It is funny, I have a little saying that pops up in my head when times get tough “Why do you doubt that God exists when you know God Exists.” It is a derivation of a line from the movie Dogma where a fallen angel is putting doubts about God into the mind of a nun. I am no angel, but without a doubt I know God exists, but at the same time when things get really tough or I feel very alone, a creeping thought comes into my mind. That “what-if,” which at times scares me, also surprises me. More than that, it is usually a sign that something needs work and I need some grounding.
As we finish this series on faith, we do so with the shortest section of Hebrews 11, and because I cannot help myself we will go into the beginning of Hebrews 12. All of the previous weeks have set up a reality that the perseverance of faith which the forefathers had was all leading and preparing ultimately for something bigger. As you may guess, that “something bigger” is Jesus Christ, famously introduced through the beautiful passage in Hebrews 12, which is often referred to as the cloud of witnesses passage.
“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, 2 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.”
As with much of the Bible, this passage is pointing to something more than a temporal issue or singular understanding. It is a concept that our faith resides in a continuum from the beginning of time. In other words, we have faith today because of the faith and faithfulness of those who came before. They also become a “cloud of witnesses,” a group that tell us and show us who God is.
Many times people will come up to me seeking and looking for God. Often when people do this I notice that they have cut themselves off from the community and the world around them. This past Sunday I got into a conversation with a friend from the community. As he was relaying how thankful he was for our event Sunday, he said something really interesting (though he used more technical language than I will relay). He said that as we get more involved with connecting online and by other digital means, we are losing a sense of our community and are becoming increasingly individualized, which is destroying the fabric of society.
Granted he was talking about this in a secular sense, but it is not that far off from a faithful expression. We cannot fully realize faith devoid of community. While we can try, if we are honest, self-spirituality and spiritual journeys devoid of community often devolve into narcissism and often will brings us to nihilism. This is because we become blinded to the ways in which God is actively working in our lives since we have removed ourselves from the cloud of witnesses.
As I said last Sunday, our English language limits us when we talk about faith since the word itself has become so broad. But when I talk about faith, I am talking about the singular relationship that we have with God. This is really informed by Hebrews, and has become a cornerstone of how I move forward in my faith. If left to my own devices I could allow myself to believe my way was the only way. I could accept that God exists as some social construct or psychological necessity. But like I said at the outset of this article, I know God exists, and I know God exists because of the cloud of witnesses, the communities I am part of, and the challenges all of these place on my faith.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen