There are a lot of us here tonight: organists, choristers and choir members, family of the singers, parishioners, visitors. We make a grand congregation! But as impressive as we are, there is another important group involved with us in our worship that we shouldn’t overlook. The church from its beginning has pictured its life and mission, and especially its worship, as taking place in the unseen but very real presence of our ancestors in the faith. Our liturgies nod to it. We pray phrases such as “with the church on earth and the saints in heaven” or “ with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”
So how might we picture the presence of the communion of saints with us? “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” says the writer of Hebrews. The image is drawn from the stadium where the athletic games were held. The cloud of witnesses is the huge throng of spectators cheering on the competitors, who are admonished to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” just as a bicycle racer will try to have the lightest materials possible. This one is a foot race, though, and here Jesus is pictured as the lead runner, the pacesetter, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. . .” In 1980, when I was a number of years younger and many pounds lighter, I ran in my one and only marathon road race, the Paul Bunyan Marathon in Bangor, Maine.This 26-mile race began at the Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor and meandered through adjoining towns until it ended on the oval of the football stadium at the University of Maine in Orono. I will never forget the ending of that race.
You have heard about the “loneliness of the long distance runner.” There’s truth in that phrase, for even when you are physically prepared for these long races there is a mental and emotional side that is quite daunting. The first half of my race was fun and at about mile ten or twelve I was euphoric, but around mile twenty I began to run out of gas and I had to struggle to keep on running. A solitary debate began in my mind:“Can I finish?” “Should I quit?” “Will this cramp go away, this ache subside, this tiredness abate?” By the time I hit that oval track in the stadium at Orono I was just glad to be finishing. And then a strange thing happened. I was pulled out of my reverie by the sound of cheering, and, since I knew that my wife and her parents were the only ones present at the race who knew me, I wondered who the cheering was for.I looked ahead and saw that there was no one else on the track. What’s more, many of the cheers were naming me by name, “Way to go, Rick!”“You can do it, Rick!” which puzzled me still more.
What it was, of course, was the cheering of the other runners who had finished ahead of me. With my race time of three hours and forty–seven minutes there were scores of other runners ahead of me and there were many other spectators and they all had a program sheet with the names and numbers of the runners and I had my number pinned to my shirt. Those cheers were wonderful for my morale, and I straightened my shoulders a bit and quickened my step and put on a little burst of speed for that last lap.
I carry that image in my mind as the very image that the writer of Hebrews wants to evoke here. The communion of saints are the ones who have finished the race before us. They are in the stadium seats watching us, they have finished the course, and now “from their labors rest.” We in the church militant are engaged in the same task as they were and they cheer us on, encourage us, support us, and call us by name. They are the great cloud of witnesses.
The word “witness” has a nice double meaning. It can mean merely spectators, which carries through the athletic metaphor of the passage. But witnesses here are more than passive spectators. They are those who bear witness to the truth they have known. Keep in mind that the Greek word we have translated as “witness” is martyr. During the early generations of the church so many witnesses sacrificed their lives for their faith that in time the word “martyr” took on that additional meaning.
So these witness who surround us are not idle spectators. Do any of you remember the comedian Flip Wilson of “The Church of What’s Happening Now!”? He once said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander.They asked me to be a Witness, but I didn’t want to get involved.” So the cloud of witnesses not only supports us by their presence, they bear witness to the truth of God they have known.
This is such an important way to think about the church. In this century we have been learning to think of the church ecumenically; to consider the breadth of the church across denominational lines and national boundaries. But how quickly we forget the length of the church, its trans–temporal reality across the generations.That is where the role of tradition comes to play in the church, the place where the communion of saints gets their say. As Chesterton put it, “Tradition is only democracy extended through time.” Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous epigram rightly distinguishes between, tradition, “the living faith of the dead,” and “traditionalism, the dead faith of the living.” Too often, traditionalism has given tradition a bad name.
But a church that forgets what the saints have learned from generation to generation will hardly be equipped to be the church in its own generation.So the church rightly remembers the communion of saints, and even more than that, claims that in Christ, we share with them in the divine life.
Let me change the metaphor so that we might imagine the communion of saints as a choir;a large choir, like one of those Welsh men’s choirs made up of a thousand voices. When I was in high school our choir would go to county–wide and state–wide choral events with thousands of voices.Do they do that any more?
So let us imagine that as we sing tonight we sing together along with the voices of the great cloud of witnesses. Let us take quite seriously the claim of our various liturgies that when we sing we join our voices “with all the faithful in every time and place.”
There is a wonderful sermon by Jonathan Edwards on 1 Corinthians 13: 8-10, called Heaven is a World of Love in which Edwards explores the metaphor of the communion of saints as a heavenly choir. First he beautifully describes heaven and all its social arrangements, and in so doing puts forth a protest against the social arrangements that we know so well on earth, for in Edward’s heaven there is no pride or jealously, there is decency and wisdom, and an equal prosperity among all. He says that “love (poured out from God) resides and reigns in every heart there.” And then he says: “Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God.”
Heaven is a world of love, and here below the church with all its imperfections witnesses by word and deed to the truth of that love. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” So we are not alone. We carry out the mission and work of the church by sharing in the very life of God, and we are surrounded as well by so great a cloud of witnesses who cheer us on.
When I was a small boy I thought that God dwelled somewhere above the chancel of my local church, not exclusively, but especially there. And as I came to hear about the communion of saints I pictured them surrounding God, as one might see in medieval paintings, a big crowd of folks in white robes. Most of the people I had known in my short life were still living, so the crowd was for the most part an abstraction. My father’s parents, who had died before I was born were there, I was sure, and the little boy from my Sunday School class who had been run over by a car when his sled went into the road.Kim was his name.Kim was there, I knew.
The Puritans had a saying that, “The commonwealth of heaven becomes more dear with each loss below.” As I have grown older and have known many more people who have died I have returned to something very like that childhood picture I thought I had outgrown. I invite you to do so as well. In the eye of your imagination you will no doubt picture different saints than I picture. You will picture people you have known among the crowd of witnesses, a Sunday School teacher, a parent or a grandparent, a neighbor, perhaps even an organist or a minister. These were people who showed you what love is by loving, what service is by serving, what witness is by witnessing to what they had seen and known and believed. In our mind’s eye, too, there will need to be ones we have not known but have only known about. Those whose lives and art, whose words and deeds have cheered us on as we have run the race and tried to be the church. It is the great cloud of witnesses. It is the church, in heaven with all its glory, and on earth with all its brokenness and folly. It is like a great choir and its song goes on, on a grand night like this and wherever two or three gather in the Lord’s name. “Yet she on earth has union with God, the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O happy Ones and holy, Lord give us grace that we, like them the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.”Amen.
(I delivered this sermon to the opening worship of the New England Regional Convention of the American Guild of Organists on June 22, 1997 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I was then pastor.)