The With-God Life: Jesus’ Cloud of Witnesses

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also 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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. (Heb 12:1-3)

It felt a bit like cheating to choose another epistle for this morning’s lectionary reading. I’ve probably read Hebrews 11-12 as often as any other part of Scripture since coming to Bethel to teach history. Virtually every semester I’ve taught in our Christianity and Western Culture (CWC) program, for example, the course has opened with one of us leading a devotional reflection on these verses. A few days before social distancing ended such visits, I read the same passage to a retired CWC professor who is in hospice care.

So I hesitated to pick Hebrews 12:1-3 for this series, thinking I should go with something more likely to inspire new insights into life with God.

But newness can be its own idol. So I was glad this morning to reminded that I’ll never grow tired of hearing the message that history — that documented in the Bible, but also (we argue in CWC) as it has continued in the millennia since the closing of the canon — surrounds us all with “a great cloud of witnesses”: women and men like those listed in Hebrews 11 who “were commended for their faith” (v 39). Whether we encounter these witnesses through academic study of church history, or through our memory of those who love and disciple us directly, the cloud grows and grows, helping us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us….”

The benefits of this way of thinking about the past are summed up well in today’s commentary in the Renovaré Bible, from James R. Edwards:

Spiritual formation is participation in a relay race of faith, receiving the baton from those who have gone before and handing it off to those who come after. The Church is thus not only united throughout space; it is also united throughout time.

I was especially glad that he adds that the relay continues after us. (By the way, Edwards added to my own “cloud of witnesses” by writing a biography of the courageous German theologian Ernst Lohmeyer, which I had the pleasure of reviewing last year.) As we tell our students, a course like CWC exists not only to expand their cloud of witnesses, but to prepare them to bear witness to others.

Because I’m starting to feel so isolated from my students and colleagues in that course, I was grateful to have such familiar thoughts bubble up so quickly this morning. But then something new did, indeed, come to mind. For this time I wasn’t reading Hebrews 12 at the start of a fall or spring semester, but in the middle of Holy Week.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Flagellation of Jesus” (1665) – Vanderbilt Divinity Library

In teaching CWC and other Bethel courses that appeal to the “cloud of witnesses,” we always take care to emphasize that those women and men of faith were as flawed as any other humans; as much as he admires their faith, the author of the epistle underscores that Abraham, Moses, and the rest of his cloud “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:39-40).

We study such stories, we tell students, not simply for their own sake, but because they do bear witness to Christ. They help us focus our attention on “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

And so this morning I tried to make Jesus the focal point of my reading. With Good Friday only two days away, I tried to envision Jesus as he “endured the cross, disregarding its shame….”

And as I looked with my mind’s eye at the crucifixion, I heard voices.

Not the voices of Christian collective memory encouraging me onwards, as if they were filling a stadium and I were running in the Olympics.

I heard the voices that Jesus heard on Golgotha, a much darker cloud of witnesses.

I imagined the sounds of taunts and mockery, the ridicule of those delighted to have their doubts proven right, mixing with the agonized cries from Jesus’ mother and others who loved him. I heard the voices in his memory of people he came to give eternal life screaming for his death, of soldiers mocking him, of a disciple betraying him and another denying him. I heard Jesus “enduring such hostility against himself from sinners,” and I heard the silent sound of the Father who had named Jesus as his beloved Son, not speaking a word.

“My God, my God,” he cried out, “why have you forsaken me?” Yet that very cry indicates that God’s voice was in his ears, helping him to run the race set before him.

I can’t imagine what the community of the Trinity sounded like in the midst of crucifixion, but a rabbi who could call to mind Psalm 22 as he gasped for breath surely heard other words from the scriptures he knew so well: words of lament and encouragement; the challenge and reassurance of law and prophecy and history; reminders of God’s love and peace revealed in his relationship with people of faith who endured torture and execution, yet somehow “won strength out of weakness” (Heb 11:34).

May similar words come to us these coming days as we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

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