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Sunday 18 August 2019

We are not alone

Hebrews 11:29-12:4


By Graham Pearcey

Methodist Local Preacher, and a Trustee of The College of Preachers


Context: non-Eucharistic service in a suburban chapel with a congregation of 30 to 40 adults

Aim: to examine the role that the saints play in ‘the race that is set before us’


Compared to other Christian traditions, are we over-reliant on words in our worship? Imagine if we decided to follow the example of some other denominations, placing pictures or statuettes of saints within our church buildings. Who should we pick? Modern heroes like Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela? In any case, surely not a prostitute, drunkard or murderer?

Well, interestingly, today we heard the writer to the Hebrews, in compiling a catalogue of faith heroes, include a prostitute: Rahab. Earlier in the same chapter the writer had listed Noah, who got drunk; and Moses, who slayed a man in a fight!

These are Old Testament characters, of course, but New Testament heroes are equally flawed. James and John squabbled over the best seats in the kingdom; Peter denied his Lord; Thomas doubted. Which is somewhat reassuring in ‘the race that is set before us’: if they could keep the faith and reach the finishing line, there’s hope for me yet!

A five-year-old boy sat alongside his dad on an aeroplane. They’d taken this flight because the lad’s mother, the man’s wife, was the pilot; and this was her first flight as captain. Needless to say, when the boy excitedly shared this information with passengers around him, some weren’t quite as ecstatic as he was! But the ‘plane moved off on time, taxied along the runway, took off perfectly and climbed gently skyward; and the boy squealed, ‘Way to go, Mum!’ Do saints do for us what this lad did for his mother: cheer us on without getting directly involved? Or can they do more?

Derek Redmond was a British athlete who went to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona with high hopes of a medal in the 400 metres. Come the day, the semi-final was going very well, the finishing line within sight, when disaster struck: Derek tore his hamstring and fell to the ground. Derek’s father, watching from the crowd, forced his way past stewards onto the running track, took his son’s arm, and helped him limp to the finishing line. Derek won no prize that day, but he did reach the finish. Of course, the father got in trouble for what he did; but are saints like that?

One day a Catholic was defending the, to us questionable, practice of ‘praying to’ saints. He asked me, ‘If you were facing a particularly tough challenge, would you consider requesting prayers from a Christian friend?’ ‘Of course,’ I replied. Then he said, ‘Do you believe in life after death for people of faith?’ Again, I had to say, ‘Of course.’ And finally, he asked, would I consider requesting prayers from a Christian friend after he or she had died? It was checkmate! The Catholic explained, ‘We don’t pray to saints. We ask them to intercede for us.’ So, faith heroes of the past can directly help us on our Christian pilgrimage. But can they do more still?

I draw your attention to Orthodox churches, that typically don’t have steeples or towers, but domes. And painted on the inside of the dome is ‘the cloud of witnesses’, a reminder that the saintly community don’t only inspire and encourage us but invite us to raise our sights heavenwards and look to Jesus. Today’s Scripture referred to this ‘cloud’ of witnesses – the literal meaning of the Greek word ‘nephos.’ Such imagery, seemingly strange to us, would have been clear to the first readers. In Jewish thought clouds symbolise God’s glory. The Israelites in the wilderness were accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day. Moses disappeared into a thick cloud when he received the Law. The disciples were overshadowed by one at Jesus’ transfiguration. And a cloud took Jesus out of their sight at his ascension. The cloud of witnesses give glory to God and encourage us to look to Jesus.

Saint Teresa of Ávila wrote, ‘I am not asking you now to think of [Jesus], or to form numerous conceptions of him, or to make long and subtle meditations with your understanding. I am asking you only to look at him.’ In particular, Teresa encouraged people to visualise Jesus’ crucified body. Marathon runners are often advised, upon hitting the so-called ‘wall’ at around 20 miles, to try and visualise the objects ahead, and themselves successfully negotiating them. Well, when we’re hitting the ‘wall’ on our Christian journey (as, evidently, the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews were), the saints invite us to ‘Look to Jesus ... who ... endured the cross.’

Jesus performs many functions in our Christian ‘race’: he’s our starting pistol; he lines our route; he’s alongside us aiding our steps; he’s ahead of us showing the way; and he’s the finishing line! We worship a crucified Christ, ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’

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