Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sermon: St. Polycarp - 2011

23 February 2011 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Matt 10:26-33

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

“Do not fear those who kill the body,” says our Lord Jesus. And this is something He knows about. For our Lord, even God in the flesh, was killed in such a way. He was put to death by an angry mob that used the government to give itself cover for its wickedness and cruelty. And in the face of such things, the Lord tells us not to be afraid. For though evil people can, do, and will, harm Christians physically, they cannot hurt them where it is important – in their communion with God, in the righteousness they bear in their flesh because of the Lord’s cross, and the resurrection they in which they share because of our Lord’s rising from the dead.

St. Polycarp of Smyrna was a disciple of a disciple. He was taught the Christian faith by his pastor the apostle John, whose own pastor was Jesus Himself. On this date 1,856 years ago, Bishop Polycarp took the Lord’s words to heart, as was also persecuted by a mob claiming legitimacy because they were allied with the government.

The elderly bishop had refused to treat the emperor as a god. He was led to a stake and threatened to be burned to death unless he would “revile Jesus.” St. Polycarp had spent his entire adult life preaching the faith, confessing Jesus, and providing a living link to the apostles. He fought like a lion against heretics, and he spread the love of Christ with the gentleness as a lamb among his flock. He oversaw a church that was under persecution, and he stood firm in his conviction. He was neither bitter nor intimidated, but when called upon to renounce Christ, replied simply and clearly: “For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” With an almost matter-of-fact statement of faith, Polycarp was then burned alive at the stake.

For St. Polycarp knew the passage well: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny before My Father in heaven.”

The saints teach us what is important – especially those who have given their lives for the faith. They keep us grounded. They provide real examples of how the faith is lived out – especially in a world and culture that is hostile to God, opposed to the holy, ever at odds with the Church, and at enmity against our Lord Jesus Christ. Twice in this short text, our blessed Lord tells us not to be afraid. For even if our opponents can kill the body, even if they have that kind of power – it is nothing compared to the benevolent power of the God who created us, redeemed us, loves us, guides us, calls us, and gives us everlasting life as a free gift of grace and mercy.

St. Polycarp died because of his confession of Jesus, but Jesus actually died for Polycarp, for the apostles, for you and me, and for every person in the world who was ever conceived – even as we confess together that Christ is “the Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world.” And this reality is nothing that can be taken away by anyone – not even a mighty emperor, not even a lynch mob, not even a Muslim court that claims the right to extinguish the precious lives of innocent Christians because of their confession of Christ.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” asks our Lord. “And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father.” It is not God’s will that even a sparrow should die. For our Lord created a world in which nothing died – not even a little bird. But this is the reality we live and die in, dear friends. We live in a broken world of sin and death. And though the Lord didn’t create it, He understands it. He gets us through it. He redeems us from it. And He promises to end it and give us a new and greater world, perfect as the Garden of Eden was perfect before our human sin put us where we are today.

And, the Lord continues, “Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Dear friends, God loves you. He cares about you. It matters to Him when you hurt, when you are stressed, when you are mistreated, and even when you suffer terrible pain and illnesses. God did not create anything to suffer and die, but God will use all things – even pain and suffering, even persecution, even death itself – to accomplish His will in this world, His will that the saving Word go forth, His will that all people see the testimony of those who give their lives for the faith and come to know that the Christian faith is the one true faith, and to understand the mystery and the reality that God does not abandon us in our suffering.

In fact, when we look at the cross, that is where we see God’s love the most. We see the price the Father is willing to pay for us, we see the sacrifice the Son is willing to be for us, and we see the work of the Holy Spirit to call us, gather us, enlighten us, and sanctify us, the church, and to keep this church “with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

For if a faith is not worth dying for, it is not worth living for.

Christianity is not a preference, a hobby, or a choice. It is the very truth that God became man, took flesh, willingly suffered to save us, defeated death by dying, rose again, and then bids man and women of every time and place to take up their own crosses and follow Him, to follow Him not only to the cross, but to the empty tomb, not only to the pain and suffering of this broken world, but through that suffering to the triumph of eternity when we will all bask in the glory of Christ the victorious King!

Polycarp’s life was a ransom for the sake of the confession of Jesus. But Jesus’s life is a ransom for the sake of the sins of all the world, even unto the salvation of all who call upon His name and seek His forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Polycarp was a beloved pastor and bishop, writer and teacher, saint and martyr. His example of faithfulness unto death only makes his memory sweeter and serves to underscore the truth of His confession. And no matter how old we are, we can say with our dear brother in the faith: “I am a servant of Jesus, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” even as the Lord’s words ring in our ears, come what may: “So have no fear.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Past Elder said...

Reverend Father, you post a sermon for Septugesima, a traditional observance done away with by Vatican II, then post a sermon for the feast of St Polycarp on 23 February, the Vatican II relocation of his feast from its traditional 26 January.

As they say in my part of town, sup with that?

Father Hollywood said...

Dear PE:

Well, I'm a Lutheran and my church uses LSB with the one-year lectionary. I'm not too concerned about the less-than-ecumenical councils.

Besides, it's just too much trouble not to use the hymnal.

I might scribble in a few missing commemorations, though - like St. Francis. I think that one is a glaring omission - but then again, I like critters.

Past Elder said...

Hmm. It was just such a council that that originated a three-year lectionary and a new calendar, and it is a matter of concern that we, who uphold the catholic, as distinct from Catholic, faith, have backed ourselves into it, adapting and adopting its products as the heterodox churches have done.

Not to mention it being the twenty-first oecumenical council in that same mindset.

Both LSB and TDP in the end are tied to the Roman novus ordo, though LSB allows the traditional liturgy a pre Motu proprio existence, but not in the sanctoral calendar -- one of many reasons why I do not use either LSB or TDP myself, though I have a copy of the former for reference.

But I am not a pastor. If I were I would likely be one of the TLH holdouts, much as I find DSIII a wonderful version of the Common Service.

I'm a Lutheran, and I'll be double dag dog dipped if at this point in history Rome is going to provide models for the catholic faith. If it were I should have stayed in Rome.

Misesfan said...

What an awesome statement of faith by St Polycarp given the circumstance. Very well written and said, Father.

Theophilus said...

Brace yourself for a postitive comment by me!

It is good to focus on Polycarp at this time when we hear of the severe persecution suffered by the Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Palestinian Christians in Israel, and the many Christians living in the Arab-Muslim countries. Those Christians appreciate Polycarp and the Christ Polycarp followed even unto death.

I am concerned that American Christians do not appreciate Polycarp. Many go to church looking for the symbols of success in the garb of their clergy, in the sweetness of the choral music, and in the magnificence of the sanctuary. Polycarp's "witness" will help restore American Christians to the reality of the cross. Thanks.

A "Follower of the Way"