by Daniel Harrell
Entering Colonial Church through its front doors takes you by this commemorative plaque naming the West Parish Congregational Meetinghouse of West Barnstable, Massachusetts, built in 1717, as the architectural inspiration for our own. As Dawn’s family lives in Barnstable County on Cape Cod, I’ve intended each summer during our family visit to seek out the West Parish Church to see the resemblance myself. Finally, following up on my intentions a few weeks back, I googled the church and was delighted to discover it located just a few miles down the road. So one Sunday morning, after worship at Dawn’s parents’ church, we moseyed over to First Congregational as they were letting out of their own worship service. We met a number of their members and took lots of pictures. They were delighted in hearing again how their beautifully simple space had been imitated in suburban Minnesota of all places.
They told us how their Meetinghouse represents one of he finest and oldest examples of colonial architecture in the country. It’s included on the National Register of Historic Places. Four years after its construction, we’re talking long before the Revolutionary War, their Meetinghouse was deemed too small for its occupants and was cut in half, the ends pulled apart and 18 feet of length added to its middle. Its bell tower, one of the earliest in New England was erected and its half ton bell cast at the Paul Revere foundry. While we may be excited that 2016 will mark 70 years of life together as Colonial Church, the West Barnstable congregation will celebrate its 300th birthday next year. Do the math and you realize that the church is much older than the Meetinghouse—gathered first in London over 100 years before their building. For Congregationalists, the church has always been the people of God and not the space where we gather. One Barnstable church member reminded us how the Meetinghouse was only church once they put up the cross on Sundays.
The faith we cherish and hold dear is not ours only, but one bequeathed to us by a great cloud of witnesses and shared by billions over and over who’ve loved and learned and served and taught and fought and bled and died for the sake of the risen Jesus and the gospel. Because history is so easy to ignore, we tend to forget those personalities whose faithful actions at critical moments in time have shaped what we sing and preach and obey as Christians. I decided eighteen years ago to set aside a few sermons each summer to honor some of these people, Church Fathers (and Mothers), who over time helped build the church. As there have been so many noteworthy personalities, it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. Serendipitously, my sermons attracted the attention of a publisher with a church history bent who published them into a little book you can still get online for a measly ten bucks. Order now and you can keep up even while going to the cabin this month.
Year eighteen should mean letter R, but life doesn’t always work out alphabetically, so I’m tackling P and Q these next couple of weeks. This morning we go back to the earliest days of Christianity, soon after its beginnings in Jerusalem and spread through the Mediterranean, to the life and times of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna with the really weird name that sounds like a combination math problem and sport fish. A disciple of John and a mentor to the earliest theologians who helped organize the New Testament, Polycarp was born around 65 AD. Like many early church leaders and early Christians, he was executed by the Roman Empire for treason against the emperor. Polycarp understood that to follow Christ meant taking up a cross to do it. Being a Christian back then was hazardous to your health—a harsh reality still in so many parts of the world these days too. Knowing the hazards, Polycarp encouraged Christians:
To be obedient to the word of righteousness and to exercise all patient endurance, such as you have seen [among your fellow believers and in the apostles], being persuaded that these did not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are now in their deserved place with the Lord, in whose suffering they also shared. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died on our behalf and was raised by God for our sakes.
Martyr, as you probably know, is just the Greek word for witness. Christian martyrs didn’t go around looking for ways to die. They simply decided to follow Jesus as the way, the truth and the life and whatever the outcome, the rest was out of their control. These days we read of persecuted Christians and instinctively pray for their rescue or relief. And yet throughout church history, the persecuted church is persistently vibrant and strong in ways safely situated churches often aren’t. A persecuted church has gotten serious about following Christ, pressing hard against the cultural grain in its pursuit of peace and justice, in its care for the poor, its love of enemies, its commitment to truth, its refusal to worship the idols of prosperity and power, and its hope for resurrection and new creation.
We see those who suffered for their faith then and now, and at times judge the rewards not worth the risk. What good is hardship and torment if you only end up dead? Then again, everybody suffers. Everybody dies. The difference is in how you do it and why. For Christians, human suffering and death is tied to Jesus’ own human suffering and death. Baptism symbolizes this. As we heard read from the apostle Paul this morning, “…when you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” What’s so interesting here, is not only our belief in resurrection, but that in baptism Christian dying and rising happens even before it happens. In Christ, our own risen future is already now, which is how we can courageously and righteously live the present. Paul loads on the reminders here. He uses verbs like forgiven and filled, rooted, built up and established, triumphed and resurrected. He mixes metaphors from agriculture, construction, law and warfare to stress the all-encompassing effects of God’s redemption.
Still, other parts of this passage remain puzzling, especially his mention of “the circumcision of Christ.” Jewish circumcision does correlate with Christian baptism; it’s why we baptize babies and not only adults. Infant baptism, like circumcision, signals God’s initiation of grace. As a baby, you do nothing to earn or deserve the love you receive. All you can do is cry, eat, poop and sleep. Unlike Jewish circumcision, however, Christian baptism extends to girls and Gentiles. In Christ, the boundaries of grace exponentially expand. Water does what a knife never could.
I read a rabbi complain how so many Gentile men converted to Christianity early on, instead of Judaism, because Christianity dropped the circumcision requirement. And yet Paul still mentions circumcision in Colossians—not meaning the physical elimination of foreskin, but what Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and others referred to as the “circumcision of the heart.” The “cutting off” of the old, stubborn self and its allegiances to the failed ways of the world. “In Christ you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,” Paul writes, “a circumcision done without human hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ when you were buried with him in baptism.” Baptism is death before death, allowing for resurrection to get a head start. We do not run the race in vain because we’ve already won. With sure victory comes power and courage in the face of failure, conviction and compassion in the face of suffering, traits evident throughout Polycarp’s long life and tragic death.
Polycarp was a simple man who lived in second century Turkey, with no formal education to speak of. Despite being a bishop, he didn’t know his Old Testament very well (which would have been all he had Bible-wise). He meditated on early Christian writings, including Paul’s letters, which would turn into the New Testament, and quoted them freely, to the point that modern critics have grown fond of calling Polycarp “unoriginal.” This is true: Polycarp had no interest in originality or theological innovation. Any deviation from the norm of the faith once delivered drew his bishop’s scorn. Yet his sternness in theological matters was accompanied by a great gentleness and compassion. He loved with the love of Christ.
Setting early Christians at odds with the Roman Empire was their firm refusal to worship the Emperor. Only Christ was Lord. Seeking to make an example of him, the Romans arrested old Polycarp and sentenced to be burned alive. He was led into an arena where bloody spectacles against Christians provided crowd entertainment. The Roman officer in charge tried to persuade Polycarp to deny his faith and avoid this fate. “Have respect for your age,” the official entreated, “swear by the spirit of Caesar. Change your mind. Take the oath and I shall release you. Curse Christ.”
But Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have served Jesus, and never did he do me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
I think of so many people, some here in this room, who have loved and served the Lord their whole, long lives. Jesus has carried you through so much and so far and so deep. Author David Brooks reminds how the things that lead people astray come fast: things like lust, fear, vanity and gluttony. But those things we most admire—traits like honesty, humility, self-control, courage, gratitude—“those things take some time and they accumulate slowly.” This is why the deepest and most faithful people tend to be old.
As old Polycarp waited for the fire to commence, he thanked the Lord: “God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee: I bless thee because thou hast deemed me worthy to take my part in the cup of thy Christ.”
The account of Polycarp’s execution is very dramatic. He’s tied to a stake to be burned, but the fire, rather than consuming him, surrounded him “like a ship’s sail filled by the wind,” we read, creating “a wall around the body of the martyr. And he was in the midst, not as burning flesh, but as bread baking or as gold and silver refined in a furnace.” You can’t help but call to mind the Old Testament Bible story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their fiery furnace in the book of Daniel. Polycarp’s executioners, frustrated that they can’t burn him, pull out a dagger and stab him. At this, we read “a great quantity of blood came forth so that the fire was quenched and the whole crowd marveled that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the [Christians.]” Given the drama, it’s surprising nobody’s ever made a movie about Polycarp. That is, until now!
OK, so I’m not expecting Polycarp the Movie to break any box office records—though it might do better than The Fantastic Four. Apparently not dramatic enough on its own, the screenwriters inserted the slave girl Anna, who appears nowhere in the Polycarp record. And yet, sadly, there are reports this week of young women sold and bartered as sex slaves in Iraq and Syria, near Polycarp’s ancient homeland, raped by ISIS militants in a vile kind of worship. In one report, a preteen girl practiced a religion other than the ISIS medieval rendition of Islam. ISIS militants assert the Quran not only gives the right to rape these so-called infidels—it condones and encourages it. Thankfully some of these women have escaped. But others have died and thousands more remain enslaved.
Jesus, Paul, Polycarp and the entire testimony of Scripture never teach that God keeps his people from the tragedies of life on earth. Strangely, and some would say absurdly, Christians are invited to endure and even rejoice in our hardships—not to be glad they happen, of course—but to recognize them as part of that redemptive arc of history started and finished by a crucified Lord raised from the dead.
In our younger days we looked forward and made plans for our lives, how we’d be happy and successful and fulfilled. But when we got old and looked backward at how we came to be who we are, we realize we’ve been made who we are not in those happy or fulfilling moments, but by our afflictions and adversities, by our redemption and recovery. As David Brooks put it, “we plan for happiness, but we’re formed by suffering.” Like love, suffering exposes our lack of control over life and our need for faith and hope and introspection and obedience to our true calling.
Paul declares how in the cross, through suffering and defeat, Christ disarmed the evil rulers and authorities, and made a mockery of them by rising triumphant. In time, all things submit to Christ’s authority.
Polycarp obeyed his calling as a disciple of Christ to the end and beyond. “Let us hold steadfastly and unceasingly to our Hope and to the Pledge of our righteousness,” he wrote, “to Christ Jesus, ‘who bore our sins in his own body on the tree, who committed no sin, neither was guile found on his lips,’ but for our sakes endured everything that we might live in him. Let us be imitators of his patient endurance, and if we suffer for the sake of his name, let us glorify him. For he set us this example in his own Person, and he is in whom we believe.”