On October 31, 1517, a young monk named Martin knew that something was wrong. He looked into the eyes of the poor and could tell that they were desperate. They had been told by the Church that in order to assure that they and their loved ones would have their sins absolved, they would need to give an offering. The amount was specified. The deadline was clear. They simply didn’t have it.
So when Martin looked into their eyes, he knew that something was wrong. There was no Scriptural reason for this requirement. It was, in fact, rather unchristian in his eyes. For Martin, this was one of a list of things that he found troubling in the Church. In general, he argued, the Church had this extra set of requirements and expectations, none of which were actually from the Bible. He dared to suggest a concept that has been called the priesthood of all believers. In short, he dared to believe that each of us can come to God on our own terms. From the pope. To the monks that he lived and served beside. To the poor in whose eyes he now looked. They, too, had every right to pray to God, read about Christ, and hear the word of the Holy Spirit.
It was an idea that would eventually get him kicked out of the Church.
And it was an idea that would eventually change the world.
On October 31, 2017, Marty snuggled into his favorite chair. He opened the curtains so that he could see the leaves turning outside. He turned up the Bach concerto on the surround sound. He opened his Bible to read, and thumbed through his favorite devotional book. He smiled as he thought about his friends out in the cold at their church’s trunk or treat. “How silly,” he thought to himself. Once upon a time, he went to church. But then came a day when he realized that he didn’t really need it anymore. He could worship just as well here in his own chair. If he needed to feel better about himself, he could volunteer at the local soup kitchen. Or donate a few dollars to a cause that is close to his heart. But, he found, he didn’t really need church anymore. He had become a denomination of one.
A lot has changed in the last 500 years, hasn’t it? From Martin Luther’s first declaration that we can come to God on our own terms to what some see as the logical conclusion: a world in which we can create our own denomination of one. Or two or three…as long as they agree with us. Many have discovered Luther’s concept of priesthood of all believers, and taken it to a place where many suggest that they no longer need the church. As long as they have their favorite classical music and devotional book, they can worship just as well.
But my fear is that it creates a land of spiritual isolation. Robert Putnam has written about such isolation in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He suggests that our culture seems to drive people apart instead of bringing them together. Now, we talk in ways that sound like we are coming together; we live in a world that seems more connected that it has ever been. We have this promise of online community and social networks and digital relationship. But in the end, we have no hand to hold, no eyes to look into, and are left with the feeling of isolation and emptiness. What makes it worse is that we are connected – to everyone and no one. Our communication is reduced to a few lines of text. Our connection is reduced to a thumbs up “like” icon. And our relationships are so often shallow and empty. We are isolated. And Putnam writes that this isolation can become dangerous: “People divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism.”
We live in a land of spiritual isolation.
And yet, we are not the first to struggle with this malady. Scripture is filled with those who felt isolated. No one listened to Noah. Abraham led his family on a lonely journey without a clear destination. Rahab was the only one of her people who protected the Hebrew spies. Moses stood alone in Pharaoh’s court. The list goes on and on and on.
But yet, we know each of their names. Something set apart these women and men apart from all of the hurting and isolated generations who have stood on this planet. Something made them take a step out of themselves and their own needs and take a risk.
Of course, the author of Hebrews suggests that that something is their faith. In the 11th chapter of the book, the author gives us this roll call of faith. Every one that I just mentioned, and a dozen more, are all listed as examples of the faith. Examples of endurance and perseverance, even when they didn’t know the big picture. Regardless, they believed that there was a big picture. They believed that there was a God bigger than themselves and their needs. They saw themselves as a part of something bigger than just this one time and place. A piece in a bigger puzzle. And so they had faith.
And so, we get at the beginning of chapter 12, this great phrase: The Great Cloud of Witnesses. A reminder that we are not alone, and we never have been. Even in the midst of our spiritual isolation, we have the opportunity to see that God is bigger than us and up to something that is beyond this time and place.
So what about us? Today we begin a three part series about whether or not church matters. In a culture that is increasingly like our fictional Marty, we find more and more people deciding that they no longer need church. It is up to us – for the first time in any of our lives – to have to make the argument for why church is good, and meaningful, and important. Today we ask the first of three questions: Does history matter? Does it matter for us to see ourselves as a part of something bigger and longer and beyond this time and space?
Of course it does. It is important to know from whence we came. It is important to know what mistakes we have made in the course of human history. It is important to understand that we are pieces of a bigger puzzle. 500 years ago, Luther suggested that we each have the ability to come to God on our own terms. But he never suggested that we each become a denomination of one. What he seemed to mean is that we are all capable of coming to God on our own terms, but not just for our own sake. Not just for ourselves.
Baptist writer Carlyle Marney writes in his book, “Priests to Each Other”: “How does it work, the priesthood of the believer?….you take your priesthood wherever you are, to be whatever priests must be – You, all of you, are the ministry of the Word. This does not mean that you are competent to deal with God for yourself. It means rather that you are competent to deal with God and for the neighbor.” (ital mine.)
The point of priests is that they help connect God to the people. That is their primary role: connection. And Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers is not a suggestion that we run from the church, but that we are empowered to run toward it! Marney writes that this does not mean an individual pope-hood of each believer. Instead it means that you are given a gift that is meant to share. We can deal with God for each other. We see ourselves as a part of a bigger picture. We fit into a bigger puzzle.
And so, of course history matters. Now, we have to admit, it is a double-edged sword. The deeper you delve into history, the more brokenness and violence you will find. Even the hero of the Reformation – Luther – was an imperfect man, and suggested treatment of the Jews that many would find unchristian. But he fits in with the whole list of Hebrews’ Great Cloud – imperfect down to the last one. No one you find will be perfect, save one…which is why the author of Hebrews calls him the pioneer and the perfecter of the faith.
To be able to see ourselves as a part of something that is not just about this time and place is incredibly important. The picture that Hebrews paints is that we are a part of multi-generational relay race…that this great cloud of witnesses has passed the baton to us. And the question is, will we choose isolation? Will we take the baton and sit in our comfy chair of isolation with our morning coffee and Bible and Bach recording?
But, says the author of Hebrews, what would the great cloud of witnesses say? After all, they were the ones who wrote your devotional book. They were probably the ones who wrote your classical music. They were the ones who wrote the Bible! They would remind us that you are a part of a greater history and a greater community, and you have been handed a baton, says Hebrews. What will you do with that baton next?
How many of you have ever run in a race? A 5K or half marathon, or even a marathon or ultra? I have run in a handful of races, and I have noticed this pattern. In these races, there is a wide variety of skill levels to the runners. Some are hard core. They have the watch to check their split times, and they know exactly how fast they want to run, and they finish in their time and then jog the course backwards as everyone else looks at them with loathing in their eyes. Then on the other side of the spectrum, you have the first time runners, the couch to 5K folks, those who clearly want to simply finish regardless of how fast it is. And then you have everyone else in between. So, there is this wide range between the first runner and the last runner.
But here’s the pattern: have you noticed that in most of these races, even after folks finish their race, they come back to cheer on others? Maybe they get their banana and a Gatorade, but then they come back and root on the rest of the runners at the finish line. Or along the line, they shout encouragement to those who are still running. It is a race, but it is not really a competition. Those who are still running, who feel like they cannot take another step, hear the cheers and are buoyed and encouraged.
That is what the author of Hebrews has in mind here in chapter 12. He or she writes of the Great Cloud of Witnesses, gathering together to witness those who are still running. Maybe they are done with their race, but that doesn’t mean that they sit in the shade. They are cheering, encouraging, shouting words of endurance to those who still run.
That is how I see Church. I think of the great cloud of witnesses in my life: those who have encouraged me and taught me how to run. I think of those who made it possible for those witnesses to cheer me on: those who taught them the faith, and those who taught that generation, and the generation before. I think about those who refused to sit in the shade with their Bible and classical music and just take whatever others gave. But who instead chose to give: to teach and to write and to preach and to mentor. And I imagine myself in the race, with all of these great cloud watching, cheering me on. There is my Mammaw, who showed me that women can lead in the church as much as men. There is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose writings and life have been such an important influence on me. There are Marilyn and Virginia, my first Sunday school teachers (that I remember), who taught me about Jesus. There is the great cloud of witnesses from this church: there is Bill Arnold….and Wanda Chauvin…and Kirk Heinz. There they all are, cheering me on whenever I think I cannot take another step. There they are, giving me their wisdom and encouragement and teaching and example.
There they are, doing the same for you. Know that you are not alone, that your faith is not a one-man or a one-woman show. The pioneer and perfecter of the faith sets the pace. And you are surrounded by countless witnesses, cheering your every step. May you run with a new hope, for you do not run alone.