Scripture: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 sake of 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. (John 4:34-38)
Reflection: The letter to the Hebrews is one of those New Testament (Christian Bible) documents that is misidentified. It is best thought of as an exhortation or sermon given to Jewish Christians in exile after the fall of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE. After explaining that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” the author provides a lengthy list of Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) characters who illustrate his definition. He refers to these characters as a great cloud of witnesses, and he exhorts his readers to remove from their lives whatever it is that keeps them from running the Christian race with perseverance, particularly the ruined city of Jerusalem and the destroyed people.
Jesus is the model; he is the pioneer and perfecter of faith. He accepted God’s word and lived according to it, even dying in shame on the cross. Capital punishment Roman style – crucifixion – was considered by the Jews a shameful way to die. The crucified man was shamed because he was nailed to the wood naked, and nakedness of any kind shamed a man in the Jewish world of the first century. Furthermore, the book of Deuteronomy makes clear, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Jesus despised the shame and curse of the cross, and God vindicated him by raising him and seating him at his right hand, the place of power. Those who follow Jesus must continue to run their race, using Jesus as their example, “so that they may not grow weary or lose heart.”
For those running the race of mission, their spirituality needs to be informed and supported by Jesus. He is a pioneer, one who opened a new method. This new method is running the race through suffering and death, all the while trusting the promise of God, namely, that there will be more joy on the other side of death in the resurrection than one can only begin to imagine here and now. Denying himself the experience of joy here and now, Jesus perfected faith, ignoring shame, ignoring suffering, ignoring death. He was right; God raised him to new life and seated him on his right before the cloud of witnesses that went before him. In a world of immediate gratification, Jesus becomes the model of a spirituality of mission that includes self-denial during the race for the sake of something greater, more joyful, later.
Journal/Meditation: While you run the race, what have you denied yourself in hope of what lies ahead?
Prayer: You have surrounded me with a great cloud of witnesses who placed their faith and hope in you, Lord God. Keep my eyes focused on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, so that I may run with perseverance the race that you have set before me. Grant that I may one day share with him the joy of the resurrection. I ask this through the same Christ, my Lord. Amen.