Before A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A New Year At Seminary

Cain leads Abel to death, by James Tissot.
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I was asked to share a passage of Scripture and a brief reflection for a community event this evening and I thought I’d offer it here for all of you as well. I shared this among Fuller students as we prepare for the fall quarter which begins tomorrow.

Here are a few excerpts from Hebrews 11-12:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith…

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them..

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back…

By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin…By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment…

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

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, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our 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.” (Hebrews 11:1-12:2 NRSV)

To this list we might add an endless roll-call of the faithful throughout church history, our fathers and mothers of faith who were theologians, priests, radicals, monks, farmers, teachers, prophets, martyrs, the young and old, from every tradition and every theological persuasion.  As seminary students and Christians, we do indeed stand before a great cloud of witnesses. Every time we enter a classroom, write a paper, crack open a book we must listen for the Spirit within the stories, ideas, and acts of the faithful who who have gone before us. Every instance we open ourselves up to this great cloud of witnesses we open ourselves up to God and God’s work through the church in the world.

Not Receiving the Promise

But standing before this cloud of witnesses is to stand, through faith, in humble courage. As it says in verses 11:13 and 11:39: the faithful “…did not receive what was promised…” Placing ourselves within the lineage of this biblical text is to be reminded that we cannot control and manage the outcome of our faith. Often we as students approach our classes, our classroom topics, the books we’re assigned, and yes the Biblical text with tightly-held preconceived notions about who God is, our own theology, the church and the practice of faith; there isn’t any other way to start out. But this passage reminds us that we cannot cling to anything other than “things unseen,” which is like saying we can only cling to the wind.  We are to only hold lightly to these “weights.”  We cannot guarantee our reception of the promise. In the same way that Abraham never saw his ancestors populate the land, or Moses never quite reaching the promise land, we cannot expect that if we have the proper kind of faith, with all our i’s dotted and t’s crossed, we can keep everything in order. If we can manage, or control, God and theology around our beliefs, then our faith is not the kind of faith represented in the book of Hebrews.

It was the son Abraham loved so deeply that rendered his faith so great, to give up the thing you love is true sacrifice. Abraham had enough faith to believe that God could do the impossible, even if he could not understand or make sense of what that might be. As Kierkegaard says:

The moment [Abraham] is ready to sacrifice Isaac, the ethical expression for what he does is this: he hates Isaac. But if he actually hates Isaac he can be certain that God does not require this of him: for Cain and Abraham are not the same. Isaac he must love with all his soul. When God asks for Issac, Abraham must if possible love him even more, and only then can he sacrifice him; for it is indeed this love of Isaac that in its paradoxical opposition to his love of God makes his act a sacrifice (Fear and Trembling: 101)

The faith of Abraham and the many witnesses since his time are examples for us as students, and certainly as Christians. What we love most, what we hold closest is the sacrifice we leave open to God, and through that gap of the unseen faith is born. Seminary is not only a place to learn, but a place to make this sacrifice. Let us all enter this fall becoming students of the great cloud of witnesses before us, allowing God to speak to us through them. And through a humble faith we can experience how God has been at work through the church in the world and hopefully join that work.

A Query on Faith

In the Friends Church we have a practice of offering spiritual questions that help us meditate and pray on a given topic, it’s an open-ended question that doesn’t have a right answer so much as it’s meant to lead us into more prayer and reflection. Here is one such query:

Query: Do I have the faith in God necessary to give up what I truly love and to learn from those who have gone before me with the humility required to live without guarantees?

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.