During January I celebrated my sixtieth birthday. Asking Google, “Is age 60 old?” returns a response from the World Health Organization that verifies: “most developed world countries characterize old age starting at 60 years.” Well, there you have it … I am old. I knew that already, of course. Aches, pains, and my eldest grandchild reaching adolescence are all announcements of my advancement.
More poignantly, I am noticing that a greater number of people whom I have considered contemporaries are joining with the “cloud of witnesses” who are with the Lord, awaiting the resurrection. I am thinking today of friends like Dr. Ed Robinson, long-time professor and Dean of the Faculty at NTS. It was my privilege to be his pastor for many years. There are many days since his passing in 2017 that I am aware of his presence and voice among the cloud of witnesses.
I have known this language of the great cloud of witnesses since I began reading the Bible as a young boy. I had a fairly vague idea then of who may comprise this heavenly cheering section, including a grandmother I never met. The key text, of course, is Hebrews 12:1 –
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 (NRSV).
The image of the cloud of witnesses is connected to an athletic contest, so it easy to imagine a great stadium filled (pre-pandemic, of course) with cheering fans. The writer of Hebrews imagines those stands filled with people like God’s faith-full servants that are remembered in chapter eleven. I think of the “great cloud” in terms of saints of God who had a profound impact on my life. My mother and father joined those witnesses, as have a host of others who raised me up in the faith.
As Nazarene Theological Seminary celebrates 75 years of forming faithful and effective ministers of the gospel, I am thinking regularly of the witnesses to this ministry. I think especially of former presidents, faculty, and hundreds of alumni who are now with the Lord.
During this 75th Anniversary season, we are giving close attention to the graduating class photos that line the hallway on the third floor of the Seminary building. As I bend over to fasten a close gaze on their faces, I can hear the character John Keating exhorting his students, “If you listen really close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen.”
Looking at the photos of the first NTS graduates in 1947, I can indeed hear the voices of J. Kenneth Grider and J. Ottis Sayes, both of whom became my teachers many years ago. I hear them in the great cloud of witnesses.
I am reminding us that as we go about our lives and do the work to which the Spirit of the Lord sends us, we have witnesses. We are not alone. We go into the world in service to the gospel not seeking to make our own way but living into a stewardship of the faith “that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, NRSV).
What does it mean to bear faithful witness, and how are we doing with this sacred task? It hardly needs noting that we are living in a time of great threat. The social developments we are witnessing press us to ask penetrating questions about our fidelity to the gospel. When anti-gospel ideologies like nationalism and white supremacy gain a hearing not only in society, but find their way into the church, we must ask how we are doing with bearing faithful witness to the gospel.
In the midst of great anxiety and unrest in our world, people are afraid, suspicious, and weary of wondering what crisis a new day may bring. Therefore, following the pattern of our Lord, we preach peace. Jesus preached the gospel of peace to a harassed and helpless people. We learn from his example that if we preach the gospel of peace, then there are other “gospels” that we cannot preach. We cannot preach fear. We cannot preach self-interested security. We cannot preach a contemporary “gospel” of acquisition and consumption.
The gospel is the good news that in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ all of creation is under the rule and reign of the One who is redeeming all things for his glory and who is making all things new. If we take this seriously, then announcing “peace on earth” is no sentimental dream. The gospel of peace is a powerful and transforming hope that delivers us from the dominion of fear, suspicion, and violence. “For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Col. 1:13).
In a season when it is so easy to be drawn into the strident, fearful voices of conspiracy, accusation, and prejudice, there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering us to be true to the message of hope we were given. They are cheering us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).
As we join the mission of God in this needy world, we are not alone – we have witnesses! Let us be encouraged by the legacy of those who preceded us in the faith, and let us determine, by God’s grace, to join the company of the faithful who did not embrace a spirit of fear but endured for the joy set before them.
Rev. Dr. Jeren Rowell
President and Professor of Pastoral Ministry
 From the 1989 film, Dead Poets Society.