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… (Hebrews 12:1-2)
When I was a kid Halloween was always my favorite holiday. In those days it was all about the candy, the costume and the removal of the curfew for a night. There was nothing quite like prowling the neighborhood with my friends after 9 pm, all of us dressed up like the Beatles, or the Dodgers, or some Hippies, on the perennial quest for the full sized Hershey chocolate bar. Now that I am an adult, and a minister, I find that Halloween is still one of my favorite days of the year, but for very different reasons. Now it’s all about the communion of the saints, and I’ve been around long enough – beginning my sixth decade here on earth – to have as many friends and relatives, people I know and love, in the church triumphant as I do in the church militant. Gary Thomas in his 1994 book Seeking the Face of God wrote about how he tries to consciously “live in the communion of the saints.”
When a contemporary saint dies, I live with that person’s death for weeks… I’ll post a picture here or a quote there of someone whose faith and life has encouraged me… Wise shoppers clip coupons. Wise Christians clip obituaries. (153-154)
Being raised in a church that recited the creed, I was introduced to the idea of the communion of the saints when I was quite young. It’s just another way of talking about the church, but in a way that is so much bigger than what we experience on Sunday mornings. It’s the church in Revelation 5 – everyone, everywhere and always who has ever confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and who has known Him personally as their Lord and Savior. As a hymn we sang in our Service of Remembrance in worship last Sunday puts it –
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
It’s the oldest and truest meaning of the way that some contemporary churches that operate with satellite worship centers describe themselves: “one church in two locations.”
At the tail end of the inaugural vision of heaven that John was granted while he was exiled on the island of Patmos, after seeing the throne of God, and the 24 elders, and the four living creatures, and the Lamb looking as though it had been slain, and the myriads and myriads of angels — after all of that, John finally saw “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (5:13). The communion of the saints is in that number! It’s the church in heaven “triumphant,” and it’s the church on earth “militant.”
Another Biblical way to think and talk about the communion of the saints can be found in Hebrews 12:1-2. The word picture here is that of a contest on an athletic field in a stadium filled with cheering spectators. The church “militant” is comprised of those Christians who are still alive, in the competition, on the field. And the church “triumphant” is comprised of those Christians who are in the stands, in the nearer presence of God, cheering on those of us who are still in the contest. When the author of the book of Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” many interpreters have taken it as a reference to this understanding of the communion of the saints. The power of this connection should be obvious, those who have faithfully run the race before us, now urging us on who are in the race ourselves. As John Colwell wrote –
Such a depiction prompts the notion of a continuing conscious presence of those who have gone before: they are observers of us as much as examples to us; in some sense… they remain involved with us… Albeit figuratively, the “saints” on earth are bound together with the saints in the heavens as one people, a single congregation, a continuous communion. And though all this is admittedly highly figurative, it surely is significant of something, of a division apparent to us that is less apparent to God. [http://www.christianitytoday.com]
The most powerful expression of this faith perspective with which I am familiar is the old story that was confirmed by Coach Bobby Bowden to have actually happened.
When Lou Little coached at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1924 to 1929 he had a defensive tackle who probably weighed two hundred pounds, which was very big back in those days. Little worked with the boy every day, but the young man just did not get any better. But the boy was persistent, worked hard, and had a great attitude. In fact, the boy never missed a practice in his four seasons on the team. Three or four days before the boy’s final game at Georgetown, Little received a telegram that informed him the boy’s father had died. Little had seen the boy walking with his father. “Son, I am sorry,” Little told him. “But your father passed away. Go home and take care of your family. We’ll try to win this game for you.” That Saturday, Little walked into his team’s locker room and was surprised to see the boy standing there. “Coach, you have to start me,” the boy said. “Son, you have never been a starter,” Little told him. “This is the championship game. I cannot take that kind of risk today.” “Coach, I have to do this for my father,” the boy pleaded. “Just put me in for the first play and then you can take me out of the game.” Little was overcome with sympathy. How could he not grant the boy his wish? So he put the boy in the starting lineup, and the boy ran down the field to cover the game’s opening kickoff. He tackled the player returning the kick so hard he nearly knocked him into the first row of seats. The boy jumped up and ran to the sideline just like he promised his coach he would do, but Little motioned to him to stay in the game. During the rest of the afternoon, the boy played like he was possessed. He led Georgetown’s team in tackles and delivered big hit after big hit. Georgetown won the game and claimed a conference championship. Little pulled the boy aside during the team’s celebration in its locker room. “Son, what in the world got into you today?” Little asked him. “You’ve never played like that before. You’ve never shown that much desire in four years.” “Coach, you know my father died,” the boy said. “You know my father was blind. Today was the first time he could see me play.” [http://sports.espn.go.com]
I am comforted and strengthened by the thought that those who have loved and supported me when they were alive, in some sense, continue to love and support me now that their faith has become sight. When my hands droop, my knees wobble and I am at risk of losing heart (Hebrews 12:12), it helps to hear a cheer from somewhere in the great beyond assuring me that I am not alone and that I can finish the course. And so, in the shadow of that great cloud of witnesses, I press on, running with endurance the course that is set before me, looking to Jesus, and rediscovering the joy of it all (Hebrews 12:1-2). DBS+