Bringing the cloud of witnesses close (cloud christianity)
Tomorrow is All Saints Day, a day to remember and honour all those who put their faith in Christ and have gone before us into glory.
As a result, it seems the perfect time to develop some ideas that I first put forward at the recent Christian New Media Conference. The more I think about the Communion of the Saints, the more I think that the Internet is opening up new dimensions theologically for that Communion. Check this out from Hebrews…
“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, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,”
(Hebrews 12.1-2a, my emphasis)
The Christian church through the medium of the Internet in bringing that cloud of witnesses close, even if it doesn’t always realise or state that intention overtly.
Traditionally in Christian thought, the veneration of an image gave honour to the person who was depicted. This doesn’t come naturally to me, as someone who grew up on the evangelical end of the things in church life, but in venerating an image you showed a respect for the work of God in that person; a respect for a fellow member of the body of Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews arguably uses the same train of thought in drawing strength from the work of God in those who have gone before us. In Hebrews 11, he gives us the ‘hall of faith’; a list of famous Biblical characters and how they displayed faith in their lives. Then he concludes at the start of Hebrews 12, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses’ let us run our own race.
St John of Damascus, one of my fave writers on technology, develops this argument even further and suggests that giving honour to such images of Jesus, Mary his mother and the saints allows the giver of honour to partake in the grace of God that was at work in these people.
“By itself [the image] deserves no worship, but if someone portrayed in an image is full of grace, we become partakers of the grace according to the measure of the faith” (St John, 1980: 36, my emphasis)
Now just think about what is going on in our contemporary world today. When I listen to a Rob Bell podcast and he prays, do I pray with him? Yes, of course I do. When I watch That’s My King and listen to Dr S.M. Lockridge preach a message from sixty or seventy years ago, does it move me? Does it cause me to worship? Yes of course it does. Does it matter if I realise that this man has already been dead twelve years? No, of course not. If I listen to a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade from years ago or a Keswick Conference address from three months ago, can I be blessed? Yes, of course. In any of these experiences, as I ‘venerate’ do I think I am worshipping the person that I listen to or watch? No, of course I don’t.
When those things were recorded in the course of live worship, God was present by his Spirit in that moment. And yet, because of the capabilities of the technology and its accessibility via the Internet, I am enabled to partake in that moment despite being in a different place geographically and even a different moment in time. I begin to partake in the grace that was at work in that time, in that moment, in that particular place.
The Communion of the Saints is the theological idea that the Body of Christ is one. We are a spiritual union and it matters not whether a Christian is alive or dead. It doesn’t matter whether we are geographically in England, America, Nigeria, Pakistan, Timbuktu or on the Moon. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Moreover, we are not only all part of a single “mystical body”, with Christ as the head, but each member contributes to the good of all and shares in the welfare of all.
I wonder when Dr Lockridge preached his sermon decades ago, whether he thought that in his wildest dreams that it might continue to bless people today? I wonder if when Ignatius thought about his patterns of prayer, he thought it was something that would inform and beautifully colour the prayer lives of people across the world five hundred years later? When St Paul wrote a letter to his friend Timothy, did he think he was writing Scripture?
Probably not, and yet as members of the body, they contributed and their contribution is to the good of all, whether living now or dead or perhaps yet even unborn – the Christians of eras yet to come.
It makes me think about what I’m contributing online… contributions that may outlast my own lifetime because when it’s on the Internet, it’s on the Internet. You’ve lost control of it. It’s out there.
We become partakers in grace from a different age. We become contributors to grace in an age to come.
The online world is making possible some very new, but very real expressions of that sense of communion.
Of course, while Hebrews 12 may have got their first, clouds are all in vogue online at the moment as well. Check this definition of cloud computing from Wikipedia:
Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet). The name comes from the use of a cloud-shaped symbol as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it contains in system diagrams. Cloud computing entrusts remote services with a user’s data, software and computation.
Cloud Christianity is the use of our resources (talents, gifts and experiences) which we deliver as a service over a network (typically the Church, including online media). The name comes from the book of Hebrews as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure at work as Christians of different geographical places and times come together as one. Cloud Christianity entrusts one another with our experiences, gifts and experience of God to enable grace across the world and down the ages.
Is it time for Cloud Christianity? Is this our model for engagement online?
St John of Damascus. (1980), St John of Damascus on the Divine Images, Translated by David Anderson. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press