So Great a Cloud of Witnesses

John 17

The Lord here prays to the Father. To begin, He prays that those He has been given will come to a full knowledge of the Father. It’s important to recognize that this knowledge that He prays for, the full knowledge, is not only what they have learned from studying the Scriptures, but rather all of those things which they have seen, heard, and participated in. We have to remember that at least some of the disciples were knowledgeable about the Scripture. No, much more than mere intellectual knowledge, this full knowledge is an active participation in His life. It’s a bridge where what is to the left is mere study, and to the right is pure sentiment; and the bridge upon which we must maintain our balance is the perfect synergy of the two. It is feeling God actively in your life and participating with Him in His good works, while maintaining our faith and studies so that we will ever be grounded in their truth.

And we see that He prays this pray, to begin with for His disciples, those who were present at that moment, but then also for all those who come to believe. See, it’s so easy for us to be dismissive, to think that these teachings were only for those who were there at the moment, to see the teachings of Jesus as being “out-dated” in our modern world. It’s so tempting to want to claim that only the apostles must love their enemies, that only the apostles will be hated for following Him, that only the apostles needed to pray without ceasing, that only the apostles needed to obey their earthly leaders and rulers. But, He tells us here that this is contrary to His teaching.

Consider this for a moment. We believe that every believer is granted eternal life. John 3:16. And we believe that each person who joins the faith is adopted into this family, the One Body of Chris, the Church. Thus, if all generations are adopted into the same family, and those in the family have everlasting life, then every generation of believer participates in the same life and the same glory of the same God. We all enjoy this unity with God, and as each one of us is joined equally to God, then so too are we joined equally to one another. Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses,” and those witnesses are those who have entered the kingdom and, while still living in the kingdom, they watch over us. Much as Moses and Elijah returned on the Mount of Transfiguration, because they were not “dead,” so too are all those who have passed before us; for “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

It’s important for us to understand that when we consider those who have gone before us, if we separate ourselves from them, then it’s so easy to separate ourselves from the teachings that they received. When we think of ourselves as being 2000 years removed from the teachings of Jesus, that He spoke to a bunch of people who died 2000 years ago, then it’s easy to consider His teachings to have been solely for them. It’s easy for us who are separated by generations and generations of earthly lineage to distance ourselves from them spiritually, and ultimately, what happens? If St Peter isn’t alive, and I can no longer ask him to pray for me, then what do I truly say about my faith in eternal life? If my worship isn’t me joining in with the heavenly choirs, singing the same songs that we see in Scripture, then what does that say about my belief in heaven? If I believe that those who have passed on before me are no longer present in my life, then what am I saying about my faith in the words of Scripture when I read this passage in Hebrews about the great cloud of witnesses? See, when I separate myself from all of these things, I separate myself from the eternal, everlasting Church and declare that I do not believe that Jesus truly conquered death.

No, rather, when we come to the faith, we are joined to all of these great men and women; all of the saints, the ascetics, the martyrs and confessors; all of these people from all of Church history, and we must remember this fact. Let us look to these great heroes of the faith as our role models, seeking to emulate their lives. St Paul himself commends us, “imitate me, as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). And when we remember that we are joined to the same body as these great men and women, it becomes easier to remember that the teaching that the received is the same teaching that we receive, and when we look to them as our spiritual role models, it’s easier to see how we are to apply those teachings to our lives. When I look to the Western culture, I think about our governmental system. And I don’t agree with much of what happens there. But, then I read the words of Paul and Peter, but telling us to obey the government and have respect for those in authority; and I remember that those words were given during the times of Nero and Diocletian. And, all of a sudden, loving my enemy seems so much easier. Obedience to the government seems so much easier. Praying for those who persecute me seems so much easier. Because rather than considering the time between us, I consider the fact that I am of the same body as they are, and; while persecution may come in many forms, it comes nonetheless. And, as they were able, through the grace of God, to overcome, so can I. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And each of us, according to St John, who is “born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.” (1 John 5:4).

May the grace of the Lord be with us all. Christ is in our midst.

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