to increasing it.
Of course, we do not always need our Christian cloud. We do not much need it when things are going great. But it is precisely when things are going great that we should cultivate our access to the Christian cloud so that we will have good access when we do need it.
Then, when we are struggling, when times are tough, the Christian cloud can help us. Then we can draw inspiration from those who have gone before us. And that helps us keep going, keep following, keep running with perseverance, always looking to Jesus.
And here is the glorious promise. As we run our race, we are uploading our own material to the Christian cloud. We may not be saints. But our struggles, and our failures, and our occasional successes can inspire other people, can give other people hope, can help other people to keep going despite their problems.
We draw strength from others. And we lend strength to others. It is the Christian way.
And so I give thanks to God for the cloud of witnesses that has gone before us, the race that God sets before us, and the possibility of being a witness to others. And I pray that we can access the Christian cloud as we need it and that we can share the Christian cloud as others need it. I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.