Polycarp & The Great Tradition
I Corinthians 15:1-8 / Matthew 28:16-20 / Revelation 2:8-11 / Psalm 78:1-7
May I tell you a story about one of our ancestors? The year was 155. The location was the city of Smyrna, located in Western Turkey. The police have arrested an old man named Polycarp. What was his crime? He was arrested for being a Christian.
Let me read part of a letter written a few years earlier. It was written by a government official called Pliny the Younger to the Roman emperor Trajan. He writes:
“This is the course I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death… Some I sent to Rome (to be tried), since they were Roman citizens.
All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered should be discharged because they called upon the gods at my dictation, and did reverence, with incense and wine to your image along with the statues of the deities, and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do.
Others first said they were Christians, and later denied it; declaring that they had been, but were so no longer. These all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ.”
These were difficult days to be a Christian. A variety of things were to happening throughout the church.
- Some died for their faith. They would be called Martyrs
- Some turned their backs on their faith. They were called Apostates
- Some became Lapsarians. They lapsed conveniently when it was dangerous to be known as a Christian, then repented the following Sunday, and continued as Christians, until the next time the pressure was on, and then went through the same cycle again if needed.
- Some became Closet Christians, telling no one of their faith in Christ.
But back to Polycarp. The Chief of Police asked his first question. “Are you Polycarp?” When he heard the word “yes”, he asked him to make a sacrifice to Caesar. Polycarp refused. The Chief of Police urged him to save his own life. All he had to do was deny that he was a Christian from now on, curse Christ, and swear allegiance to Caesar, and his life would be spared.
Polycarp gives his response in these words:
“For 86 years I have been his servant. and he has never done me wrong:
how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
The chief of police attempts further persuasion, but with no success. He turns to the crowd in the amphitheater and declares the verdict: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian!” The cry went up from the crowd calling for his death. And the old man is burned at the stake as the crowds watch and cheer.
After the death of this good man, some of his friends sifted through the ashes, and this is what they wrote.
We took up his bones,
more precious than costly stones
and more valuable than gold,
and we laid them in a suitable place.
There the Lord will permit us, as far as possible,
to gather together in joy and gladness
to celebrate the day of his martyrdom as though it was his birthday,
(and) in memory of those athletes who have gone before,
and to train and make ready those who come hereafter.
Polycarp was not the first Christian to be killed in Smyrna. It had been happening for over 60 years in that city. When St. John writes the Book of the Revelation he refers to the difficult persecution faced by that very same church. (Rev. 2:8-11) But when Polycarp died that Saturday, it hit the headlines of the secular and the sacred press. The question arises, “why the furor over the death of one old man?”
The fame of Polycarp
The secular press of the day knew that they had finally killed the leader of the Christian community. Polycarp had earned a title across that entire region; he was called “The Father of the Christians.” They knew this man was seen as the patriarch of the Christian community, and they presumed that if they killed the leader, the church would fall apart and disintegrate. A red letter day for the state!
The news also hit the grapevine that spread across the length and breadth of the Christian Church. The cry went out, “Polycarp has been slain in Smyrna!” In fact for the next several hundred years, the story of the death of Polycarp is told. Sometimes the story is embellished and it is hard to tell facts from fiction. But the story is told everywhere because with the passing of Polycarp came the passing of an age.
His life and ministry
Who was this man? Polycarp tells part of his own life story in his brief response to the Chief of Police. “For 86 years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong!” That means that he is at least 86 years old, if he dates his being a Christian all the way back to infancy or childhood. He may have lived his entire life serving God.
The beginnings of his story are particularly intriguing. A wealthy woman in the church of Smyrna was directed by God to go to the city gate where a young slave child was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. The woman purchased the child, and took him home, not as her slave, however, but to be her son. She raised Polycarp in her home, and he became a part of the struggling Christian congregation of which she was a member.
His godliness and his wisdom, even from his early years, impressed the people who met him. In the course of time he was trusted with leadership in that local church. Later he became its pastor and the bishop of that region. His gifts and graces made him a person of significant value to the churches throughout Asia Minor and beyond. His influence began to spread as Jew and Gentile listened to him and often chose to follow Christ, in spite of the danger it posed. The wider church listened to him and he earned the title, “The Teacher of the Church”. As he grew older the wider church leaned on his wisdom and insight.
There was, however, one feature about this man that made him unique, and made his death the end of an era. He was the last living link between the expanding church throughout the world, and the original 12 apostles. The death and resurrection of Jesus had taken place 120 years earlier. By this time the apostles had all died. New heresies and new cults were infiltrating the church, claiming to know the “real” truth about Jesus and his apostles. New ideas were being put forward, claiming to have come from Jesus and the 12. The problem was, that it was hard to refute them. All the eyewitnesses were gone. Gone a long time ago.
But wait. There was Polycarp. He had become the anchorman for the entire church. He was born around the time Peter was crucified and Paul had been beheaded. But the Apostle John had lived much longer. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Apostle John had given leadership to the church in Asia Minor for the rest of that century. Polycarp became a leader in one of the churches that John supervised. John the Apostle and Polycarp spent time together talking of Jesus and the early beginnings of the Christian Church. Polycarp was also in touch with many of the other eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus and the early days of the church, for many of them were still alive while Polycarp was growing up in the church. And he listened to them and to John, and remembered their words.
And the good news was that Polycarp, like John before him, also lived a good long life, and when others were in doubt about something that the early apostles might have taught or that Jesus might have said, the answer was always the same. “Let’s ask Polycarp. He will know.” For Polycarp was the bearer of the living tradition of the earliest days of the Christian Church.
Have you read the novel written by Ray Bradbury, called Fahrenheit 451? It is a futuristic novel about a time when all books were banned and burned. (Fahrenheit 451 by the way is the temperature at which books will burn.) But there were people who valued the great literature of the world, and so individuals committed themselves to memorizing the contents of entire books, so that when the terrible time came to an end, the books could be rewritten from memory. So one person might memorize Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities, and recited the book out loud to others. Another person might memorize, Hamlet by Shakespeare. Each person also passed on the responsibility of reciting that same book to others, so that if the original memorizer of the book got killed, others had been prepared to recite the book. And so the great books would be passed on by word of mouth until they could be written down again and published.
Polycarp was such a one. He listened to the accounts from the early disciples and the early apostles, and in his mind kept alive the legacy, until the written accounts could be safely published and distributed. He was a conduit from the age of the Apostles to the ever-expanding church. He was the strong link (not the Weakest Link) between what Jesus and the 12 apostles had said, and the Christendom of his day.
Polycarp passed on a priceless legacy in a time of terrible threat.
The Implications for today
Well that was a very long time ago. Is there a message that comes from the life and death of Polycarp to us today? Oh yes indeed! Let me share with you two implications I gain from this story.
- Connect Ourselves to the Great Story.
We have recently entered into the 21st century. The information highways are already crowded with strange ideas, some of them ring true, many of them are false. Such things can be confusing and unsettling. So we need to get the story straight about Jesus and His teachings. Torrents of information flow from the Internet, our TVs, radios, CDs, and DVD’s, and the printed page. The volume and intensity will continue to increase as we immerse ourselves more and more deeply in the “Information” and “Misinformation Age.”
It becomes imperative, that with information overload taking place, that we let the story of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ gain access to our minds and hearts. We need to connect ourselves to the great story about what God had done in Jesus Christ our Lord. That account was passed on at great cost by the many who gave their lives. That great life-changing story can be found in the pages of the Old & New Testament.
It is one of the reasons why churches read from the Old Testament and the New Testament each time they meet. It is also the reason that some of us daily open the book that tells the story. The Church, like Polycarp, is the great remember-er of the Story that can change lives and change the world.
- Pass it on!
There is a second implication. To know the message that liberates mind and heart is wonderful, but it is not enough on its own. Churches like ours are to be bridges between the past and the future. Someone has said that the Christian faith is only one generation away from extinction. If one generation fails to pass on the message to the next generation, the Christian faith becomes only a museum piece instead of a living and vital life-transforming power.
The church of this generation must pass on the life-liberating story to the coming generations. It is the same legacy that Polycarp lived and died for, passing on what St. Jude calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.” We are to be God’s mailmen who keep on delivering what God has placed in our hands.
The message we pass on is the story of the love of God, and the story of the life and death of Jesus Christ, and how to live a godly life by the help of the Spirit of God.
It is the same legacy that Moses had in mind when he said,
Keep these words that I am commanding you today, in your heart, but also recite them to your children, and talk about them when at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
So let me say a word to you who work with children and young people. Your task is more important than you dream. The Church of Jesus Christ is the only group in society that is telling a story that can transform individual lives as well as the whole of civilization.
- Teaching a Sunday School class can be pivotal in the well being of future generations.
- Staffing the nursery might well be one of life’s most important contributions.
- Working with children at summer camps may be doing greater kingdom work than working with any other group in society.
- Investing in the lives of young people can change the future.
I personally want to be another Polycarp. I want to listen to the great story of God’s great work in Christ told by prophets and apostles, and then pass it on to the succeeding generation. Don’t you?