By Steven Peay
I’m reading an interesting, rather provocative book by a fellow who was one of the originators of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier. The title of the book is: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Ironically, I learned about it on Facebook. One of the points the author makes is that social media works us into a form of group think (he’s a lot more colorful than I can be from the pulpit). I think all of us have heard about this in terms of the previous election, questions of race, immigration, on and on. It is evidence that humans can have, for want of a better description, a herd mentality — and we can become emboldened, even turn into bullies when we’re affirmed in that direction. A like, a digital pat on the head, can push us along. On one level — that of the negative — it’s a disaster. However, could that mentality be turned for good, toward the positive?
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews pushes the positive in today’s lesson. Here we’re introduced to good company, people who have tried to live out their faith, even in the face suffering and death. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The writer is telling us, quite candidly, that if those folks can do it, so can we; and they’re cheering us on in the bargain, even though all of their expectations might not have been met in the way they had hoped, because their greatest expectation was to be one with God.
The word ‘witnesses’ in Greek is martyron, from which we derive the word ‘martyr.’ The root meaning of the word doesn’t imply spectators, but those who have borne witness to the truth, been active engaged. Still, the writer picks up on the concept of spectatorship and uses it here. The imagery is of the arena, in which the Christians he’s addressing — including us — are competing in a race. The arena’s seats, row upon row, are filled with those who have already competed and won the race. Now they surround the current competitors, like a low-hanging cloud, encouraging and cheering us on to victory.
While we may see some parallels between the crowds at sporting events, or followers on social media, and the cloud of witnesses, there is a difference. All that brings a crowd to a football game is the game. When it’s over the first thought is to get back to one’s car and get out of the parking lot. Your boon companion in the stadium all of a sudden becomes your fierce competitor in getting onto the road first. The level of relationship is fleeting and it’s not something one would base life on, it does not carry an expectation of growth or of intimacy. And if you’ve ever disagreed with some on social media… well, just look at what’s reported all the time.
We might then liken the camaraderie found at a sporting event or social media to the early 20th century theologian P.T. Forsyth’s description of a club. In his classic The Church and the Sacraments he writes:
In a club the membership is egoistic. It is cooperative egoism. The individual joins in order to utilize for his convenience and comfort the like desire in a number of other people. They pool their social self-interest.
In such a setting, then, the focus is on the self. Any sort of involvement with others is in service of one’s own self-interest. This is not, or at least should not be, the case for Christian believers or for the church, our expectations or ultimate goals should be different.
What draws us to the arena is relationship. We realize that there is more to us than just our own narrow self-interest and that we find our truest self-expression in the Other and in others. I think the 20th century Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov has described it well when he wrote:
Humanity is one in Christ, men are branches of one vine, members of one body. The life of each man enlarges itself infinitely into the life of others, the communion of saints, and each man in the church lives the life of all men in the church; each man is humanity. He belongs not only to that part of humanity which, living on earth at the moment, stands before God in prayer and labor, for the present generation is only a page in the book of life. In God and in his Church, there is no difference between living and dead, and all are one in the love of the Father. Even the generations yet to be born are part of this one divine humanity.
The cloud of witnesses, the good company we are in encompasses all who are, who ever have been, and whoever will be faithful to God. This is more than a cheering section. It’s greater than a ‘fifth quarter’ and even better than people who paint themselves green and gold, or those who ‘like’ or ‘love’ what we post. To be a part of this company draws us out of ourselves, not for a fleeting moment, for four quarters of competition or our foray onto the internet, but enfolds us in eternity. With those witnesses we are a part of God’s eternal present, which encompasses all of the past, the present, and the future and the company alone exceeds even the greatest expectations.
God has opened this way of relationship to us in Jesus Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He has run the race of life from birth to death and beyond and thus can show us how we can win the race. As we seek to make sense of life, try to discover our meaning and our purpose, we must look beyond ourselves to Christ. If we are to be successful, it will be because we have remained focused on what really matters: God.
Thus, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that we must jettison the things that keep us from achieving the goal of life itself and weigh us down in the race. The language used here calls to mind someone trying to run or play a game while wearing a long, entangling garment. Trying to run in such an outfit would certainly trip one up and the author wants us to know that our baggage, self-interest and self-centeredness, will do the same.
While we look to Jesus, we can also see the cloud of witnesses. Looking at the names listed in chapter eleven, we see that these folks did not live perfect lives. If we look to the Bible we can document many of their sins — they’re recorded right there in front of God and everybody. We look to these witnesses not because they were perfect, but for exactly the opposite reason. We look to them because they weren’t perfect. They may have failed, fallen short, but they looked outside themselves, persevered in their race and were faithful to God. We all know people like that, we’ve talked about them, and they inspire us to keep going.
The admonition to keep our eyes on the real purpose of life comes within references to community. This is an important reminder that the church is more than a building or a social club for us. Coming into covenant relationship we pledge to support one another and to worship together. If we try to run alone, we may lose sight of the point and give up when exhaustion, suffering and disappointment overwhelm us. Drawn together into the community of faith we find mutual encouragement and support that helps us to run the race God calls us to run — life itself.
We’re in good company and, as Jesus reminds us in Luke’s Gospel, there are going to be times when choosing to put God first is going to be a source of discomfort and, yes, even division. There are going to be times that our great expectations are going to have to go by the wayside because they are not God’s expectations. The first way we can deal with that is by keeping our eyes focused on Christ as the real goal of life — oneness with God. The second is to be patient. The Greek word the writer to the Hebrews uses for patience implies both passive endurance and active persistence. Surrounded by the cloud of witnesses, then, we don’t just wait it out, but actively work to move forward to the goal.
Jesus calls us to interpret the present time, to realize that there are distractions all around that will keep us from the goal and expectations that get in the way of the greatest expectation – union with God. If we, however, open our eyes to see the great cloud of witnesses all around us, keep our eyes on the goal, and share life together we can win the race and satisfy the greatest expectation. We’re in good company and that company will stay with us through the game, through the parking lot, through – or even if we listen Jaron Lanier and get away from social media — through all of life. We’re in good company, because we’re in God’s company.
The Very Rev. Steven Peay was dean and president of Nashotah House Theological Seminary.