Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sunday Reading, The Martyrdom of Polycarp

This week, and for the month of August, at least, I want to continue reading through some of the very early writings of the Christian church. I am often amazed that, (though I am often amazed at how differently they looked at life too) people from so long ago shared so many of the same concerns we have. It is always good to read theology from a perspective that is not dealing with the particular concerns of the modern day. Most of these writings can easily be found for free on the internet with a Google search. I am using the Logos version of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, by Michael William Holmes. There is a post on my Facebook page which links here and where we can discuss this post.

One writing that I found to be very different is The Martyrdom of Polycarp. This was a letter written from the church at Smyrna to the church at Philomelium around the year 160. It records the pursuit, arrest, trial and execution of Polycarp, the 86 year old bishop of Smyrna. The church was under heavy persecution from the Roman government because of its refusal to worship the emperor. However, the church’s concern was not so much to make the persecution stop, but to die well as a witness to the world for Jesus. Thus, the martyrdom story became a popular genre in early Christianity to show how a Christian should die well according to the gospel.

The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake—Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire. In the face of this antipathy, the steadfastness of Polycarp’s faith in Christ and the fearlessness with which he faced death became a model for many believers who found themselves in similar circumstances during the course of the next century and a half. 222.

For it is the mark of true and steadfast love to desire not only that oneself be saved, but all the brothers as well. 227.

The story begins by describing the types of martyrdom that Christians endured; fire, lying on sharp objects, torn apart by animals and previous martyrs who had endured them well and not so well. The Romans were incensed that the Christians would not acknowledge the emperor or sacrifice to him and wanted Christians killed because they considered them to be atheists. At first Polycarp hid from these citizens who desired to kill him, but after a vision, realized that God had called him to die by fire.  When the arresting officers arrived at his house, he served them dinner and asked for an hour to pray before they took him in. He prayed for two hours to the amazement of all.

When Polycarp was brought before the proconsul in the stadium “there came a voice from heaven: “Be strong, Polycarp, and act like a man.” He was urged to swear by Caesar, make the sacrifice and recant Christ. He refused with the following words…

“For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” 235

“You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish.” 235.

For this he was condemned to death by fire. He was tied to the pyre rather than being nailed to it, as was the normal procedure, because he assured them, “Leave me as I am; for he who enables me to endure the fire will also enable me to remain on the pyre without moving, even without the sense of security which you get from the nails.” (237) After his prayer the fire was lit and the crowd, “to whom it was given to see,” witnessed a miracle.

For the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of a ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant odor, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice.

When the lawless men eventually realized that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he did this, there came out a large quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and the whole crowd was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect. 239

After the execution of Polycarp, his body was cremated and his bones were collected a deposited in a suitable place so that the church could “celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom in commemoration of those who have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those who will do so in the future.”  (241) The letter ends with the point that, though Christ is the only one the church worships, the martyrs become blessed examples of how to live a kingdom Christians.

For this one, who is the Son of God, we worship, but the martyrs we love as disciples and imitators of the Lord, as they deserve, on account of their matchless devotion to their own King and Teacher. May we also become their partners and fellow disciples! 241

We bid you farewell, brothers, as you walk by the word of Jesus Christ which is in accord with the gospel; with whom be glory to God for the salvation of the holy elect; just as the blessed Polycarp was martyred, in whose footsteps may we also be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. 243.

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