RCL Proper 15C
(Heb. 11: 29 – 12:2)
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . .”
A very familiar line from the Letter to the Hebrews, and an image that is central to All Saints Sunday as we celebrate it in November, and a relevant part of our conversation certainly as we have talked about Biblical language of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant in our Adult Education conversations over the past year—under the thematic banner of Christian conversations about life, death, and resurrection. An image meaningful to each of us personally—those whom we long to see, as they are gathered and waiting for us with love and prayer on the farther shore.
To imagine that “great cloud of witnesses.” How we connect who we are, one by one, in all the texture and character of our life stories—how we connect with each other, first of all: how we connect with the wide community of the Christian family, past, present, and future, with God’s original intention for us and for our lives, with God’s ultimate purposes. How we imagine and understand ourselves in the “big picture.” Somehow singing in the same choir, generation after generation, adding our voices to the greater chorus, weaving our stories into the transcendent tapestry.
The glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of the martyrs. The saints and heroes of the wide world, those we have loved but see no longer, those whose names and faith are known to God alone. “One was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast: and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”
There’s a German word that’s used often in the framework of Biblical studies. A word that’s just kind of fun to say: Heilsgeschicte. Try to say that, and let it roll off your tongue. Heilsgeschicte. It means something like, “the sacred story.” Or, as the scholars say it, “Salvation History.” Again in that wonderful series of references in the middle of the reading from Hebrews—calling to our memory the Judges and heroes of ancient Israel, prophets and kings, saints and martyrs.
There are lots of different ways to read the Bible. Sometimes we read it as dense poetry, focusing on a compelling verse here, this inspiring image, this phrase. Other times we meditate on themes, dipping in and out of stories in the Old Testament and the Psalms and the New Testament, here and there. The idea of focusing on the Heilsgeschicte, is to say that while the whole span and scope of the Bible may indeed be made up of many books by many authors, addressing situations and contexts and themes for communities that range over long stretches of historical time and many different places, languages, and peoples—in all of that, there is as a matter of deeper truth and spiritual reality, one holy book, one holy story, one holy people.
A single continuous strand, first of all, from the first chapter of Genesis through the twenty-second of the Revelation to St. John. Behind all the rich and fascinating diversity of authors and voices and themes, one Author, one Voice, one Theme.
A story written for many audiences, and yet also and truly a Story written for us alone, for each one of us, one by one. A direct communication. And a Word for us that in and through the mystery of our Baptism becomes not something that we read at arm’s length, with a sense of critical detachment, but something more like a mirror. A story playing out with direction and purpose, a beginning, a middle, and an end, where we ourselves are written into the text as central characters.
This something of the idea that I talked about the other week when I mentioned the magazine “Acts 29.” There are 28 chapters in the Acts of the Apostles, and then “Acts Chapter 29” unfolds as our chapter, year by year, generation by generation.
The point for each generation I guess is that the old stories and images and themes aren’t simply of academic and historical interest. A long time ago and far, far away. In fact, in reality, they are about us. Around us, in the midst of our lives. No matter how old the ancient scrolls—it is all news as fresh and as urgent as any word that could flash across the internet. What God is doing right in front of us. Not to be at arm’s length, the object of detached, dispassionate observation.
We are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, lifted into the great choir. In their midst. All present tense. Our story. He is born for us. He lives for us. He dies on the Cross for us. He is raised from the dead in our presence. He is here for us now. Here for us now. In word and sacrament. At this altar and in the midst of all our lives. He is our present hope and our future. The Bread of Life, the Cup of our Salvation. Which is the big story, the one story. The message for us, today. Here and now.