Sermon Title “Saved in the Cloud” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! I saw a cartoon the other day, Jesus is clipping coupons out of the newspaper; the caption reads “Jesus Saves.” You can also find memes out there which say some version of “I spend; Jesus saves.” Of course, saving is not a financial proposition, nor is saving a matter of data storage, as in “Is that document saved? No, but we’re praying for it.” The cloud which Jan read about from our text in Hebrews is not about information, it is about relationship: first of all relationship to Jesus Christ, and also relationship with those who have passed away and we who continue to live outside of heaven. It is appropriate that we name and remember those who have proceeded us in death, but even more important that we look past them to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.
The authorship of the book of Hebrews is murky, partly because the writer does not identify him or herself in the letter. Christian tradition identifies the author as the Apostle Paul, but scholars who have compared the writing to other letters of Paul’s think that it was more likely a close associate of Paul’s, perhaps even Pricilla (a woman!) who was active in the ministry of the 1st century church. There is not enough data out there for a conclusive answer, and it may not matter in the end. What we can tell is what message was important to this author; whoever composed this letter had a few main points to make, and they are themes with a lot of contemporary resonance.
I won’t have time for a whole book study or to fully develop these themes today, but I will lay them out for you and let you decide if they are ideas which have relevance to your life. The first theme is that God has provided something better in Jesus Christ. Better than what? You might ask. For the 1st century audience of Jewish Christians, it was something more complete than the Jewish practices they had been raised with, and were sliding back into. This letter is saying, Don’t trade down to something less when you have been given the opportunity for salvation in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Times are tough; clearly the community who has received this letter has been experiencing persecution. There are lots of options which may seem easier than life in Christ: don’t trade down.
Which leads to a second theme: We are called to live by faith. You may familiar with the opening verses of chapter 11 which read: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The rest of the chapter describes beloved Jewish forerunners — women and men — and their witness of faith. And the final words of chapter 11 are, “Yet all of these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better, so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” And the very next verses are this morning’s text, about being surrounded by that great a cloud of witnesses.
I don’t want you to miss what just happened between those verses. We remember and celebrate — rightly so — the ways that faithful people who have joined the company of saints have modeled faithfulness for us. But these verses imply that the faithful people who went before and did not know Jesus Christ can be made perfect through our faith and perseverance in Jesus Christ. I am not sure how this works, frankly, but is more complicated than I used to believe. How can our faithfulness on earth effect the saints in heaven? Is that just for people who lived before Jesus lived on earth? Or does it also include believers who are witnesses to our endurance, and who are cheering us on in the race which we are running? All of the names which we mentioned earlier in the service were people who were significant to someone in this congregation. Some, like Marti Thompson and Janet Vardaman and Bill Pletcher were directly involved in this family of faith and still live in our corporate memory. Is it enough to remember and give thanks for their lives, or do we carry some responsibility to stay in the race because of their witness? To persevere, because we know they are waiting at the end? In other words, are their lives, and the lives of the other people represented by these small flames, simply a warm memory, or do their lives have some claim on the way we live our lives?
Of course, our focus should point beyond any person, no matter how faithful or how beloved, to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And here’s where this text has contemporary resonance for me. We have many candidates vying for our time, our attention, and especially our loyalty — perhaps not the call of the Jewish faith, as the audience of this letter was struggling with, but plenty of other ideas and ideologies, most of them secular. If we think our government or our military or our 401K or our civic engagement or our good intentions will save us, we are mistaken. Jesus Christ is something better than any of those things. Christ is something better than all of those things, but in order for Christ to save us, we have to acknowledge that we are in need of saving, and that only Christ can do it. There are plenty of things — not all of them bad things — which can distract us, weigh us down, and hold us back. Until we recognize that, we are going to be stumbling along instead of running our best race.
I am grateful for that cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. These are people who touched our lives and effected how we did church together. They were husbands and mothers and family members and friends, and in some cases they were a personal inspiration to me; they are people I will not forget. The best way to honor this great cloud of witnesses is to choose something better — someone better than anything the world has to offer. We live lives of faith not simply to punch our ticket to heaven, but because faithful people are needed in the world here and now. The best way to honor that great cloud of witnesses is for us to stay in the race, and run as best we can. Heaven is full of saints like that, but where we are now needs people who are willing to follow Jesus Christ even when we can’t see where that path is leading, even when it might not seem to be the quickest fix for our troubles, even when it isn’t easy. If we want to be saved into that great cloud of witnesses, we have to let go of the distractions, the grudges, and the bad decisions and the sin which holds us back.Run with courage — we are never alone. May these witnesses and the ones who have gone before them guide us to Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. May we live so that others will see and believe in the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith. Amen.