A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible…

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 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.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-2

Whenever I set out to write a funeral sermon, one of the first and most important questions I consider is: How did this person’s life point us toward God? Or, put another way, how do we know and love God better as a result of knowing and loving this person? Because all people were created in the image of God, each and every person, each life, has something to teach us about who God is.

This is beautifully illustrated in the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews devotes the entirety of chapter 11 to lifting up the faithful examples of saints who had lived before his time, many of whose stories were recorded in the scriptures. Beginning with Abel, he names saints all the way up through Jesus, culminating in this powerful exhortation at the beginning of chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us!” Let us imitate the faithfulness of these examples that we have been set.

Before going too much further, I should note that when Lutherans (like yours truly) speak of saints, what we mean is something quite a bit broader than the Roman Catholic Church’s rigorously canonized collection of saints (though they are certainly included!). One of Lutheran Christianity’s defining beliefs is that everyone, every single person, is both sinner and saint. Luther himself redefined “saint” as simply a forgiven sinner, because it is God’s choice and action – not ours – that redeems us and makes us holy. (For more info on Lutheran perspectives on the saints, I recommend reading this four part article written by Rev. Dr. Adam White: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Remaining connected with the saints that have gone before us – especially with those we have personally known and loved and lost – is one of the more countercultural aspects of life as a Christian disciple, particularly in the predominant culture of the US. Weekly, we boldly confess our belief in the communion of saints, and we proclaim the hope that we will one day join with all the saints of every time and place before God’s throne. And in the meanwhile, as we await that day, we do not fear or run away from the reality of grief. Instead, like Jesus weeping with Mary and Martha outside Lazarus’ tomb, we make space for our grief and for the grief of others, even as we cling to hope.

One beautiful way I’ve seen this done in community was a practice at my internship congregation, Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM. Each week, they would lift up the “Saints of Peace” in their prayers, together naming and remembering loved ones who had died, praying with and for those who grieved them as the anniversaries of their deaths came up in the calendar. It’s now a practice we are working to emulate and expand on at St. John’s – a project I have christened “Cloud of Witnesses,” taking inspiration from this passage from Hebrews.

Together as a congregation, we have been working on creating what is essentially a collective calendar of grief. Everyone has been invited to add not just names and dates of loved ones who have died, but details about who they were and about their connection to the community of St. John’s. This way, no one carries their grief alone; as one body we name and remember all the ones we’ve lost throughout the year.

And beyond this, we have set aside a special space in our fellowship hall (ok, it’s a bulletin board that gets moved around a lot, but we’re working on it! haha) where anyone may bring and share photos and mementos of their ‘saints’ as those anniversaries draw near. The whole goal of this is to encourage people to tell the stories: to tell the stories so that those who are gone will not be forgotten; to tell the stories so that those who carry them don’t have to carry the stories alone; and to tell the stories to remind ourselves – like the author of Hebrews – of the faithful witness of those who are gone, of the many wonderful and unique ways they reflected the loving Creator in whose image they were made.

As a culture, our collective fear of death has a tendency to make us move on quickly from grief, often leaving those most bereaved emotionally alone to mourn. As someone who has known loss from a very early age, I know the pain of carrying stories that never get shared, names that I rarely get to speak. Making space to speak those names and share those stories is a gift – both for ourselves and for others. And for Christians in particular, remembering the ones we’ve lost reminds us of the hope we carry through faith: the hope that life will one day follow death; the hope that we too will one day be reunited with the great cloud of saints that have gone before us.

For our community at St. John’s, I hope that leaning into this practice of remembering and storytelling and sharing grief will be a blessing. I hope that it will be a means for us to build each other up in love and hope, that we may lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to the example of our great cloud of witnesses, and to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith: Jesus, our great hope.

Adapted and expanded from a reflection first published in St. John’s September 2022 newsletter

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Allison Siburg

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