Before there was a cloud, there was a great cloud.
We read about it in the letter to the Hebrews. It’s mentioned explicitly in chapter 12, but the heart of it is actually in chapter 11, as a kind of litany declaring what faith looks like. Guess what: It looks like a cloud.
A cloud jam-packed with people, it turns out. “By faith we understand,” the writer tells us, “that the universe was formed at God’s hand.” Faith characterizes the stories we tell each other about Abel, whose sacrifice was better than Cain’s, and who paid the ultimate price for his great faith. Faith describes the experience of Enoch, who was taken from this earth. It describes the experience of Noah, of Abram, of Isaac and Jacob, of Joseph and his sons, of Moses and the people of God in their exodus from Egypt, of Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah and David and Samuel and the prophets. Faith is the great motif of the story of God; it floats through two testaments like a cloud; it lights up the sacred text like a pillar of fire.
And yet the faith of Hebrews 11 was an unfinished story: “none of them received what had been promised”—and this is important—“since God had planned something better for us.” The writer of the letter to the Hebrews goes so far as to make us—you and me—the final object of all that faith: “only together with us would they be made perfect.”
The paean to faith in chapter 11 is the antecedent for the “great cloud” introduced to us at the beginning of chapter 12. Our connection to this historic faith is the rationale for our faith-rooted efforts in the present and the future: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Just as our antecedents await our witness to perfect their faith, we come to understand, we depend on their experience for the perfection of our own. And all of us, taken together, depend on Jesus for perfect and perfecting faith. We are incomplete without each other, and all together we are incomplete without Jesus.
Right. Jesus is important. But I’m mainly interested for the moment in the fact that we’re incomplete without each other. Communality is so hot right now—we crowdsource and kickstart and otherwise participate in a broader communal life in virtual and occasionally real physical space. Some code writer somewhere probably thinks she invented the cloud, where all our best selves commingle and cultivate something greater than the sum of our particular parts. But then we flip to Hebrews 12 and we see it’s always been there, supporting us and making demands on us.
What does it mean to participate in the great cloud? It means, among other things, that we owe it not only to our ancestors but to ourselves to get to know them. We search the Scriptures not just for fortune-cookie axioms to organize our days around but to know who we are, as parts of a whole but also as a whole with so many constituent parts.
It means, among other things, that we read beyond the Scriptures, to familiarize ourselves with those who came after Hebrews 11 but before Century 21. They too occupy the cloud with us, with them; they too help perfect us, and they too are perfected in us.
It means, among other things, that we engage one another fully, encouraging one another where encouragement is needed and challenging one another where challenge is needed. It means we play fair and fight nice, since we’re all in this cloud together, and we’re all interdependent for our mutual and collective perfection.
Someone will complain that I’m writing so much about perfection. (Not my uncle; he'll complain about the whole post. He hates when I write stuff like this.) Nobody’s perfect, someone will remind me, and the pursuit of perfection in the aftermath of humanity’s fall from grace is an idolatrous waste of time. To them I say, chillax. I don’t expect to become perfect; I don’t think I or anyone else is perfect. I do believe in a great mystery, however—that he who has begun a great work in us will see it to completion. Not in my lifetime, surely, any more than he completed it in the lifetime of Abraham or Isaac or Jacob, or Peter or Paul or Mary. In the meantime, we owe it to ourselves and to one another to make the most of this cloud we find ourselves in.