Friday, August 16, 2013

Reflections on the Epistle - Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Read the text here: Hebrews 11:29-2:2
No One Is Alone
“… since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”  Wow!  Think about it.  We are surrounded; we are supported; we are being cheered on; we are being inspired - by so great a cloud of witnesses! This statement, which appears near the end of this epistle to the Hebrews, is, for me, one of the most strengthening and encouraging lines in scripture.  A few lines later the writer uses another image – the image of a runner running a race.  When you combine these two images what the preacher is saying is this: we running the race of life, which includes all the dimensions of life including our discipleship.  This race is at times a “rat race;” at times the race leads us into the some dark places and experiences; sometimes we stumble and fall and trip over obstacles; sometimes the climb up the mountains can be really hard; but at other times it is like running downhill.  The race of life contains all of that.  And there in the stands, cheering us on, is the cloud of witnesses.  Saints of every time and every age – from the Patriarchs and prophets, to the Disciples, to St. Francis, to Mother Theresa, to family and friends who have gone to take their place in the heavenly stands.  They are there surrounding us with their love, and encouragement and strength. 
A couple words about the letter to the Hebrews: this epistle is very different than many of the other letters we find in the New Testament.  Most of the letters were either written by or attributed to St. Paul and Paul has a very specific formula that he uses in all his letters.  The few times he alters this formula it is for a very specific reason (for example – skipping the opening thanksgiving so he can get right into lambasting the Galatians).  The letter form is completely missing from Hebrews, which has led many scholars to conclude that it is actually not a letter at all.  Rather it is a sermon, and it appears to follow the structure of an early sermon.  Next, who wrote it?  It was not Paul, there is no question about that for there is nothing in this book that is Pauline in any way.  So, then the author is unknown.  Some have suggested that the sermon takes a very pastoral tone which has led some to suggest that Hebrews is a sermon to a faithful yet struggling and dispirited community of believers and that it is written by their Pastor (who, by the way, in the very early church could have been a woman!)  When was it written?  Probably in the late 80’s, which is just about the same time the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were being penned.  Finally, given the name of the book one might assume that this sermon was addressed to Christian believers of Hebrew background.  But yet, the sermon is written in elegant and complex Greek and uses some Greek imagery, which is woven into the sermon along with looking back to early Jewish history – especially the 1st Temple period.  This has led scholars to conclude that this sermon was for Greek speaking Christians, some of whom might have had a Jewish background, but many of whom probably did not.  The point then is to help these new Christians to see how Christ emerges from and is a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and expectations, and to provide guidance for living as a Christian in their current lives.
In the section that we have been looking at in the last couple weeks (chapter 11 to 12) the preacher is entering into the final stretch of his sermon.  And so he or she is drawing out the conclusions of what has been presented beforehand: Hold fast to your faith, don’t become discouraged, don’t be afraid, recognize that you are not alone!  And in the midst of this life, this race, who stands with us?  Well, all of the Saints from the beginning of God’s salvation history up to and including Saints whom we have known and loved and lost.  These early Saints include Abraham and Sarah and the Patriarchs, Rahab, Melchizadek, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Solomon, the prophets and others, many of whom were martyrs, many of whom wandered the deserts and lived in holes and caves!  These Saints are among the cloud of witnesses!  And what is striking about this preacher’s list is that this is an interesting collection of faithful losers and misfits.  Abraham had some serious trust issues; Jacob was a liar and a cheater, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery due to their jealousy; Rahab (the only woman on the list) was a Canaanite temple prostitute; Melchizadek was a Canaanite priest, Samson could not control his lusts or his violent streak; Barak and Gideon were violent men; Jephthah sacrificed his daughter and David and Solomon – well, their failings take up the whole of five Old Testament books.  The point is – these Saints are far from perfect.  They are flawed, they made huge mistakes, acted selfishly and were at times very unfaithful.  Yet, they continued to “run the race” of faith despite their failings and failures.   And they now stand among the cloud of witnesses.
These are not the perfect holy people we sometimes think of when we use or hear the word Saint.  Rather, they are normal flesh and blood human beings like you and like me.  Men and women who ran the race, even though they stumbled and fell many times during their lives.  Yet they got back up and continued to move forward.  To this list we could add the disciples, Paul, the early Church Fathers (and Mothers) and a list of Saints that numbers in the thousands – and none of these could be said to be without human flaws; none of these ran the race without stumbling many times – just like us! 
So, as you continue in your race, who do you spy in the stands surrounding you, supporting you, lifting you up, giving you strength and inspiration to continue on?  Which of the Saints of times past?  Which Saints of your own time and place, whom you have encountered and who directly reached up and nurtured you?  Parent, teacher, pastor, friend?  They are all there cheering you on from the stands!  They are all there surrounding you in a cloud of witnesses!  No one is alone – You are not alone – We are not alone!  Therefore let us continue to run the race that is set before us!
In the musical "Into the Woods" near the end of the 2nd act, those that remain of the cast sing the song "No One Is Alone."  This song has inspired this sermon so some degree and I think it is reflective of the this text.  Those that know "Into the Woods" know that Act I presents a series of very well-known fairy tales that are interwoven.  By the end of Act I the fairy tales are complete and it looks like everyone is headed for "happily ever after."  But not so, in Act II the cast must face the consequences of their actions in Act II - especially Jack's killing and enraging the wife of the giant who Jack killed when he chopped down the beanstalk.  But he is not the only one.  All the characters and story lines have consequences and difficulties to face.  Act II is thus much, much darker.  But this is what makes this show so outstanding.  It is like life - running the race - there are mountains to climb, difficulties to confront, consequences to face and what makes it possible for us to continue on when we are so overwhelmed is that we are not alone - we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses - which gives us strength and encouragement and guidance.  Think of this text as you listen to the song, performed here by Cinderella, Little Red, the Baker and Jack from the Broadway revival cast. (This is from a promotional performance on the Rosie O'Donnell Show).


  1. Dec. 23, 2013

    Dear Pastor S Blake Duncan,
    Thank you for considering a woman author of the epistle to the Hebrews. I have written extensively on this topic ("Priscilla's Letter: Finding the Author of the Epistle to the Hebrews"). You can find several of my published articles on Wiley Clarkson's website, These are a couple of my arguments: Apollos, knowing only the baptism of John (Acts 18:25,26), needed instruction on baptisms- a topic covered by the teacher/catechist author of Hebrews (Heb. 6:1,2). After receiving instruction from Priscilla, Apollos preached on the theme that Jesus was the Messiah foretold in OT scripture- a main theme of Hebrews. The letter was written to Hebrews Christians in Ephesus, the locale of Priscilla's ministry. She has strong family and church connections at Rome, the city of origin.
    I hope you will want to further consider the case for Harnack's Priscilla hypothesis of the year 1900.
    Ruth Hoppin

  2. Thanks for the note - I will look forward to reading your articles. Blessings... SBD+