Written by Pastor Ed
Heroes of the Faith
August 14, 2016
Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2
Perpetua, Dirk Willms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., each of these names may bring up images or memories and each of us could undoubtedly add more names to the list of people that we look to as examples of faithful living. While we don’t generally recognize “saints” as the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches do, we do still recognize some people as examples that we hold up and would add to the list of the faithful. Probably most of us have never read the Martyrs Mirror, but it has been a source of encouragement for Anabaptists since it was first published in 1660. And we may know some of the stories, most likely that of Dirk Willms, who turned back to save his pursuer who had broken through the ice, and was subsequently convicted and killed for his beliefs.
But not all the heroes of the faith are names that are well known. When the writer of Hebrews talks about the great cloud of witnesses that we are surrounded by, I’m sure he did not have only the well-known people in mind. While he begins his list with pillars of the faith, like Abraham and Moses, he ends it by citing numerous others, unnamed, who had persevered in spite of persecution. But not all heroes of the faith have suffered persecution either. They can be anyone who has inspired us and encouraged us to greater faithfulness either by their words or their deeds.
We’ve invited several people to share briefly about their heroes of the faith, and I’ll ask them to come and share at this time:
Among others, including my grandfather, I would cite one of my pastors who said to me one day, “When could we talk about you going into church work?” Galen was not highly educated, school-wise, but was a wise and scholarly teacher, a pastor who was involved in conference and denominational ministry, and someone who took an interest in people. He pastored in a time when full-time employment as a pastor was unusual, and so always had another job besides. It was from him that I first learned my electrical and plumbing skills.
I’m sure each of us could talk about people in our lives who make up that great cloud of witnesses to encourage us along our journey. The writer suggests that when we are discouraged or unsure of our faith, we have only to recall those who have gone before to give us the perseverance we need.
That’s an interesting word, perseverance, also often translated as patience. One of the books I’m currently reading is a book by Alan Kreider entitled, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. In it, he argues that one of the defining characteristics of the early church was that of patience, recognizing that things would happen in God’s own time, not necessarily as quickly as we might want. Recognizing that others have been on the way before us helps us to continue, even when things seem bleak.
But having noted that, the question becomes, how are we providing examples for those who come after us? We too are part of that great cloud of witnesses that others look to for encouragement. What are they seeing? Would we be ready to go through trials as some people have, and are, to maintain our faith? Are we exhibiting the patience of a long distance run rather than acting as though life were a 100 meter dash?
One of the joys of my role as pastor over the years has been to encourage young people, and sometimes older people, to make use of the gifts that have been given to them. I recall a young person that I encouraged to consider ministry, and later saw her leading worship at a national convention. While I’m sure there were others who had also encouraged her, I must admit to feeling a certain sense of pride in that moment, thinking perhaps I had helped her along that road, at least a little bit.
And it’s not as though we need to be perfect. If you read the list of witnesses that the writer of Hebrews names, you’ll note that many of them had their flaws as well. Abraham had his doubts, Moses had a bit of a temper and killed a man, Gideon had to be convinced and tested God, and of course David, one of those often held up the most had his weaknesses as well. That’s one of the most amazing things about the stories of faith in the Bible.
In many other traditions, the heroes are all stereotypically perfect, without flaws or blemishes of any kind. They always do what is right and never seem to have any doubts. But the Biblical heroes of the faith are often people with feet of clay, flawed in some way, and yet God makes use of them. And thus we can believe that God can make use of us as well, even with all of our flaws and foibles.
Two weekends ago Gay and I spent several days, along with other Mennonites, meeting with Benedictine monks and nuns at St. Benedict Monastery in St. Joseph, MN. These are people who have devoted themselves to the church and a life of discipline, with regular times of prayer each day. It was a good weekend talking about mercy, both physical acts and spirituals acts of mercy. I’ve gotten to know several of the monks over the years who are regular participants in this gathering, including the abbot John Klassen, and have some admiration for the kind of discipline and devotion they exhibit. But they will also be some of the first to tell you of their struggles, the trials of living in close community with other brothers and sisters, not all of whom they would naturally spend their time with.
But it seems to me that it is also in such a community, whether cloistered or simply as a church community, that we can live out and grow more fully into that great cloud of witnesses. For people are not watching us simply as individuals, but also as a community of faith. And unfortunately, it is often the bad examples that get highlighted in the news, rather than all of the good examples that are much more prevalent.
However we look at it, whether individually or as a community of faith, we are called to live our lives in such a way that we will join that great cloud of witnesses for the generations to come. We may not get our names in some list of great saints, but there will be people whose lives we have helped to shape, either for the better or for the worse. Let us follow in the footsteps of our heroes of the faith, and especially in the way of Jesus, the one who calls us.