Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 12 August 2018
Trinity 11 E&B
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Our passage of Hebrews this evening began with that over-familiar image of the ‘cloud of witnesses’. This church could almost have been designed to illustrate that verse. Everywhere you look, and in increasing numbers as you move East, those holy forerunners are depicted for us, as is fitting in a building dedicated to all saints.
We know of course that saints are not just examples from the past, but living friends in heaven. We know too that there are saints among us now, and that it is our calling to be of their number. Fortunately for us, Hebrews offers a template far less aesthetically refined than this nearly perfect building.
It asks us to imagine the saints who surround us as spectators: these ‘witnesses’ are more like a football crowd than an artistically-arranged and neatly-representative collection of the great and the good. Being the Greco-Roman ancient world, of course, it isn’t football: these are spectators at a running race, which ignited similar passions to football in first-century civic life. And this is a race in which we are runners, being encouraged by the front-runner, Jesus, on whom we are to keep our eyes fixed as a point of aspiration and encouragement.
The witnesses are like that. Talk about ‘witnessing’, or ‘bearing witness’ in church-speak is not always transparent, especially outside the holy club. The perfect form of ‘witness’ in the early church was to die for the faith, so the Greek word for ‘witness’ became our word ‘martyr’. But if the offer of imminent painful death wasn’t quite why you ventured into All Saints this evening, help is at hand.
Because the writer is describing faith as something we can all attain. And faith, of which human and practical examples are given in the preceding chapter, is not primarily about head-stuff but about the committed heart; it is a quality of persistent attachment to Christ, not acceptance of “the faith” in the sense of a series of catechetical propositions. The life of faith, in other words, is precisely that, a ‘life’ lived, not a hobby, not a compartment of the mind, and emphatically not a set of definitions for controlling other people. And it has an urgency about it. It is a race, not a stroll after a large Sunday lunch. It is gritty rather than elegant, suggesting sweat and overtired muscles; it requires training, perseverance, discipline and dogged determination. It attracts the noisy and fanatical devotion of a football supporter. The image appeals, as it did to St Paul as well, because it suggests the real slog of life rather than the emotional high points of conversion, personal illumination, or that guru-worship which displaces the need for our own endeavour.
So, witnesses. Hebrews 12 says that we’re surrounded by this great crowd of supporters, and the implication of the rest of the chapter, about the discipline we must accept in running our race, is that we are to turn into witnesses ourselves. ‘Witnessing’ has become a churchy word, especially in Evangelical Christianity, and like most churchy words its meaning can feel divorced from everyday usage, but it need not.
If we hear the word ‘witness’ in conversation I suppose we might think of the legal context – someone called to give evidence in a court of law, in the witness box; or, less technically, we might hear the verb ‘to witness’ as a slightly formal synonym for ‘saw’: as in, ‘I witnessed the assistant priest falling indecorously over in Margaret Street after drinking a pint of campari and soda’. This is the simple meaning of the word in Greek. It is not a technical or theological word, concealing some arcane quality or activity; nor, as yet, the title of one who has died for the faith. It just means watcher, with the added nuance of watching as a supporter.
This ‘cloud of witnesses’ refers back to the previous chapter, where the writer offered concrete and heroic examples of faith approved by God, but the limits of translation have concealed the link for us: 11.1-2
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval….
The phrase ‘received approval’ conceals the same word as ‘witness’: it may feel like a stretch in English, but you can connect the sense if you think about it. This, and the next three verses, introduce the exemplars of faith as people whom God approves, to whom God ‘bears witness’, of whom he gives a good account. God has declared these faithful people righteous. He ‘bears witness’ to them and they are in turn examples of his good purposes, ‘witnessed’ by others.
The distinctive thing here … is that this cloud of witnesses consists of those who according to chapter 11 have received witness (acknowledgement) from God because of their faith.
As such, they bear witness by the very fact of their existence to the authenticity of faith. (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT)
So the word ‘witness’ means just a little more than we might expect it to mean; it adds a note of approval: we might say that God has given these heroes of faith a reference; now, as we are called to run the race of faith, they are there as our referees and supporters to get us into heaven.
That movement from receiving God’s approval to offering our own witness by our striving to live in faith is another stretch, but it isn’t one beyond our reach. This passage places us in the midst of the Communion of Saints, so beautifully depicted all around us here. It insists that we can make it from the arena, down there in the nave, to the stands, up there on the reredos, once our own race is over.
As we know, that is not always easy, or enjoyable, or even interesting on a bad day, but the writer to the Hebrews tells is that we all belong up there, by the loving gift of God, by grace. He tells us that sanctity is the opposite of judgemental puritanism. We are not asked to model icy perfection but honest aspiration; aspiration which perseveres through our mistakes, our sins, which flourishes with encouragement, and reaches after vision.
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.