Dr. Anne M. Cameron
October 31, 2010
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
Today's scripture is often called the 'cloud of witnesses' passage. That may even be the subtitle in your Bible.
This passage is called the 'cloud of witnesses' passage because of its unique use of the word 'cloud.' 'Cloud' ('nephos') was a common Greek metaphor for a great crowd of people. More people than you can count---an enormous crowd. Almost all of chapter 11 in the book of Hebrews tells of various exploits of people of faith. And even though only a handful of people are actually named in today's reading, the central idea is that there are countless people who have gone before us, who have witnessed the faith, whose actions and sacrifices have made it possible for us today to believe and know Christ.
The reading first describes victories and then tells of the terrible sufferings and apparent defeats of faithful people. Many endured persecution, torture, and imprisonment. And we know in the early church, martyrdom was common. The word 'martyr' has the same root as the word 'witness.' When you publically witnessed Christ, you were often killed.
To be a Christian then meant you were never on the sidelines. You were either 'in' or you were 'out.'
"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us." When speaking of what it means to follow Christ, New Testament writers often use the analogy of an athletic contest (usually a foot race or a fight) (Acts 20:23-25, 1 Corinthians 9:23-25, Galatians 2:1-3, 1 Timothy 6:11-13, Galatians 5:6-8, 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
This analogy was probably chosen because people could relate to it and because it aptly described a difficult and challenging activity. The writer of Luke-Acts says this: "I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. If only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me-the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." Acts 20:23-25
It is impossible to race and sit still; it is impossible to 'fight' and remain passive. Not only is there great effort required, there is a lot of preparation---work and sweat and sacrifice.
However, this morning it is not racing and boxing that is on my mind. It is baseball.
Unless you have been living in a cave, you are well aware of the fever that has gripped Texas in this absolutely unprecedented post-season play. I daresay some of the Texas Rangers join us in prayer this morning as they prepare to enter Game Four of the World Series.
Professional baseball, like most sports in America, is a huge spectator sport. Over 50,000 people will witness the game at Rangers Stadium in Arlington this evening. Millions more will be glued to their televisions, computers, or iPhones to follow the progress of the game.
Athletic contests are easy for us to relate to. There is a critical distinction, though, between being a spectator and being a participant, a distinction that is often blurred today.
We may yell and scream as we 'participate' in the game, we may paint our bodies or wear our team colors, and we should never underestimate the psychology of the home field advantage and the crowd erupting to cheer for the team, but the honest truth is, the spectators are not the team.
Nine men do all the work on the field, there are twenty five on the team, and the rest of us sit and enjoy the game. The rest of us are spectators. We spectators have not been training for years. We spectators have not suffered injuries. We spectators have not endured the agony of failure on the field. Spectators are not playing and spectators cannot legitimately claim the prize.
While it can intensely exhilarating to be a spectator (especially when your team is winning), in real life it is never enough to be a spectator. Can you imagine saying to your spouse: "Ok, honey, I am going to watch you raise our kids. I will be cheering for you, but I am not going to be there with them"?
The life of a Christian can never be the life of a 'mere' spectator. In faithful Christian living, there is no such thing as a spectator. And there is no such thing as a free agent. We are part of a team, and the team needs the active participation of every single member to function. This is why it is impossible to be a Christian and not participate in a faith community. I want to repeat this. One cannot be a faithful Christian and NOT be active in a faith community.
One writer put it this way: "In the Bible, faith is never a matter simply for an isolated individual. It involves a community of persons that stretches back into the past, embraces people in the present, and anticipates a fellowship in the future. Faith involves a 'cloud of witnesses' to God's continuing faithfulness."1
Christian faith is not an individual pursuit; it is communal. The good news is we are not alone. There is an entire group of faithful people to encourage us, urge us, support us, and move us on toward the goal God has set for each one of us.
This group of faithful people includes people from the past, people in our present, and people in our future whom we have yet to know. These people were and are not spectators; they are active. They fought for the right to know Christ. They spread God's word through action. They sacrificed mightily so we might be here today, worshipping in this very sanctuary.
This cloud of witnesses is no inert mass. It was and is an active, living thing. It includes famous biblical characters likes the ones just mentioned; it includes people who shall forever be nameless. It includes people we have known personally. It even includes people who have not yet been born.
Those privileged to join in the cloud of witnesses had a common experience. They did something to point to the living reality of Jesus Christ. They were inspired by God. They fed people. They taught the Bible. They visited the sick. They invited the hungry. They gave money. They gave time. They gave away their ideas and their passion. They gave their lives so that we might know Christ.
The life of a Christian can never be the life of a 'mere' spectator. In faithful Christian living, there is no such thing as a spectator.
This is the single biggest challenge that faces us today in our comfortable, affluent Christianity. Because we are a nation of spectators. This is a bigger challenge than meeting our financial obligations; this is harder than growing church membership. The challenge to move every single one of us from being spectators to actually playing the game is the hardest task we will ever face.
Why is this so hard? It requires us to go back to basics. To go back to what Christ and the early apostles said we must do if we are to be faithful. It means we have to go back to the gym. To crawl before we can walk. To walk before we run. We have to get rid of the spiritual fat that keeps us on the couch. We have to study the Bible. Work out muscles long atrophied. Put down things that weigh us down.
Witness. Sacrifice. Martyr. Not to die the literal sense of the word, but to die to complacency, passivity, and old habits of inactivity. This requires a truly fundamental shift. We may have to suspend many of the assumptions we have had about what the church is and what it means to be a Christian. It is not enough to sit back and watch others play the game. It is not enough to show up for worship one hour a week.
It requires a truly fundamental change to become convicted of the absolute need for activity in the Christian life, and then do something about it. Each of us must, through word and action, witness to the reality of Christ in our world today.
The staff and leadership of the church are here to help you get into shape. We are here to coach you and invite you to find your ministry strengths. We are here to listen to your passion and your excitement about new areas of ministry, and to help you find your spot on the team. We are here to connect you to others and encourage you along the way.
When we do this, there is mutual support and activity that energizes all of us. There is opening for the Holy Spirit to enliven us and inspire us to new things. There is growth among those who have been inactive much of their adult lives. There is esprit de corps. There is momentum! There is a sense that there is nothing that God cannot do with and through us. The sky's the limit! There is the tremendous move from being a spectator to being a player, a profound and dramatic move which not only promises new life for the church, but new life for YOU.
Some of you are already on the field. For you, and for your endurance and perseverance, I thank God every day. Others of you will make this move easily, because you are itching to step up to the plate. For others, it will seem as strange as if you had been tapped on the shoulder and escorted to the pitcher's mound in game Four in Rangers Stadium.
Why do I push you so hard on this? Why do I insist you get out of the stands and onto the field? Why? For God's sake, for the sake of the world, and (in Paul's words) for the sake of the gospel, that you may share in its blessings. Run in such a way as to get the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:23-24)
At the bottom of the ninth, when we are ready to leave this familiar earth with all its pleasures and all its pains, it is my prayer you will have been a key player, not just a spectator. That you and I and everyone we know will not be slinking off in the bleachers, letting someone else steal the bases, catch the fly balls, create the double play, hit the grand slam, tell the grand story. It is my fervent prayer you will be able say, just as St. Paul said,
7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day. . . (2 Timothy 4:6-8 )
Are you 'out' or are you 'in?' Everything---everything--- hinges on your answer, because in the grand game He has laid out for us, there is no such thing as spectators.
A charge and a blessing for you this morning in the words of St. Paul as he spoke them to encourage his friend and fellow Christian Timothy:
11But you,[women and men] of God. . . pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you.
And may the blessings of Almighty God who created us, Christ Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and the Holy Spirit, who encourages and gives us strength, go with us.