The Strength of Christ

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”  These are Jesus Christ’s word to us, as we read in Luke 6:27-38 today.

In truth, what our world needs much more of is mercy.  Jesus points out that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”  God makes the sun to rise on both good and evil, and sends rain on the just and unjust.  He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem us from sin while we were yet enemies.  God, the Creator of all things, is kind to those who hate Him.  We are called to be and do the same.

Mercy seems to be in short supply in the world.  People say hateful and atrocious things to each other online and in person, or act rude or inconsiderate towards each other.  We see this behavior in others and, in moments of clarity, we see it in ourselves.

It’s hard enough for us to be kind and merciful to those we love, and yet Jesus calls us to be kind and merciful to those who hate us as well.  

We see this kind of mercy played out with the account of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 45.  His brothers had intended to kill him out of jealously, but ended up selling him into slavery.  Joseph, however, ended up rising to prominence in Egypt due to God’s providence.  What his brothers had meant for evil, God used for good.  Joseph was then in a position where he could have exacted vengeance upon his brothers who had hated them.  Yet, not only did he have mercy upon them, but he rejoiced to see them again. This is the mercy of our heavenly Father who welcomes us back into the fold when we sin against Him.

How might we show this same mercy to others?  We might not have been sold into slavery by our brothers, but we can show mercy in other ways.  We can open doors for people, give a kind smile, put the best construction on what they say, help them when needed.  

And if we’re called to do this for our enemies, most certainly are we called to do so for the other children of our heavenly Father.  We can put the best construction on the beliefs of our fellow Christians, pray for them and with them, because we are all united in Christ.

And it is Christ who gives us strength and hope and love for the trials of this life.  In particular, since Christ has already conquered death, we too know that we have this victory as well.  This gives us the strength to endure and to love others.

Yesterday was the feast day of St. Polycarp when his martyrdom in 155 AD is remembered.  He was the bishop of Smyrna and was at least 86 years old when he was killed by the Roman authorities in the stadium in the city.  Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John and taught St. Irenaeus. An account of Polycarp’s death was written by the Christians of his town shortly after his death and circulated among the Church.  In fact, at the end of it there’s a postscript containing the names of all who copied the particular copy of the letter that we have, beginning with Irenaeus.

Polycarp’s death was apparently the end of a series of martyrdoms in Smyrna in a local persecution of Christians by the Roman proconsul Lucius Statius Quadratus.  The written account records other deaths before Polycarp, of men and women being scourged, torn by wild beasts, and burned alive in the stadium.  One such man was St. Germanicus, who was only 17 years old.  The proconsul offered to spare him, if only he would recant his belief in Christ; in response, Germanicus “dragged the wild beast towards him, desiring the more speedily to obtain a release from their unrighteous and lawless life,” according to the account.

After Germanicus’ death, the pagan crowd demanded that Polycarp be brought before them to be killed.  He was the bishop and old and well-known.  The authorities went to fetch him, finding him in a farm house and “marveling at his age and his constancy, and wondering how there should be so much eagerness for the apprehension of an old man like him.”  The account continues:

“Thereupon forthwith he gave orders that a table should be spread for them to eat and drink at that hour, as much as they desired. And he persuaded them to grant him an hour that he might pray unmolested; and on their consenting, he stood up and prayed, being so full of the grace of God, that for two hours he could not hold his peace, and those that heard were amazed, and many repented that they had come against such a venerable old man.”

They then brought him to the chief of police, who delivered him to the stadium.  They tried to get him to worship the emperor, rather than Christ, but Polycarp refused.  

The account says: “as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven; ‘Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.’ And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And at length, when he was brought up, there was a great tumult, for they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended.”

The proconsul questioned Polycarp and tried to get him to worship Caesar.  He said, “‘Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ,’ Polycarp said, ‘Eighty and six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?’”

The account continues:

“But on his persisting again and saying, ‘Swear by the genius of Caesar,” he answered: 

‘If you suppose vainly that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and feign that you are ignorant who I am, hear me plainly, I am a Christian. But if you would learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and give me a hearing.’ 

The proconsul said; ‘Prevail upon the people.’

But Polycarp said:

‘As for yourself, I should have held you worthy of discourse; for we have been taught to render, as is proper, to princes and authorities appointed by God such honor as does us no harm; but as for these, I do not hold them worthy, that I should defend myself before them.’

Whereupon the proconsul said; ‘I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, unless you repent.’

But he said, ‘Call for them: for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from untowardness to righteousness.’

Then he said to him again, ‘I will cause you to be consumed by fire, if you despise the wild beasts, unless you repent.’

But Polycarp said:

‘You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will.’

The crowd then demanded Polycarp’s death by fire, to be burned alive.  They actually went and gathered wood on which to burn him, creating a pile.  The authorities were going to nail him to a stake in the midst of it, but Polycarp said that it was unnecessary, because the Lord would give him the strength to remain unmoved in the midst of the flames.  So, they tied him instead.

“Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said:

O Lord God Almighty,

the Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ,

through whom we have received the knowledge of Thee,

the God of angels and powers and of all creation

and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Thy presence;

I bless Thee for that Thou hast granted me this day and hour,

that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs

in the cup of Thy Christ unto resurrection of eternal life,

both of soul and of body,

in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit.

May I be received among these in Thy presence this day,

as a rich and acceptable sacrifice,

as Thou didst prepare and reveal it beforehand,

and hast accomplished it,

Thou that art the faithful and true God.

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.”

After Polycarp said “Amen,” the fire was lit.  Yet, the fire formed into a vault around Polycarp and did not burn him.  He was “like a loaf in the oven or like gold or silver refined in a furnace.”  And the people “perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.”

“So at length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he had done this, there came forth a dove and a quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and all the multitude marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.  In the number of these was this man, the glorious martyr Polycarp, who was found an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, a bishop of the holy Church which is in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.”

The account then says that the authorities did not want to allow the Christians to take Polycarp’s body away because they worried that “they should abandon the crucified one and begin to worship this man.”  As the writer points out, the authorities did not know “that it will be impossible for us either to forsake at any time the Christ who suffered for the salvation of the whole world of those that are saved – suffered though faultless for sinners – nor to worship any other.  For Him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs as disciples and imitators of the Lord we cherish as they deserve for their matchless affection towards their own King and Teacher. May it be our lot also to be found partakers and fellow-disciples with them.”

Indeed, and Amen.  

 

(Image: Detail of the interior of castle church Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Deutschland.  By Sebastian Wallroth – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40802264)