The twelfth chapter of Hebrews starts with a vaguely threatening verse: ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.’
I used to think that the writer of the letter was basically saying, “Look, you’re being watched all the time, so there’s your incentive to not mess it up.” It wasn’t a particularly encouraging thought, to imagine this great cloud of eyebrows being raised in collective disappointment whenever I put a foot wrong. Of course, a few theology degrees later, I have realised that this is not what the author of Hebrews meant. The great cloud of witnesses being referred to is the list of heroes of the faith from the previous chapter; those who have gone before us. They were witnesses in that their lives testified to God being at work. The writer of the letter is actually saying, “Be encouraged by all the fine men and women who have gone before you. Let their example spur you on to greatness.” That’s a much more effective encouragement, and far less creepy in an “I see dead people” way.
One of the statements of the Apostle’s Creed is ‘We believe in the communion of the saints.’ There’s probably a few Protestants who are not quite sure what they’re agreeing to when they say this. It all sounds suspiciously Catholic. Of course, it’s one of those statements that allows you to put your own particular denominational spin on it, but I interpret it in a Hebrews 12:1 way. I am in communion with all followers of God, past and present, not because they remain around like Force ghosts from Star Wars, but rather because I follow in their footsteps, learn from them and know that they stand alongside me. For example, I have never met Richard Wurmbrand but his writings have had such an influence on me that I feel like I have been discipled by him. He is just one of many of the saints, living and dead, who have strengthened my story through their words and their example – just like in Hebrews 11 & 12.
Any attempt to genuinely live a life with God at the centre can easily make you feel like you are in a minority, but being in a minority is not the same as being alone. I believe, and will always believe, in the communion of the saints.