The Church teaches us that we are all a part of the communion of saints – the community of all men and women of good will, both living and dead. But this is a difficult thing to imagine, this communion of saints. Fortunately, the Bible gives us a wonderful image.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we find an important image for how the early church understood how believers related to each other. The author of the letter first lists the many important men and women of faith – the Jewish ancestors who had been models of response to God’s invitation such as Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Miriam, and David as well as whole categories of people who had served God as prophets, kings, judges, and martyrs. Then, having detailed these worthy ancestors in faith, the authors continues:
“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 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 12:1-2)
The author of Hebrews paints a picture for us of a stadium set for a race. All of the living people of faith are gathered on the track at various stages in our running of the race. The stands of the stadium are filled with all those who have ever run the race before us. As we are run the race, this crowd of fellow runners, past and present, surrounds us and urges us on. There are so many of them that they become a cloud – huge mass of people – all of whom are cheering us on. They are the witnesses to the faith, those who came before Jesus and those who came after him. Jesus is the pioneer, the one who shows us how to run the race and who gives us the goal to run towards. But the whole cloud of witnesses is there to embrace us as we run and to welcome us home when we finish our race.
And when we finish running our race, we don’t leave the stadium; we too join in the encouraging of others as they run that race.