Readings: Psalm 121; Matthew 20:20-23
“Are you able
to drink the cup that I am to drink?”
Today is 23rd
and those of you who follow their Church calendars more closely than others
may know that today is the day of the year when we remember especially St Polycarp.
If that fact had
slipped your mind –
or indeed if you frankly had never heard of St Polycarp up to a few minutes ago,
let me give you the background.
was born around 69 CE and may have known the apostle John –
certainly he is known as one of the “Apostolic Fathers”-
those early Christians who would have met and known some of the original apostles.
In 107 CE Polycarp became Bishop of Smyrna in modern Turkey.
(like St Paul and others) wrote many letters to the Churches in his charge –
though sadly only one full letter (his Letter to the Phillipians 1 ) has survived for us to read.
But Polycarp is chiefly remembered today as one of the early martyrs.
And we have a full and early account of his martyrdom 2, which took place on 23rd Feb 156 CE.
The people of Smyrna had turned against the
and several had been thrown to the lions.
The crowd then clamour for the life of the old Bishop Polycarp
His friends want Polycarp to flee,
but he waits quietly at a nearby farm until the authorities come for him.
He offers his captors supper and asks for an hour to pray alone.
during which he offers prayers for his fellow Christians.
Then he is taken into the city riding on a donkey.
The Roman Proconsul questions him and
tries to persuade him to recant his faith :
‘Have respect to thine age;
and swear by the genius of Caesar,
curse the Christ and I will release thee'.
‘Eighty and six years have I served him
and he hath done me no wrong;
how then can I blaspheme my king who saved me?’
The Roman Consul threatens to throw Polycarp to the
and when the old bishop says “bring them on” he is threatened with fire.
A great crowd of Smyrneans, Gentiles and Jews, has gathered,
and they bray for innocent blood.
Polycarp is taken to the stake and they make to nail
him to it –
he tells them this is not necessary – he will not move
So he is simply bound to the stake, where he offers a final prayer:
"Lord, almighty God…
…I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour,
so that in the company of martyrs I may share the cup of Christ,
your anointed one, and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body,
immortal through the power of the Holy Spirit."
When he had finished praying, the fireman lit the fire and the flames shot up.
But they formed a vault of flame around the saint and did not touch him.
Finally the executioner stepped forward
and killed the saint with a sword thrust to his neck.
At once blood flowed from the wound and extinguished the fire.
“And all the multitude marvelled”.
One of the most notable things about the account is
how closely it follows the story of Christ’s passion & death:
· Polycarp refuses to flee but quietly awaits his arrest
· He shares a last meal then goes out to pray like Christ at Gethsemane
· He enters the city Christ-like on a donkey
· He interrogation and the hostile crowd remind us of Christ before Pilate.
So did Polycarp’s martyrdom really follow the detailed story of Jesus so closely?
I suspect that pious and well meaning scribes,
wishing to embellish the story,
may have turned to the Gospels for extra detail.
having said that,
at core the old Bishop was indeed following in Christ’s footsteps.
Remember how when the mother of James and John asked Jesus
if they could sit at his right and left in glory -
She was their mum and like lots of mums, she knew that in any group of 12 disciples,
her two boys would be the best -
and she just needed to make sure Jesus knew that her lads were the pick of the bunch -
Christ told her that was not for him to say –
But could James and John drink from the same cup he was to drink from?
In other words would they be prepared to follow his path of suffering?
And then remember how Polycarp, awaiting the flames of death,
remembered that conversation,
and thanked God that he had been judged worthy to drink that same cup –
In that very real sense he was following in the footsteps of Christ.
It was not just in the early days of the faith
that men and women followed Christ even unto violent death.
It is a frightening fact that there have been more
Christian martyrs since the start of the 20th Century
than in the whole of the previous 1900 years together.
So today, as we thank God for the witness of Polycarp,
we add to his name the huge list of those down to this age who have literally given their lives for Christ.
ALTAR AND PLOUGH
We may not be called to such sacrifices – but we are not immune from such issues.
And a brief aside here -
before we too casually endorse tabloid campaigns to “send asylum seekers packing”
we might reflect on what happens to any genuine asylum seeker over-hastily returned home –
Heaven forbid that we should give thanks here for the courage of the martyrs
and then in the next breath refuse sanctuary for the persecuted and so help create new martyrs.
Meanwhile we are all called to follow in the footpaths of the saints and give our lives for Christ.
You can give your life in many ways.
· you can give your life in death for your sisters and brothers
· or you can give your life in living service for them.
Its like the
old picture of the ox
with a plough on one side and an altar on the other.
slogan reads “Ready for Either”
God calls us to make sacrifices –
For some it is the great sacrifice of the
literally giving our life blood for others.
But for others God calls us to give our
life for others in service,
in the unspectacular round of daily duty and commitment
which is another way of “giving your life” for Christ.
As we draw near to Lent we come to a period
of the year
when we review our commitment to the Lord.
And here at the Mint one of our Lenten disciplines
will be to study and pray over our “Time and Talent” forms.
To each of us Christ says (as he did to
James and John)
“Are you willing to drink the cup which I drink?”
And to each of us comes that moment in
Gethsemane when we too must ask
“Lord, may this cup pass from me – but not my will but your will be done.”
Many Christians in our world are called to that cup of violent death.
But even if that cup passes us by,
every one of us is called to give our life to Christ in whatever way he calls.
So we come to the end of the story of Polycarp – or is it the beginning?
It was Kierkegaard who said that
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over.
The martyr dies and his rule begins”
After his death, the Christians of Smyrna
collected the bones of Polycarp
and so began the tradition of venerating the saints
and giving thanks for their lives.
The day of Polycarp’s martyrdom came to
be commemorated as his
”Dies Natalis” – his birthday!
for quite simply this was the day he began new life in heaven -
so what was commemorated was not his death but his heavenly birthday.
So as we give thanks for the martyrs and
we do not mourn their passing,
we rejoice in their heavenly birth.
And we thank God for what they have given us.
Famously Tertullian said that
the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
We are here in this place because of so
many who have been prepared to give their lives for us.
So many countless hundreds of thousands who have perished
us make this place – and our lives -
worthy of the saints and martyrs -
and above all worthy of him in whose name they gave their lives.