The passage we’ve just heard from the Epistle to the Hebrews is a very rich passage, full of little phrases that tend to stick in the mind: “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”; “the sin that clings so closely”; “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”.
This passage comes at the end of a long and well-known section of the Epistle, in which the writer gives examples of faith from the history of the ancient Jewish people. He offers example after example, beginning with Enoch, through Abraham and the patriarchs, to Moses, the judges, the prophets and King David. This is brought to a conclusion in the verses we heard this morning, in which the “great cloud of witnesses” and the example of Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” are used to exhort and encourage the reader to perseverance. The metaphor of athletic contest for the Christian life is familiar from St Paul’s letters.
I spoke yesterday about the social nature of Christian life, and the way in which the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews presents Jesus entering the Holy of Holies in order that the rest of us may follow. There is a strong sense of togetherness in this image.
Contemporary Christianity, like contemporary culture more generally, is afflicted by a radical individualism. The doctrine of the church as the mystical body of Christ has been replaced by a sense that the church is nothing more than a convenient association of people who love Jesus, with the logical implication that the life of the church is something that Christians can take or leave as they see fit. The idea of the solitary Christian must seem strange to our brothers and sisters who in times past and present have continued to meet under the shadow of persecution, often at great personal risk or cost.
This individualism has afflicted the church not only by creating the false notion that it’s just fine for a Christian not to participate in the corporate life of Christ’s body, but also by effectively negating the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. I’m sure people think I’m eccentric in naming long lists of saints in intercessions and in the Eucharistic prayer, but I do it for a reason. Actually for two reasons.
First, because it’s been the tradition of the church for most of its existence, and that’s good enough for me.
And second, because I want to strike a little blow against the chronic individualism of our contemporary culture. We do not pray alone, we do not worship alone, we do not offer the Eucharist alone: all these things are done together with the church united in time and space, and all these things are done in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, a cloud which has grown ever greater through the course of the Christian centuries. The life of the whole church, living and departed, is bound up in the life of the Lord Jesus, and in Him we are all united: the great cloud of witnesses of the saints and prophets and patriarchs of old, and our own departed loved ones who now rest from their labours in the Lord.
The individualism that negates the doctrine of the Communion of Saints is I think an unintended consequence of the Reformation. Reacting against a devotion to saints in late-medieval Catholicism that was at times excessive and borderline idolatrous, the reformers largely banished devotion to saints from the life of their churches altogether. Similarly, the abandonment of belief in purgatory led to the destruction of the rolls of the faithful departed in churches across this land, as, according to the new reformed doctrine, the dead did not need to be prayed for. In this as in many other things, there was a good deal of bathwater that genuinely needed to be thrown out, but sadly the baby went out with it.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews concludes his or her great celebration of the faithful ones of Israel with a celebration of the One who perfectly embodies the ideal of the faithful, the One who is the pioneer and perfecter of faith, “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”.
When we rejoice in the communion of saints, when we rejoice in that great cloud of witnesses, when we draw comfort from a sense of spiritual communion with our departed loved ones, we are celebrating in them the triumph of the Lord Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, to whom be all praise and glory with the +Father and the Holy Spirit, now and unto ages of ages.