GK Chesterton once wrote that “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead...Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” It’s a great line, but today I want to apply it not so much to “tradition” as to the great cloud of witnesses the author of Hebrews invokes. When we talk or think about the church, we tend to have in mind either our local congregation, or the congregations in our country or, if we’re being generous, the congregations across the whole world. In other words, we tend to think of those people who “merely happen to be walking about.” Today, this passage from Hebrews reminds us that the church - the cloud of witnesses - consists of every single member of God’s family that has ever lived, no matter how distant to us in time or space.
Consider with me the vast range of situations this Church has experienced. It has endured war, famine, persecution, uncertainty, reformation, revolution, and plague. Those trials do not negate today’s struggle. Our grief, anxiety, and loneliness in the face of COVID-19 are real and legitimate. But it does contextualize it. It isn’t true that we’ve never done this before. The Church, in some times and places, has been unable to gather as usual for Easter. The Church, in many times and places, has had to deal with diseases that have disrupted society. And so now, the great cloud of witnesses stands around us, not to judge us, not to call us weak, but to encourage us. God did not abandon them in their trials, and God will not abandon us in ours.
After all, in Jesus Christ God has suffered too. He endured the shame and agony of the cross because he knew that in the end, all that would be overshadowed and transformed by the joy and victory of Easter morning, the redemption of the world. And with the knowledge that our joy will transform our grief, with the comfort that we are not alone, with the surety that our path has been blazed first by Jesus Christ and then by the Christians before us, we can surely face with faithfulness whatever we might encounter as we run towards God.