Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


"Suffer me to be as I am. He who gives me grace to undergo this fire will enable me to stand."

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Polycarp, a Christian bishop of the second century and martyr for Christ.

Martyrdom. Nowadays the word is used loosely. Anyone who claims to die for whatever cause is called a martyr. Terrorists would hijack planes and crashed them on buildings for their cause. Even misguided souls and gullible people would strap their bodies with bombs and blow themselves up in the crowd, thereby killing innocent people along with them, hoping to claim martyrdom.  Moammar Gadhafi, the dictator of Libya being besieged by protesters, promised that he will die a martyr, after having ordered the killing of hundreds of his own people who are simply claiming their freedom and human rights.

Martyrdom of Polycarp is not that kind of martyrdom. His was an authentic martyrdom. Polycarp became a Christian and a disciple of Christ directly from the apostles, particularly from St. John. If you remember, the young John was the beloved disciple of Jesus, who leaned on Jesus and when Peter, being mindful of his own martyrdom, asked about John’s future, Jesus said, “What is it to you if I want him to live until I return?” So it is in some degree of fulfillment that although so many people had tried to kill him, John was not martyred but died old age after being exiled in Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelations.

In Revelations, John was asked by the Spirit to write letters to the seven churches and one of them was addressed to the "angel of the Church in Smyrna." According to Biblical scholars, the angel being referred to here by John is none other than Bishop Polycarp. Of course, not all bishops are angels, though they received what is called apostolic succession. Polycarp received apostolic succession directly from the Apostle John who consecrated Polycarp a bishop of Smyrna prior to his exile in Patmos.  The letter to the angel of Smyrna, in the Book of Revelations, chapter 2, therefore, captures John’s personal knowledge of his own disciple, Polycarp, and it says:

“I know how much you suffer and how poor you are, but you are rich. I also know the cruel things being said about you by people who claim to be God’s people. But they are really not. They are a group that belongs to Satan.  But don’t worry about what you will suffer. The devil will throw some of you into jail, and you will be tested and made to suffer for ten days. But if you are faithful until you die, I will reward you with a glorious life” (Revelations 2: 8-10).

The suffering that Polycarp endured sounds like a line from the John Newton's hymn, “Just as I Am Without One Please” and it says “fighting within and fears without.”  The "fighting within" for Polycarp, was the assault on the authenticity of the Church from heresies and the "fears without" are from the threats of state persecution. It is interesting to note that one of the infamous heretics which Polycarp opposed was Marcion, who himself was the son of the bishop of Sinope, in Pontus and most probably was consecrated a bishop and became an assistant or suffragan bishop of his father. So the conflicts among bishops are nothing new, but that is another story.

Marcion represented the heresy of dualism or Gnosticism, claiming that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are distinct from each other; the one being a tyrannical and false God and that Jesus was not fully human but was sent only to impart a Gnostic (or secret) knowledge to the world.  Polycarp as defender of authentic Christian faith, championed orthodoxy (right beliefs) and the doctrine that Jesus is fully God and fully human and that the God of the Old and New Testament (and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ) is one and the same. These affirmations are found in the Apostle’s and Nicene creeds.Having been mentored by the Apostle John, his testimony was beyond reproach.

For his faith, his ministry and his life, Polycarp was tested in the crucible of fire when he was forced by Herod to bow down and burn incense before the image of the Roman Emperor (February 23, 155 A.D. in the reign of Marcus Aurelius) and to blaspheme Christ. To this pressure, Polycarp replied, “I have served Christ these four score and six years and he never did me any harm but only much good; how can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (www.ewtn.com/library/Mary/Polycarp.htm)

Polycarp was ordered to be burned alive but the flames formed themselves like an arch, gently encircling his body, which stood in the middle, unharmed by fire. Exasperated that he could not be consumed by fire, a spearman was ordered to pierce his body and it was at this point that a huge stream of blood gushed from her left side and quenched the fire. Bishop Polycarp became a martyr, a symbol of apostolic zeal, godly virtues and profound spirituality.

The Letter of John to the Angel of Smyrna ended with this note:” If you have ears, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Whoever wins the victory will not be hurt by the second death” (Revelations 2:11).

Let us pray: "Almighty God, who gave your servant, Polycarp, boldness to confess the name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reighs with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, foer ever and ever. Amen" (Book of Common Prayer, page 246).

(Homily of the Rev. Dr. Winfred B. Vergara, Chapel of the Risen Lord, the Episcopal Church Center, New York City, 2/23/11)

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