Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
I attended a family reunion this summer. It was held at Salem Baptist Church in Liberty, Tennessee, a little country church with a small graveyard on the premises.
I was pretty sure that some of my ancestors were buried in this cemetery, so after lunch my father, my son, and I all went tromping through the graveyard, searching for familiar names on headstones. First we found the grave of my grandfather's oldest brother, who died the year before I was born. Next we found the headstone marking one of his sisters' grave. Finally, we ran across (well, not literally across) my great-grandparents, Celester and May Odum.
Later I started wondering why I was so interested in seeing where the remains of my ancestors are buried. I never even met most of the people whose graves I visited that day. Most of them were dead before I was born: forty-three years before in the case of my great-grandfather. Still, for some reason I wanted to know about them enough to go wandering through a cemetery on a hot July afternoon in Tennessee. Not only that, but I also wanted my son to know about them too. So I dragged him along. My mom even took a picture of me, my dad, and my son standing around my great-grandparents' headstone. (My wife stood to the side saying something about our mental health.)
But I don't think it was morbid fascination that led me to the graveyard. I don't really think I was looking for headstones as much as a sense of my own history. I wanted to know about the people who wore the name of "Odum" before I came along because I wanted to see myself as a part of something that pre-dated me and that will post-date me. I wanted to know my place in that line. I wanted to know about the legacy I have received and which will pass on to my son. I wanted to know some of the stories because those stories about people I never met are still my story. My life and their lives intersect because we are all part of the same narrative.
That's the reason the writer of Hebrews takes several paragraphs to talk about the faith of those who came before him: he wanted his readers to have a sense of history. In effect, he did what I did with my son at Salem Baptist Church: he took them through the cemetery, showed them the markers, and told them the stories. There's Noah: remember how he obeyed God and built the ark? Oh, and there's Abraham: he left everything because he believed God was going to give his family a new land of their own. There's Joseph, who on his deathbed in Egypt saw his resting place in the Promised Land four centuries later. There are Jericho's walls collapsing while the people walk around. There's Gideon routing an army with 300 men.
But he doesn't just tell them the stories that turned out well, because victory was not the point. He reminds them about those who faced ridicule and torture and imprisonment and execution because they chose to trust in God. "The world was not worthy of them," the writer says. The world never does quite understand faith. But those believers lived — and died — by faith because they had their eyes locked on an even better resurrection.
A sense of history. That's what God's people need. We need to see the "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us because we need to know that we're part of something bigger than ourselves. "Only together with us would they be made perfect," the writer says of these faithful people. Just as we're part of something that began long before we were born, they are a part of something that will go on long after they have died. We are moving toward the same thing they're moving toward, and none of us have yet arrived. Our lives intersect with the lives of faithful people who have gone before because we're all part of the same overarching story — the story of God's redemption of his creation through Jesus.
The church has for centuries had ways to remember this cloud of witness. The early church sometimes celebrated communion in the catacombs, not so much to hide from the authorities as to include in their fellowship those brothers and sisters who had already passed from this life. Feast days for saints were originally meant to connect believers of today with those believers of yesterday. The church has throughout history seen the need to have a sense of history, to catch a glimpse of the cloud of witness which surrounds it.
The American church, with its radical individuality, doesn't do this well. As a result, we tend to think we're the only ones who have ever suffered so much — when if anything we have suffered the least of any church at any time or place in history. To cut ourselves off from those who have come before us in the faith is to leave ourselves without their example, without benefit of their experience, and without their accumulated wisdom. With our love of all things new and disdain for anything old, American Christians have neglected the devotional classics that have nurtured the church for centuries in order to be Purpose Driven, discover our Best Life Now, avoid being Left Behind, and learn the Prayer of Jabez. In our rush to sing new praise choruses off theater-sized screens ("hymns are so last century") we have left the church's classic hymnody rotting in dusty hymn books in church attics across the country.
That's not to say we should never embrace the new. But, we'd best not lose our sense of history. We must never forget the great cloud of witness who have walked the faith before us and still have much to say about walking it today. Let's walk through the cemetery and rediscover their stories so that we can better understand our own. Let's learn about those who wore the name of Jesus before us so that we may know our place in that line and the legacy we have received. Let's read the old books, sing the old songs. Let's learn about those who built our churches. Let's meet those who walked with Christ ahead of us.
We'll meet those folks face to face one day, you know. Won't it be a little embarrassing if we don't even recognize their names!