Local Faith, Global Cloud
We’ve had quite the readings today. We get people sawed in half, passing through a sea, and a prostitute being saved because of her faith. People are getting raised from the dead, standing up to grisly torture, and beating armies that they didn’t stand a chance against.
And it’s all because of their faith. These heroes of our religious tradition put everything on the line because they believed in God and in the promises of God.
We might add to this chapter all the stories of men and women around the world today who by faith are looking forward to a heavenly city: followers of Jesus in China who advocate for human rights, under threat of arrest; Coptic Christians whose churches and houses and business are being burned by extremists as the unrest and violence in Egypt continues.
I’m amazed at the faith of some of our brothers and sisters, past and present.
So is the author of Hebrews. This well-known and well-loved faith chapter, Hebrews 11, seems to just build and build with the inspirational stories of saints and martyrs who have gone on before us.
Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua… Rahab–a prostitute! After praising the faith of each of these, the author goes on:
“And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”
Hebrews 11:39 ends the chapter just like it began, by echoing Hebrews 11:2–these women and men were all commended for their faith.
What’s the Author Doing Now?
I had a college professor, a philosophy professor, who told us in the first few days of class that none of us knew how to read a book.
Well, obviously, Dr. Talbot, we know how to read, or we wouldn’t be here.
(Philosophy majors generally have a pretty high estimation of their own intelligence.)
But he said (and I paraphrase), “I’ll bet you haven’t been taught how to really sit down and wrestle with a text. To read it slowly. To follow the logic and argument of a text.” Dr. Talbot said when you read you should always be asking, “What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now?”
And he always said it like that, in threes–”What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now? What’s the author doing now?” Seared into my memory.
As I was reading the end of Hebrews 11 this week, I found myself asking, why is the author of Hebrews spending so much time talking about faith? Why so many examples of acts of faith? What’s the author doing now?
In one sense it’s a hard question to answer, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews.
Was it Paul? Barnabas? Clement? Priscilla?
There have been various theories over the years. The go-to author for a New Testament letter would be Paul. But virtually all Biblical scholars today agree that it wasn’t Paul, because the language and style of Hebrews is different than what Paul used. Not only that, but the author of Hebrews writes as one who is depending on others’ eyewitness testimony regarding Jesus, whereas Paul in his letters speaks about seeing Jesus firsthand, about having had direct revelation from Jesus himself; think about his conversion on the road to Damascus, for example. Others have suggested Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions, Luke, Clement (an early Bishop of Rome), or sort of a fringe theory is Priscilla. She was another companion of Paul’s who theoretically would have left any letter she wrote anonymous, because a female author would have been culturally unacceptable at the time Hebrews was written.
There’s no way to prove any of these authors, and as early as the 3rd century, theologian and teacher Origen summed it up: “Who wrote this epistle? Only God knows!”
But we can still make some progress on the question, “What’s the author doing now?” even if we don’t know who the author is. All this talk of faith in Hebrews 11 seems to come because the recipients of the letter were lacking in faith.
Both inward and outward pressures led to the very real possibility that the readers of Hebrews would lose faith, some in small ways, others perhaps in bigger ways. The readers are told not to “drift away” or “neglect” their salvation. They are to “hold firm.” They are in a “struggle against sin,” the author writes.
Who You Are
So what’s the author doing now? What, in chapter 11, is he (or she) trying to accomplish with this group of readers?
The author is reminding them of who they are. Hebrews 11 tells story after story of faith throughout the Scriptures.
And there’s some pretty extreme stuff.
Gideon, for example, a judge and leader of Israel. In Judges 7 he sets out with 32,000 soldiers to take on the Midianites and God tells him to reduce his army to 300 people, so that when they win the battle, Israel can’t brag, because only God can win a battle with an army that small. That took faith on Gideon’s part. A really gutsy faith.
As for Daniel and his gutsy faith, someone once said, “The faith that will shut the mouth of lions must be more than a pious hope that they will not bite.”
Hebrews just rattles off these names quickly–“Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets.” There’s more where that came from, the author seems to be saying–I’m just giving you a sampling.
And it doesn’t seem that the readers of Hebrews are in the same kind of mortal danger. So if men and women can withstand torture, war, beatings, etc., then the readers of the Hebrews can have faith to face smaller things.
Faith may lead believers into physically dangerous and psychologically threatening situations. Faith may call you to uproot and leave everything familiar to follow God. We saw this two weeks ago when we looked at the faith story of Abraham and Sarah.
Or… faith may have you stay right here. Having faith can be a very local activity. It happens right where you are. Maybe God’s not really calling you to go anywhere else right now, in a geographical sense, but to invest more deeply in the relationships and situations you’re already in. And so we long for a wholehearted faith that infiltrates our everyday routines, activities, and interactions.
4th century church father John Chrysostom said, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.”
“Makes Me Wanna Buy School Supplies”
I’d wager that a number of us find ourselves in such a position, as a new school year begins. We enter back into a familiar routine. And there’s excitement early on.
I love that line from You’ve Got Mail, where Tom Hanks says, “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”
But it doesn’t take long for excitement and novelty to turn into daily routine. Those newly sharpened pencils get worn down a bit, but we still have to find a way to write.
Hebrews calls for a redoubling of efforts, a reaffirmation of trust in God in the midst of the unknown and the familiar. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
Faith doesn’t always mean going somewhere else. Sometimes it takes all the faith and trust you can muster to apply yourself to a situation or set of questions or relationships that are already at hand. Faith is local.
The readers of Hebrews were being called to be faithful right where they were.
Great Cloud of Witnesses, “Watching Us from the Grandstands”
And then, the grand finale to the faith section, Hebrews 12:1-2:
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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”–Let us run with steadfast endurance. Never give up. “Never, never, never, never give up.” Some have pointed out in this passage that perseverance, when mentioned in the context of running a race, probably speaks to a long-distance race rather than a sprint. You have to pace yourself, but stay steady.
We want to “throw off” all hindrances and sin, which so sneakily and deceptively tries to just pull us in.
And we can have a persevering faith because in some timeless, global sense we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses.” It’s a massive support network, past and present, of people who have been in similar situations to ours–and worse–and somehow have managed to keep their trust in God.
Think of what they call “cloud computing”–iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Amazon Cloud. If we get it set up right, we can access our same set of data from our phone, computer, and tablets. “The cloud” is everywhere, when it comes to computing.
We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” They’re everywhere, just like data! In some sense, the women and men, past and present, local and global, who inspire us, are present to us… surrounding us.
Denominations have been divided over questions like this–who are the saints? To what extent are they present? Can they hear our prayers? Receive them? Should we pray for dead Christians?
But the unknown author of Hebrews seems not to really be concerned with those questions. The author just says, “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”
We get the imagery of a stadium here. We’re running a race. This isn’t a run alone in the woods (as much as we might love those); this is a run in a stadium with a massive crowd of witnesses–of faith examples–surrounding us as we run, cheering us on. When we’re tired we can look at them and recall their successful races, and get a new boost to keep going ourselves.
The Living Bible translation says: “[W]e have such a huge crowd of men [and women] of faith watching us from the grandstands.”
The Greatest Witness in the Whole Cloud
The chief of these witnesses is Jesus. He is the “author” of our faith–the very reason we can have faith to begin with. He is the “perfecter” of our faith–he “[carries] on to completion” the good work he started in us.
Men and women in Hebrews 11 may have stared down deep waters, undergone beatings, been ridiculed, and more… but Jesus “endured the cross” because of “the joy set before him.”
Jesus is the ultimate exemplar of faith. Out of the great cloud of witnesses, he is the greatest witness.
Whether having faith in God leads us into places far or near, situations dangerous or fairly safe, we find inspiration in that great grandstand of saints who have gone before us. We receive encouragement from those saints sitting next to us each week in church.
As we run, may we keep focused on Jesus, who enables our faith and can even increase it. May God give us faith for where we are, right now, until that day when at last we see Jesus, at the right hand of the throne of God.