Sometimes the most important thing we can do in our Christian life is simply to hunker down and persevere in our allegiance to Christ our Lord, come what may.
I have always been attracted to the true story of Polycarp whose exemplary life of devotion to Christ serves as our witness and which calls us to likewise persevere.
Polycarp, whose name could be translated “Mr Much Fruit,” was born in the year AD 69 or 70. He had been instructed by the Apostles, and in particular, had been a disciple of St. John. For nearly half a century he ministered as Bishop of Smyrna.
But the most significant record we have of Polycarp’s life is a letter written by Smyrnaean Christians, who were eyewitnesses to Polycarp’s capture and death by martyrdom in AD 155. If ever there was an account to stir your heart and steel your allegiance to Christ, this is it. This story of the first Christian martyr after the New Testament era has thrilled readers of all ages.
The Governor of the day had been egged on by pagans celebrating a Roman festival with arena-style persecutions of Christians. They demanded, “Go and find Polycarp!” When Polycarp heard this news, he made his way quietly to a small country property not far from the city. Under torture, one of the houseboys at Polycarp’s residence divulged his whereabouts. They closed in on Polycarp late at night and found him in bed in an attic. His response to being captured was, “God’s will be done.”
He asked if he might be allowed to pray undisturbed for a time and his request was granted. All who heard him pray were struck with awe, and many regretted their expedition against a man so old and saintly.
They took him to the Police Commissioner who said, “Come now, where is the harm is just saying ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and offering incense, and so forth, while it will save your life?” His response was simple and direct, “No, I am not going to take your advice.”
They then led him to the circus, and he stepped into the arena where he was examined by the Governor who tried to persuade him to recant. “Have some respect for your years,” he said. “Swear by the Luck of Caesar – Own yourself in the wrong and say, “Down with the infidels!”
Polycarp’s brow darkened as he threw a look round the turbulent crowd of heathens in the circus, and then indicating them with a sweep of his hand, he said with a growl, and a glance to heaven, “Down with the infidels!”
The Governor pressed him further. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him, “Revile your Christ.” And then Polycarp said those stirring words that have rung down the centuries, “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”
The Governor said again, “Swear by the Luck of Caesar.” Polycarp answered, “If you still think that I am going to swear by Caesar’s Luck, and still pretend not to know what I am, let me tell you plainly now that I am a Christian; and if you want to know the meaning of Christianity, you have only to name a day and give me a hearing.”
The Governor replied, “Try your arguments on the crowd yonder.” Polycarp replied, “To defend myself to these people would only be a waste of time.” The Governor then said, “I have wild beasts here. Unless you change your mind, I shall have you thrown to them.” To which Polycarp replied, “Why then, call them up. For it is out of the question for us to exchange a good way of thinking for a bad one.”
A final time the Governor tried to get him to deny Christ. “If you do not recant, I will have you burned to death since you think so lightly of wild beasts.” Polycarp rejoined, “The fire you threaten me with cannot go on burning for very long; after a while, it goes out. But what you are unaware of are the flames of future judgement and everlasting torment which are in store for the ungodly. Why do you go on wasting time? Bring out whatever you have a mind to.”
The letter recounting his martyrdom goes on, “And all the time he was saying this and much else besides, he was overflowing with courage and joy, and his whole countenance was beaming with grace.”
When our struggles intensify and our hearts grow weary, and we may be tempted to even give up, we do well to remember our fellow Christian, Polycarp, who stood fast, who persevered in life, and then in death. As the fires grew hotter around him, these are the final recorded words of Polycarp. A stirring prayer they are.
“O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through who we have been given knowledge of yourself; You are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all the generation of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share the cup of your anointed and to rise again unto life everlasting, both in body and soul. For this, and for all else besides, I praise you, I bless you. I glorify you, through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by who and with whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come.”
May God grant us a measure of Polycarp’s persevering devotion and courageous allegiance.