We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
Do you recognise these names? They are some of the people who are recorded in the Chapel of All Saints, behind the High Altar, people who came to this church and died, many of them quite young. For the most part, we do not know the ways in which these people witnessed to Christ in and through this church, but they were part of the Church’s witness in this parish in the first decade of the 20th century.
Other names you might recognise more easily:
Emily Matilda Easton
William Searle Hicks
James Taylor Ogleby
These are people who helped to build this church, as benefactor, architect, builder, designer, craftsman.
Then there are more recent names:
Lilian Manser and John Manser
All of them, good members of this church, who contributed a great deal to the life of this church in what they did and by just being who they were. They were generous in time and energy and resources. They stood up for Jesus and pointed to Jesus.
These are just some of the great cloud of witnesses we recognise in this church.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who probably wasn’t Paul, talks about the cloud of witnesses before the time of Jesus, from Abraham onwards, including Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets – so many of them – all of them who witnessed to God by the things they did and said.
Then we have our Christian saints, those whose place in heaven we can be confident in. And you will have your favourites. My mother insisted that all her children had saints’ names, so I am named for St Margaret of Scotland and Mary Mother of our Lord, and I am very fond of my saints. When I visited Russia 3 years ago, I fell in love with St Seraphim of Sarov. I ask my friends in heaven to pray for me sometimes, or ask them to pray for people and situations I am concerned about. The stories of the saints are stories of faith in difficult circumstances, people who stuck with Jesus in the face of opposition, people who pushed themselves to the edge in order to get to know God better.
And there are those who have made a significant contribution to our own spiritual development. I remember my godmother Kathleen who gave me a book of saints when I was 5 years old, which was important to me, and my friend Joy, who invited me to go with her to a prayer group at the House of Prayer at Burn Hall. And people who are still alive, like David, my spiritual director, who has accompanied me on the journey for 16 years.
We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses. Almost all the people I have mentioned have died, but I believe they are still interested in us as a church and in us as individuals. In their living, they were examples to us. In their death, they remain part of who we are. In the life to come, they have another role. They are still involved. They still care. They are still part of us. I have no doubt that Henry Chadwick Windley, the first vicar of this parish, is still praying for this church and this community.
They aren’t praying for us just for fun or to ensure that our lives go well, they are praying with a purpose: they are praying for our spiritual development, that we will grow closer and closer to God and become more and more like Jesus. They are praying that we will be good witnesses ourselves, so that people will see Christ in us and turn to follow him. They are praying that we will be good disciples, doing God’s work in our community, helping to build God’s kingdom in this place. They are praying that when troubles come – and they will, they always do – we will find the strength and courage and wisdom and insight to face all the problems and remain good witnesses in difficult circumstances.
Jesus talks about the troubles that are coming in the Gospel reading we heard just now. Jesus isn’t all sweetness and light. Following Jesus is not about an easy life. But it is about a good life, a fulfilling life. We are lucky. We are not persecuted for believing in Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many lands are persecuted. Churches have been burnt in Egypt over the last few days. We will face other challenges though, and we can face them with courage and fearlessness, love and truth, because we are not alone.
They are all around us, the eternal witnesses, cheering us on, encouraging us from the heavenly sidelines. They want the best for us. They want the best for you. And the best is in God’s kingdom.
So take courage, be encouraged. Look at the examples you have been given. Be inspired! When you are worried or concerned, ask them to help you and to pray. Ask God what he wants you to do, how he wants you to be a witness, how he wants you to build the kingdom, how he wants you to serve. There is something that God wants you to do. He gives you everything you need in order to do it, including a whole crowd of supporters.