Hebrews 12:1… “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...”
A great cloud of witnesses surrounds us, says this anonymous apostle. And who are these witnesses, this vast cloud of people who surround us on every side?
Who surrounds us when we’re driving 72 m.p.h. on Interstate 75 south through Tennessee? We barely notice one another whizzing by unless somebody cuts us off or is right on our tail trying to get us to move over. Unless we’re coming down the south side of Lookout Mountain on a winding road when suddenly we see red break lights all the way to the bottom. We quickly come to a stop and wait 15 minutes thinking it’s road construction or an accident. Then we put our vehicles in park and shut down our engines unless we’re in a semi-truck. As 30 minutes turns into an hour, we begin to get out of our vehicles and introduce ourselves to one another.
A Hispanic mother and father with their 24-year-old daughter are outside an old Nissan directly behind us. The daughter is smiling and friendly, speaking perfect English with little accent, obviously raised in the states. Her parents understand Danette and I but depend on their daughter to respond. They are on their way home from work. They thanked God they weren’t a few minutes earlier and part of what we learned was a multiple car and R.V. accident at the bottom of the mountain. The mother lifted up her hands praising God!
When 1 hour became 2 hours, we were not praising God. Then we saw movement down the mountain, jumped in our vehicles and continued our journeys. As they pulled up beside us, still with big smiles, waving good-bye, I could only wave and smile back.
Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” Who are these witnesses, this vast cloud of people who surround us on every side, even on I-75? The preceding verses lay it all out for us.
The apostle writes to us of faith, held by Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and the whole company of wandering Israelites. Even the prostitute Rahab — that colorful character who helps Joshua fight the Battle of Jericho — deserves a plaque in the Hebrews Hall of Fame.
There’s a list of other, unnamed faithful ones as well: people who suffered mightily to keep the faith. Some “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy” (11:36-38).
It’s a cloud of witnesses: martyrs of the faith who bore courageous — and occasionally grisly — witness to God’s bottomless justice and love. They bear witness still, as they live on in this mysterious cloud that is eternal life.
Perhaps we can imagine it as a bright, luminous array like the Milky Way — which isn’t a cloud at all, of course, but thousands upon thousands of distant stars, stretched across the heavens. You can see that celestial lightshow if you escape the streetlights of towns and cities, far from any source of light pollution. Choose a night when the moon has shrunk to the tiniest of crescents, hope for a cloudless sky, and the bright band of the Milky Way rewards you with a luminosity all its own.
Most stars that make up the Milky Way are too small to pick out with the naked eye. Were there but one of those distant stars in the sky, you’d barely notice it at all. But together, their collective glow is quite striking.
Or sit on the beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida when the sun is setting as we did with old friend Larry Jones, the previous Divinity Parish Administrator, when we arrived at his home in Largo. The sun turned a bright orange sending its rays through the clouds for a spectacular array of colors. A great cloud of witnesses sat on the beach in awe of the disappearing sun, clouds of every shape and color, and singular bright lights moving across the horizon that I tried to attribute to UFO’s, but wife and friend assured me they were airplanes.
Maybe that’s the sort of thing the writer of Hebrews is envisioning as he lists those anonymous martyrs who suffered in such colorful and disturbing ways. “Time would fail me to tell of their names,” the author says (v. 32) — but it’s a fair bet he doesn’t even know most of their names. He just knows they are many. They are those “of whom the world was not worthy.”
So, why bother to talk about this great cloud of witnesses? The writer of this letter has a very specific purpose. You must go back many verses, long before the beginning of today’s reading, to find out his reason, the situation that led him to put pen to paper.
In chapter 10, verses 35 and 36, he writes: “Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Christian believers who are suffering for their faith. This is a church undergoing hard persecution.
The writer of this letter — their pastor, in modern terms — is wishing for them the spiritual gift of endurance, so they can get through this season of heartache and one day bask in God’s glory in this life or the next.
So, what do you say to someone who’s suffering? Lots of us struggle to find the words. Let’s say you have a friend or family member in the hospital. You know things aren’t going so well, medically. The doctors can make the patient comfortable, but they can’t make it all better.
You’re thinking about making a visit to the hospital, but you hesitate. You don’t know what to say. You want to find some pearl of spiritual wisdom to share, but you’re coming up blank.
There are those familiar platitudes:
None of these sayings are likely to bring much comfort. They’re the kind of thing we say to another person to make ourselves feel better.
As we teach and practice in Stephen Ministry classes, the best thing to do is just be there. Have you heard the adage, “95% of life is showing up”? That’s especially true of sitting with someone who’s suffering. You don’t need to say much of anything.
You don’t need to stay long, either — and probably shouldn’t. But your mere presence says more than words ever could. That chair at the foot of the bed is the witness seat.
When you spend quality time with a suffering person — when you practice the ministry of presence — you take your place among the crowd of witnesses. You’re just one among many, but your presence reminds your friend there are many others.
This is what the author of Hebrews is doing as he weaves that great tapestry of saints and martyrs, displaying it to his beleaguered congregation. Sure, some details are grim — stoned to death, sawn in two, slain by the sword — but that doesn’t matter. Most of all, the people reading this letter want to know they’re not alone, that there are others who speak their language, who share their pain, who revel in the joy of small victories and sympathize with the weariness of repeated setbacks.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and theologian, has a wonderful book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. In it, he has a little something to say that recalls the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews:
“Communities and commitment can form around suffering much more than around how wonderful or superior we are. Just compare the real commitment to one another, to the world, and to truth in ‘happy clappy religion’ with the deep solidarity of families at the time of a tragic death or among hospice workers and their clients. There is a strange and even wonderful communion in real human pain, actually much more than in joy, which is too often manufactured and passing. In one sense, pain’s effects are not passing, and pain is less commonly manufactured. Thus, it is a more honest doorway into lasting communion than even happiness.”2
We Christians, of all people, surely ought to know that. We’re the people who, when we gather for the Lord’s supper, share the words, “This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you.” That puts it right out there with brutal honesty, doesn’t it? If the founder of our faith could not escape the cross, then how in this life can any of us expect to escape this thing called suffering? Our savior hands out no free passes when it comes to that. Remember, he’s the one who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
The message of Hebrews is all about perseverance. And how does it make any sense to talk about perseverance unless there’s something to persevere through? It’s only natural to fear suffering, and to hope for a long, healthy, prosperous and pain-free life. But let’s face it: the chances that such a dream will come true for any of us are just about nil. It’s better to acknowledge that misconception for the fantasy it is and keep an eye out for signs of that cloud of witnesses, both living and dead. They have a way of finding us when we need them most. They have a way of directing us to the God of peace.
This ecstatic vision of the cloud of witnesses challenges one of the most notorious sacred cows of our American culture: our worship of individualism. We are a nation of immigrants, which means that our ancestors — not so many generations back in our family history — severed ties with their communities and journeyed to this country. Or they were brought here involuntarily. In this new land, a great many of them were suddenly thrust into situations where they had to rise or fall as individuals (or, at least, small nuclear-family units).
True, in some urban settings in particular, organizations sprang up — ethnically based churches, lodges, Sew & Sews, and fraternal organizations — that offered mutual support.
But the second and third generations felt less need for such foreign-accented groups, new-world proxies for the communities their parents and grandparents had left behind.
A great many of us see our nation as the home of rugged individualists: the lone cowboy, strong and self-sufficient. Our homes are our castles. Our ideal is to make our own way in the world, to rely on others for nothing. Far too many of us distrust the yearning for community as a sign of weakness.
The sociologist Robert D. Putnam has spent a good part of his life studying this hyper-individualistic national trait of ours. In a recent book, The Upswing, he mentions the research of social psychologist James Pennebaker on how our preferred pronouns reveal our deepest values as we talk with others.
Pennebaker has analyzed how often people use “I” as opposed to “we.” He has found that people in the strongest marriages use “we” more often than those whose relationships are strained. He has also found that the most deeply self-confident people are generous in their use of “we”; it’s the insecure who favor “I.” Moreover, frequent use of “I” is correlated with the risk of depression or suicide. It’s a more reliable marker for depression than the use of words like “sad.”
Internet search engines like Google have opened all sorts of doors to sociological research. Word searches can now be conducted over many thousands of books and articles. Putnam cites very revealing recent research:
“In fact, over the period from 1900 to 1965 the word ‘I’ appeared less and less often in American publications, but after 1965 … that trend reversed itself, and in a time of self-centeredness the word ‘I’ became ever more frequent. The frequency of the word ‘I’ in all American books actually doubled between 1965 and 2008.”3
Sadly, our culture seems to be growing more individualistic and less communitarian. It may be harder for many of us to relate to images like the cloud of witnesses than it was for previous generations. We do our people a service, when we lead them towards a deeper, more encompassing sense of community. In fact — as the present discord in our national political life reminds us — it may be essential to our survival as a people and as a church. Let’s change “I” back to “we”. Let’s change “mine” back to “ours”.
Certainly our Sew n’ Sews, a large group of women from many different churches who fill our choir room every Thursday, teach us how much more can be accomplished when we work together!