Today we remember our predecessor in the church, Polycarp.
For those who – like me – remember little about this Saint of our faith, Polycarp was the Bishop in Smyrna (modern day Turkey) in the 2nd century. At that time, Christians weren’t being sought out for persecution, but if they were accused and they refused to worship the gods, they had to be punished.
Since Polycarp was a bishop, my guess is that he figured sooner or later, someone would probably call him on the carpet.
Eventually, Polycarp’s time comes. The judge reminds him:
You have an out. Swear by the emperor and curse Christ and you’ll be free to go.
I wonder if Polycarp felt any pause, any hesitation. After all, he was an old man. Some people advised him to consider his advanced age and just give in rather than submit to torture. But Polycarp’s response to the judge is the opposite of giving in: “For 86 years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?”
The judge then threatens to burn Polycarp alive. His response sounds like a taunt:
that’s nothing compared to the eternal fire that will never go out!
So Polycarp is tied to the stake to be burned to death. He looks up and says one last prayer of gratitude: “…thank you that you have deemed me worthy of this moment… so that I may share in the cup of Christ…”
And then, Polycarp lost his life for the sake of Christ.
As he died, maybe he remembered Mark 8:35: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
I can’t help but wonder what I would do in his place. I hope, if I’m ever asked to lose my life for Christ, I will be brave and full of faith. Just like Polycarp.
When Polycarp first found out people were looking for him, he ran.
For 7 days, at the advice of his flock, he hid. Now that’s a more relatable reaction, right? Eventually, of course, he stopped running and bravely waited for the authorities to find him. But it gives me some kind of comfort to know that, at first, he opted for hiding out over the martyr’s death.
In today’s day in America, few of us are literally called upon to die for Christ. But, at the same time, all of us are called to die for Christ – to die to ourselves so we can live in Christ. Maybe you have let a part of you die for Christ before. Maybe you feel Christ calling you to do that now: To give up that bad habit. To let that old grudge go. To spend less time and money on yourself and more on others.
And when we feel that call, sometimes, like Polycarp, our first instinct is to hide out and see if it will pass. Maybe Christ doesn’t REALLY want us to die to ourselves.
If you are hiding, waiting, hoping that God will stop bothering you and move on, I have some bad news… and some good news.
The bad news is that Christ really does want us to die to self. And whatever you need to let go of, it’s going to be hard. Change is almost always hard.
But the good news is that in Christ, we can do more than we think we can. The Holy Spirit that gave Polycarp the strength to meet his death will give you the strength to change.
And in Christ, after death comes… life. New life. Real life.
If you are hiding out, avoiding Christ’s call for some part of you to die, I offer this prayer of John Wesley’s. May you say these words, day by day, until one day…
…you mean them.
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Credit to Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: Volume I for my refresher on Polycarp.