A Cloud of Witnesses: Ruminations on All Saints’ Day

Some thoughts for All Saints Day: 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 an excerpt from my sermon “Mystic Sweet Communion.”

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