July 13, 2020

Monday with Michael Spencer: A Crowd of Witnesses

Monday with Michael Spencer
A Crowd of Witnesses

One of these days I am going to write a tribute post to the wonderful reformed historian and biographer, Iain Murray. Murray has created a legacy of something we desperately need in Christianity: the lives of the “saints” that surround us on the journey. That’s a valuable and powerful gift to the church. Consider how scripture points us to the crowd of witnesses around, behind and ahead of us.

I was contemplating this as I prepared to preach today and reread Hebrews 12:1-4.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people;* then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin.

I’ve been in many large crowds of Christians at various festivals and events, but I realized today the New Testament really has nothing to say about the power of crowds to encourage us in true godliness. Gatherings in the New Testament era were small, and no one dreamed of a “stadium event,” except in the Kingdom to come.

The experience of being in a crowd can do a lot of things for us, but the New Testament seems remarkably uninterested in whatever they might be. On the other hand, Revelation 7 tells us that we are part of a great gathering of the redeemed that cannot be numbered. Hebrews 12:1 says we are, even now, surrounded by that number. This crowd is supposed to inspire us. In that “cloud of witnesses,” we can find some of the energy for running the race all the way home.

In the Service of Lessons and Carols at Cambridge University, there is a bidding prayer that moves me deeply each year. It certainly moves me more as I have more family members and friends on the other side. As Christians gather to hear the story of the Incarnation, a prayer always includes this paragraph:

Finally, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light — that great cloud of witnesses, that multitude that no one can number, with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore.

The Christian commitment to look at this crowd of witnesses is a reminder that the witness of a life in Christ is not just to the lost, but to all of us. At my place of ministry we have a rich tradition of witnesses; some staff, many volunteers; of course students and friends. Our buildings are not named after people who wrote checks, but after people who spent decades of life in bringing this ministry through 107 years. This is just a small window of the crowd of witnesses that has sustained the church throughout the centuries.

We live in a world that chokes us with celebrities, athletes, musicians, criminals, actors, politicians and people whose significance to the public certainly escapes me. As Christians, it is a conscious choice to step away from and renounce this celebrity culture and idolatry of fame and significance. It is difficult to help our children understand what is at stake when they wear a name on their jerseys or a face on a shirt. Our ability to sort through the human “crowd,” and find God’s windows of grace will constantly be tested.

My heroes/saints are people like Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, OBI President Barkley Moore and recent fellow staff members John and Erma Smith. These are some of the crowd that surrounds and encourages me. They join with the names and faces of the Apostles, martyrs and servants of the King from past ages in making a “witness” to the worth and way of Jesus Christ.

Some would say our heroes cannot be flawed, but it is the flaws of our saints that make them unique windows of the glory of God. Men like MLK faced unique challenges in their time, but their flaws are common to all of us who are sinners. As we follow their life stories, we learn where we’ve been and what we can expect around the corner. We learn God is faithful, and he will see us all the way home, no matter what our journey is like.

Along this journey, we all need companions, teachers and saints/heroes. Remember to choose and honor all three. We honor them by looking through and beyond them to our Lord Jesus Christ. We walk a way that may seem alone, but when we look at the road less taken, we will see that others have been this way before.

I don’t mean the kind of “in-house” celebrity worship that goes on on the various “teams” in evangelicalism. I want and need more than someone with two books (or a CD of greatest hits) and a big church to encourage me. Teachers and preachers have a part in the journey, but saints/heroes are different. They teach us with lives finished and well-lived.

In my office, I have a board with pictures of my “saints” and heroes. Some ancient, others contemporary. Some I know well; others just a bit. They encourage me along the way. I never feel quite alone. Each one is a specific kind of encouragement. Each one reaches me somewhere that few others do.

In Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating takes his class to a trophy case, where pictures of long deceased students and teams stare back at them from days gone by. Keating asks the boys to know that all those young men are now dead, and to take inspiration for their lives from the brevity of life itself.

We have a different experience. I look at my saints/heroes and I know they are not dead, but alive. And while on earth, they reminded me that life is a gift from God, to be lived for his glory, and in his light, but with eternity in mind.

Pick your saints and surround yourself with their evidences and “remains.” Not relics, but words and stories. (Though if you have a Merton note or letter, I do have a birthday later this year.) Be encouraged that others have been this way before and they beckon you on toward the light on the other shore.

Comments

  1. Given what modern psychology has to say about crowd mentally,band given how easily manipulable crowds can be, I’d say God and the NT authors were on to something.

    • Crowds and mobs are a hair’s breadth away from each other.

      • It’s a bit early for Eastertide illustrations, but it does bear remembering that the crowd that shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday was screaming “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday.

  2. senecagriggs says

    “Finally, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us but upon another shore, and in a greater light — that great cloud of witnesses, that multitude that no one can number, with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore.”

    Oh I like that.

  3. “ When you know, even for a moment, that it’s your time, you can walk with the power of a thousand generations. “ Bruce Cockburn. A Dream Like Mine

  4. Burro (Mule) says

    One of the things I most appreciate about the Eastern Orthodox canonization “process” is the grass-roots nature of it. If you feel as though someone should be venerated, you venerate that person. Eventually if enough of the faithful are similarly convinced, troparia and kontakia are composed, and icons begin to be written. After a time, one of the individual synods of the Church formally recognizes the sanctity of the individual and officially adds him or her to their calendar.

    Even then, it usually takes additional time for a saint to become universally recognized by the entire church. I am very fond of Saints Peter and Fevronia, a 12th century Russian couple widely honored among the Russians for the holiness of their marriage, but they are practically unknown among the Greeks. In contrast, Saint Cosmas of Aitolos (1712?-1779), the John Wesley of Orthodoxy, is gaining popularity among the Greeks but is unknown among the Russians. I have found him to be a powerful intercessor against spiritual dryness and formalism.

    Having been gathered from every city
    And being our compatriots,
    They came out from all the world,
    And have taken us from the world,
    And have made us participants in the feast.
    Together with that above, creation below dances,
    For the Angels cry out with us:
    “O God, You are truly wondrous among Your Saints,
    O Most-Merciful One.

  5. senecagriggs says

    “it does bear remembering that the crowd that shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday was screaming “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday.”

    The Reality – different crowds.

    • There wasn’t that many people in Jerusalem at the time, by modern standards. The overlap must have been considerable.

  6. I have sometimes felt inspired and moved by a saint, like the ones Spencer talks about in this post. At those times, I’ve read and thought about them, reflected on their lives, and on occasion even “prayed” to them. Yet my enthusiasm sooner rather than later wanes, and I lose touch with the inspiration. And I wonder if there was ever really anything to it, or if it was just a figment of my imagination rather than a connection of the spirit.

    • Which was disappointing, because what I was looking for, what I needed, was spiritual support, and fellowship, from a powerfully transcendent source.

  7. Good “classic” Michael Spencer!

    –> “Be encouraged that others have been this way before and they beckon you on toward the light on the other shore.”

    I’d be curious as to how many iMonkers have been encouraged by other iMonkers as they journey along their wobbly path of faith. I assume most of us who still peruse this site find encouragement from others here. I know I do, anyway. And not just the CM’s and Mike the Geo’s and Daniel Jepsen’s, but the others who post encouraging words and share their trials and tribulations and faith through those things.