"... so great a cloud of witnesses.”
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Wednesday, March 31st: Psalm 70; Isaiah 50:4-9a; John 13:21-32; and Hebrews 12:1-3. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The CDC is warning about a fourth surge of COVID 19 infections, and they are advising and encouraging leaders to maintain COVID protocols. They are doing the same with individuals hoping that we will all stick with the protocols for a while longer. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but if we abandon precautions too soon, it will delay our exit from the pandemic.
The doctors and researchers at the CDC realize how desperately we wish to be free of the COVID restrictions and return to a normal lifestyle. This desire is in large part fueled by our exasperation with our isolation. Surveys document our exhaustion with online gatherings. They have shown that television was once a leisurely release. People looked forward to binge-watching a favourite program on a streaming service. Now television has become burdensome. It only reminds us that we are sitting on our couch instead of out doing something.
These same emotions apply to our spiritual selves. We need the community of believers. We need the called-assembly, the church. We need, as we read today in Hebrews, to believe that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” We are not as comfortable in isolation as we are among the community.
Think back to our Gospel stories about the life of Jesus. His public ministry begins when He travels to the Judean desert and becomes a part of the community around John the Baptist. After Jesus’ baptism and His return to Galilee, the first thing He does is call a community of disciples to gather around and with Him.
Jesus had been exposed to John’s separated community in the desert, a community that saw the rest of the world as fallen. Jesus rejected this model. He threw Himself into the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people all around Him, and by extraordinary I mean the few who were forced out of society – the sickly, the sinners, the prostitutes and tax collectors – and who Jesus brought back into community.
Jesus does choose moments alone in prayer, but for the most part isolation is not presented in a positive light in the Gospels. You may remember last week’s reading of Jesus’ isolation prior to the healing of Bartimaeus. You will hear of Jesus being alone and deserted by His followers on Good Friday. You will hear His pitiful cry of abandonment as He hangs on the cross: “‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?’”
When we move into the apostolic period, Paul speaks constantly of the called-assembly of the church. Paul’s mission, and that of all the apostles, is to form and establish these communities. The earliest extant piece of Christian writing is 1 Thessalonians. There we read that as the apostles have striven to build community so that community in turn strives to do the same: “… because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.”
Hebrews’ “cloud of witnesses” speaks of the unseen spirits who stand with us as church and believer, but there is also the cloud of witnesses who are the visible church. We are called to gather to support one another. I remember opening the church hall for a weekly meeting of AA. Doing so, you get to meet the regular leaders of the group. One Saturday evening, I was talking to a man who had been sober for quite an extended period of time. I asked if he were still tempted to start drinking again. His answer impressed me and has stayed with me. He told me that he no longer comes the meetings for himself, but for the next person who needs him to be there. I wish and pray that Christians would all have this same attitude regarding the sacred work of the called-community. We come together for our benefit and, just as importantly, for that of others.
After today, we will have the chance to gather in person and online for the Maundy Thursday worship Service. The church building will be open from just before noon until just after 3:00pm on Good Friday. We will come together outdoors before sunrise and again at 10:00am in the church building on Easter. These are not obligations that must be fulfilled or else we are charged with a sin. These are powerful opportunities to worship together, to stand stronger, to each help one another, and to be blessed as a part of Jesus’ community.
The pandemic has shown us how burdensome isolation can be. I hope we are able to translate this realization into why the church as community is so important. Holy Week and Easter will come and they will pass, but the blessing of the church community is ongoing and constant. I hope and pray that we can see it as such and know that “Whoever you are, you are welcome here.”
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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