Polycarp and the fire which only burned for a season — A sermon by Rev. Eric Andersen
Associate Editor’s Note: With this posting we welcome Pastor Eric Andersen to our regular writers. He will usually be writing in the category of Steadfast in the OT. Rev. Eric Andersen of Faith Lutheran Church in Johnstown, CO wrote this sermon as part of a series of services during midweeks that revolve around the commemorations found in Lutheran Service Book. This sermon was given on the occasion of the commemoration of Polycarp. Rev. Andersen is a regular attendee of the Northern Colorado/Southern Wyoming Confessional Lutheran Study Group which meets monthly in Greeley, CO.
St. Polycarp was put to death for his confession of Christ around 155AD. A little background about the Roman empire will help us better understand what led up to his martyrdom. Rome was arguably the most dominant empire the world had ever known. The Romans attributed their success to the favor of the gods. If there was one rule every good Roman citizen needed to know, it was “don’t anger the gods.” The Roman poet Horace insisted that any problems the empire faced were due to their neglect of the temples. Since the Romans saw a direct connection between the prosperity of the state and the favor of the gods, the government was responsible for overseeing the religious life of its citizens. Rome was about the farthest thing from the separation of church and state as you could imagine.
Since the Romans defined “god” as the giver of good things, and since the Roman empire maintained peace and justice, it’s not hard to see why people began to worship the head of the empire, the emperor. Worshipping the emperor was even seen as one’s patriotic duty. The Roman citizens saw their emperor as the giver of every good and perfect gift, the one from whom all blessings flow.
In 9 B.C., about only 6 years prior to the Incarnation of Our Lord, Caesar Augustus’ birth was hailed as “the beginning of the gospel for the world.” Augustus didn’t consider himself to be a jealous god, and conferred divine status on his late uncle, Julius Caesar, after his murder.
Augustus’ successors perpetuated the cult of the emperor. Emperor Caligula believed himself to be the incarnation of Jupiter, often appearing in the dress of the gods and demanding to be worshipped. To the horror of the Jews, Caligula tried to have a statue of himself built inside the temple. Emperor Nero liked to dress up as Apollo, often appearing on coins as the god. Though Nero rejected the label “divine”, he had a 100-foot statue of himself made which depicted himself wearing a star-shaped crown (representing immortality). Emperor Domitian insisted on being recognized as divine during his lifetime, demanding that he be addressed as “our lord and god”, punishing all who refused.
This was obviously problematic for the Christians living in the Roman empire, not least of all, Polycarp. He understood well that, unlike Augustus, the Lord God is a jealous God (Exod 20:5), and that we are not free to worship or even pay lip service to false gods. Polycarp’s refusal to compromise his confession of Christ cost him his life. In “The Martyrdom of Polycarp”, the captain of police, ironically named Herod, said to Polycarp, “What harm is there in saying, Caesar is Lord, and offering incense?” (MartPol. 8). As if to say, “Come on, Polycarp, just do this one small thing. Then all of this will go away and your life can get back to normal.” But Polycarp was unwilling to share the glory of Christ with another. He would rather die than compromise the pure confession of Christ, even if it was just lip service.
In the spirit of Polycarp, this is the same confession every Lutheran makes at confirmation. Two of the questions that are asked at confirmation are:
Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed, to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
The response to both is, “I do, by the grace of God.” Christ calls us to confess Him clearly and boldly before the world, that He alone is the way to the Father (John 14), even to the point of death.
Remaining faithful to these vows is a particular challenge for the church today, especially in our age of tolerance. Our culture pressures us to affirm every religion and lifestyle choice there is. It is commonplace today for Christians to worship alongside non-Christians, even justifying it with the claim, “After all, we know idols don’t really exist.” This despite the fact that God strictly refuses to give His glory to another (Isa 48:11), even dead idols (Isa 44; 1 Cor 8:4). But human reason objects: what better place could there possibly be to worship God than in the midst of the synagogue or mosque? Wouldn’t that be a golden opportunity to share the Gospel? But God’s command wasn’t to use the high places as evangelism outposts–it was to destroy them (Num 33:52; Judges 6:25). Difficult as it is to confront sin, turning a blind eye to it is the least loving thing you could do.
Polycarp knew well that you can’t confess one thing with your lips and believe something else in your heart. He knew it is not possible to maintain a pure confession of Christ while playing nice with Caesar’s false religion. Satan had the same thing in mind when He tempted Jesus in the wilderness. What harm could it have done for Him to throw Himself down from the temple? Why, it could even aid His mission, because then all of the people who saw His miraculous rescue would believe in Him!
This is how Satan loves to pervert the truth. It sounds good to the sinful flesh, and if you take his advice, it will often result in the praise of the world. A religion where Christians, Jews, and Muslims can all worship together is a religion that is pleasing in the eyes of the world. On the other hand, the way of the cross is the lonely way, a way that results in the disdain of the world. The only thing that is considered intolerable in our age of tolerance is to clearly confess that Jesus is the only way to the Father.
In his death, Polycarp left no room for doubt as to what he believed. And just like his Lord, he suffered for it. Sinful human nature hasn’t changed. If people really knew that you believed Jesus is who He said He was–the only way to the Father (John 14:6)–you will suffer for it. At best you’ll be called a narrow-minded bigot. At worst, you could end up like Jesus or Polycarp. Jesus warned His disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” (John 15:18). St. Peter describes this life as a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17). Revelation 12 describes how when Satan failed to destroy Jesus, he turned his full attention to destroying the Church’s witness to Christ (v. 13f.).
When faced with the prospect of being burned alive, Polycarp said, “You threaten with fire that burns for a season and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment which is reserved for the ungodly. Why do you delay? Come, do what you will with me.” By God’s grace, it seems Polycarp had taken our Lord’s words in Matthew 10 to heart: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows,” (v. 28–31).
When your number one fear in life is God, which is what He expects according to the first commandment, everything else will be less scary. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 9:10). You can trust in His good and gracious will, knowing that nothing happens apart from His will. What God ordains is always good. You may not see or understand how this is now, but you will someday. As the hymn says, “Now I may know both joy and woe; someday I shall see clearly that He has loved me dearly,” (LSB, 760; verse 4). In the meantime, we live by faith, not by sight.
The object of this faith is Christ crucified, the only Lamb of God, who went uncomplaining forth to His death. Jesus was unwilling to compromise His confession of you before His Father, even though it cost Him His life. He died and rose again that you might share in His life through Holy Baptism, through which He sanctified you, having cleansed you by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present you to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that you might be holy and without blemish,” (Eph 5:26–27).
Jesus’ offered up His body & blood on the cross that you might receive in it the forgiveness of sins, the boldness to confess Christ clearly, and the courage to suffer for the sake of His name. His Word and grace are what forgives, comforts and strengthens you, much as they did for Polycarp. He knew well our Lord’s gracious promises of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. He was cleansed and nourished by our Lord. God’s grace–not his own power–was what gave him the boldness to confess Christ even in the face of death. Thus his final recorded words, which are also a fitting prayer for the Church today:
For this cause, yea and for all things,
I praise Thee, I bless Thee,
I glorify Thee, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest,
Jesus Christ, Thy beloved Son,
through whom with Him and the Holy Spirit be glory
both now [and ever] and for the ages to come. Amen.
+ Rev. Eric Andersen
Polycarp of Smyrna, Pastor & Martyr (Thursday of Reminiscere), 2013
Polycarp citations from “The Apostolic Fathers” by J.B. Lightfoot
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 Priene calendar; Edwards, Mark, 74.
 D. L. Jones, “Roman Imperial Cult,” ABD 5: 806.
 Ibid., 807.