Toorak Uniting Church

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A cloud of witnesses

Isaiah 5: 1 – 7     Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:1, 2     Luke 12: 49 – 56
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
15 August 2004, 10:15am

I’d like to take my point of departure this morning from the first two verses of Hebrews 12:

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, 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…..

They speak of a cloud of witnesses, a large group of people living the faith and following Gods ways. People like you and me, who are gathered together in this church this morning, and gathering in places all over the world, praising, praying and reading scripture, seeking guidance for their lives, earnestly trying to be part of the cloud of witness to God’s great love and mercy in this world.

A group of people seeking to lay aside the weight of sin and run the race of faith, looking to Jesus as an example and receiving him as the one in whom Gods grace has found a final and unambiguous answer.

People who stand on the shoulders of others, are the living presence of a history so long and rich it should take our breath away and fill us with awe. The cloud of witnesses stretching back into a past going so far back we lose sight of its beginnings. Hebrews 11 names but a few: Abraham, Moses, Rachab, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel and many others, all heroes of faith. All people whose stories have been preserved in that great book that is filled with stories of faith, the Bible.

Were they perfect? If we look closely at their stories we will discover they were not. Sometimes their great deeds were inspired by all the wrong reasons, sometimes they failed God and their fellow humans miserably, sometimes they did things that were plain stupid or could even be called evil. None of them quite made it to perfection, until Jesus came, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

As we don’t.

Because, although we can consider ourselves part of that great cloud of witnesses by the grace of our earnest trying and good intentions where the doing the will of God is concerned, we all know that we, as the heroes of faith named in Hebrews 11, are fragile people that get it wrong quite often. That we need God to look after his vineyard and not desert it, because if he did we would be quite beyond hope.

So: All is well isn’t it? We gather in this warm and lovely place as witnesses to God’s love and grace, as part of that large cloud of witnesses that over the ages has earnestly tried to live the life of God. We confess our sins and are forgiven, and we live in harmony and accord with our eye on Jesus Christ. All together on a pink cloud of loving, peace bringing, warm community where the destruction and distractions of the world are brought to a halt and sweet and tasty grapes grow to make uplifting and nourishing wine for all……

Or at least: that’s what we are trying to do, most of the time, and if we fail: There is always the redemption and the boundless sea of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to keep us from ruin.

"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled!" "Do you think I have come to bring peace? No I tell you, but rather division.."

The gospel is an annoying thing. The moment you think you’ve got it, the moment you think you figured it out, it turns round and throws some disturbing thoughts at you, thoughts you would perhaps rather not have had. With Luke showing us here a Jesus quite different to the one that lives in the stained glass window at the back of our Church. Not the sweet loving and lovely Jesus with a soft and fluffy lamb draped over one arm, but a Jesus of fire and brimstone, a Jesus that brings judgement and discord, division and difficulty.

Suddenly we seem to be in the realm of religious fanaticism, of strong and dividing opinions, of indisputable truth fought for with uncompromising zeal. Surely this can’t be serious?

Well, actually one of the most disturbing facts of faith, a fact that we sometimes tend to forget, is that Jesus was, in his time, a rather annoying figure, who disrupted the comfortableness of a people convinced they were God’s chosen and that all was well with the world. He stood the world on its head, preached a gospel that went a lot further than pious peaceful muddling. And ran the race of faith not to a gold medal in being an exemplary citizen, but to the cross of the rejected, not well adjusted rebellious fighter for a justice and truth that was beyond his contemporaries.

So where does that leave us? Have we, over the centuries, grown into the same sort of complacent peace loving and trouble avoiding lot as Jesus was addressing in his life time? Does our life bring any disturbance into a world that has resigned itself to its bringing forth lots of wild and sour grapes and only a few sweet and tasty ones? Is our community effectively bringing Gods love and grace into the world or are we just a bastion of pious traditionalists who love a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday morning and confuse keeping quiet and out of trouble with giving Gods love and grace shape in our lives?

Are we taking life too easy? Should there perhaps be more fire and division? Should we perhaps be a little bit more fanatic and stand up a bit more clearly for our Christian values and viewpoints?

But what values exactly and what viewpoints?

It’s not all too clear is it? Even within the Church there is so much division on fundamental issues (another booklet on resolution 84 has come out, summing up all the different viewpoints represented in our Church community on that issue), divisions across which we are desperately trying to hold on to each other in Christ, seeking to stay together for God and not let ourselves be ripped apart by discord and discontent.
We live in an age and in a church where it is quite difficult to make up our minds as to what is truth, what is real, what is good, what is worth fighting for and where we should let off. Life itself not straightforward in any way, faith something that is re-evaluated and re-formulated at every turn.

The paintings that are part of our worship this morning speak of that world. A world where we ourselves have to make sense, construct meaning, see what things mean for us, what truth is, what is right, what is wrong.

The Bible, like these paintings, presents us with images that are not univocal, with stories of heroes of faith that have their flaws, with a messiah who is vulnerable and whose life’s journey leads to the cross and seeming disaster only to rise again in glory and new life. With stories about a vineyard and the ruin it falls into when the life in that vineyard fails to bring forth good fruits. With stories about a people and a community that is vulnerable, seeking truth, trying to live it, failing, crying out for restoration, for salvation.

Leaving us not to lay back and relax in the soft glow of stained glass windows and a tepid religiosity that spreads a blanket of illusory peace over a world that is in ruins and crying out for justice and redemption - but to somehow let our lives be woven into the history of God, become part of that cloud of witnesses that in all the turmoil and fragility of life dares to make choices and be annoying in their insistence that the world as it is, the world order as it is, is not good enough, that peace is something different than quiet, that community goes deeper than glossing over the differences, that justice goes further than offering the occasional alms to a good cause far away.

A cloud of witnesses testifying to the fact that faith costs, that real community will cost us, that real peace asks for sacrifice, that taking good care of Gods vineyard will ask for hard work and consistent and ceaseless effort.

That finding meaning, being Gods people calls us to interpret and apply the gospel again and again to our lives in a way that will make us and others uncomfortably aware of the pieces that have still to come to together, of the brokenness that still has to be mended before we can rest in peace and consider Gods work done and his vineyard complete.

In the celebration of communion we play out this peace and completion that is still to come. We gather in it as so many pieces of a puzzle, forming together a picture of hope and trust and meaning and faith. To be fed by the promise of Gods healing power at work among us, to be united where true unison is still distant. Like the grains brought together to make the one bread, we brought together to become, even if only for a moment, the body of Christ through which redemption will take shape in the world.


© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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