So great a cloud of witnesses surrounds us … not only the Old Testament examples of faith that the writer to the Hebrews mentions in Chapter 11, but so many more. Just this month, we remember Anskar, missionary in Denmark and Sweden in 9th Century; Cyril and Methodius, also 9th century missionaries; Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda and 20th century martyr; Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and early martyr. There are writers like George Herbert, and evangelists like Mark and Luke. Early followers of Jesus such as Mary Magdalene, and 3rd century martyrs Perpetua and Felicity; writers such as Amy Carmichael and social reformers such as Josephine Butler; religious such as Etheldreda, 7th century abbess of Ely. Local people such as Richard Caistor, a medieval priest who ministered at St Stephen’s, Norwich; Withburga, who founded a monastery; Margery Kempe and many more. There will be those in that cloud whose names we do not know, and whose lives are lost to history, but who will still be there, witnessing to their Lord, and urging us on in our own journey. There may be some who have inspired and helped our own faith: a youth group leader, a parent or grandparent, a helpful priest, wise spiritual director or friend. All there, part of that great cloud of witnesses, who have run their race, and now encourage and inspire ours.
So, says the letter to the Hebrews (12:1-3), let us lay aside every heavy weight. What is it that weighs us down? What heavy weights are we clinging to, that hinder us in our journey? Of course, there may be some weights, some situations, that we just need to live through; that we cannot lay down because they are part of our life circumstances. But are there weights that we can lay down? Or, at least, that we can see that we should begin to? Weights such as being overly perfectionist, or too conforming to the needs of others; weights that may involve us having too high a standard of behaviour for ourselves, one that we are constantly failing to meet; weights that may involve our attitudes rather than our actions; weights that are heavier because we cannot accept them as they are …. The list could go on. To lay aside every heavy weight, we need first to identify what is it that weighs us down, before exploring how we can lay it aside. This may be easier said than done, and the purpose of this blog is not to add another element to a load of guilt you may be carrying around. Once identified, it may need time and help to lay aside, and we may need to explore what it is about this weight that is so heavy, before identifying how – and if – it can be laid aside. There may be heavy weights that you bear that are part of your life circumstances, that you can do nothing to change. But I think the writer of Hebrews is thinking far more about what weighs us down spiritually, what it is that hinders us in our journey of faith. Is there something specific that weighs you down, that hinders your faith? And, if so, can you do anything to change that?
Then, says Hebrews, put aside the sin that gets in the way; so much seems impossible. After all, sin is part of the human condition, and none of us are going to cure that this side of death; and too nit-picking an attitude to sin does not help, and being overly judgemental about it might just be one of those things that weighs you down. Should we ignore the whole passage, and just get on with life? Well, no, I don’t think so. Acceptance of our human frailty might just be one of those ways in which we lay aside the sin that gets in our way, and the weight that hinders us. Not an anything-goes, I’m saved so I can do what I want kind of acceptance, but an acceptance that acknowledges that, while we are not perfect and while we are all sinners, we should not judge ourselves or others harshly, but approach the whole issue in the knowledge of the love God has for us, in an awareness, a knowing of the mercy of God. I suspect that it is the judgementalism, the condemnation that gets in the way of our faith, as much as the sin itself. Not that sin should be treated lightly, but that our attitude towards it can also be sin.
The point of this passage is, I think, to encourage us to look towards Jesus, and to lay aside anything that gets in the way of that. Just as, when someone is competing in a race, they lay aside anything that might hinder them in running. You don’t see many athletes running in winter coats, carrying bags and luggage; they have left all that aside, in order to focus on running the race that is set before them. We are encouraged to do the same; to lay aside anything that gets in between us and Jesus, to whom we should look and focus, just as a runner will focus on the finish line. For Jesus is the one we follow, and in our journey we look to him as the one who inspires us and keeps us going. The yearly round of the church year reminds us just what Jesus went through for us. He suffered opposition, betrayal, shameful and painful death … yet came out the other side, in the victory of the resurrection. It is Jesus who we are disciples of. That great cloud of witnesses that surround us is full of people who have struggled as we do (although possibly in a much less technological way …), but full of people who have been weighed down, who have sinned and fallen and got up again to continue going. Not even the saints were perfect; but they followed their Lord in the way in which he asked them to, in the way in which their life led and in the situations it landed them in. They have been there. Their witness and encouragement, while it may seem far away, is real and active, as they urge us on to the finish, as they inspire us to fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than on that which weighs us down so heavily. That is not to say that all will go well; real life happens, and all is not well (while it will be). Hebrews 11 goes on to talk of accepting the Lord’s disciplining of us. Another Saint, John of the Cross, may well be urging and encouraging especially those who are going through difficult times, or dark nights of the soul.
But, still, there is the question: what is getting in the way of our faith? What is coming in between us and Jesus? Is there anything we need to lay aside so that we can focus on Jesus and run our race more effectively? Whether or not we can do anything practical, can we lay aside that sense of shame and condemnation that can afflict us; can we lay aside whatever it is within us that says we are not worthy, and listen still more deeply to the whisper of God’s voice in the depths of our soul saying that we are loved? Can we see that whatever we think of ourselves – that we are stupid, or horrid, or impossible, or bad, or difficult, or horrible, or idiotic or stupid – is not necessarily something we have to believe? Can we see that whatever we think of ourselves may not be correct? That, however difficult it is to see, to believe, to hold on to, it is nevertheless true that we are beloved children of God; and, however minimally we can see that, however little we can hold on to it, however difficult it is to do … what we need to lay aside is anything that comes between us and the knowledge that God loves us; anything that comes between us and the knowledge that God is love; and remember, too, that we are not alone in our struggle. We have a great cloud of witnesses loving and urging us on; and, in our depths, whether we know it or not, God is always there, loving us and holding us, helping us to focus on Jesus as we run the race that is set before us.