25 February – Polycarp homily

Polycarp – 25 February – St Peter ad Vincula

May I speak + In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Today we are commemorating the life and death of one of the Apostolic Fathers of the Church, St Polycarp.

Polycarp is one of the earliest figures in the history of our Church, as he represents the first  generation of Church leaders following the end of the New Testament period. He was born in the year 69 AD (which was only 35 – 40 years after the end of Christ’s ministry on Earth) and was martyred for his faith by the Romans in the year 155 AD.

Polycarp was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, who was Christ’s beloved disciple, and that it was John himself who made Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) in the year 96, when he was only around 27.  Makes me feel somewhat a late starter.

Polycarp is chiefly remembered for the way in which he died, and I will come to that shortly, but I always think it is a little unfair that someone can live for over 80 years and only be remembered for what happened right at the end.   Unfortunately little of what Polycarp himself wrote has survived and we only have one letter that he wrote to the Church in Philipi in which he encourages the members to remain strong in their faith and to flee from materialism, which is no bad thing to be remembered for even if there had been nothing else.   However we do know more about him from the writings of his own disciples, and principally from St Ignatius.  It is clear from what we know that Polycarp was a staunch defender of Orthodox Christianity and he preached against the heresies of both the Gnostics and the Marcions.  The Gnostics believed that Christ had a secret message that was meant only for the select few and the Marcions tried to take Christianity out of its Jewish context by getting rid of the Old Testament and parts of the New.  In relation to the Gnostics Polycarp was clear that the gospel he heard from John the Evangelist was the whole gospel of Christ that was freely available to all and not only to those with secret knowledge and, in response to the Marcions, that it was a grave sin to try and make the faith easier to understand by removing the pieces of scripture which are felt to be uncomfortable or inconvenient.

However, as I mentioned, it is his martyrdom for which Polycarp is chiefly remembered. The emperors of Rome had unleashed bitter attacks against the Christians during this period.  When he was well into his eighties Polycarp was arrested on the charge of being a Christian — a member of a politically dangerous cult whose rapid growth needed to be stopped. Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded:

“Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my saviour?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.

Not only should we remember Polycarp as a great early defender of the faith and martyr of the Church but, as someone who received his faith from the feet of Christ’s beloved disciple, we should also try to apply the lessons of Polycarp’s life and death to our own situation.   It does not take too much thought to recognise that the heresies of Gnosticism and Marcionism are alive and well today as can be seen from the whole Da Vinci Code phenomena – people love to believe that the truth must be secret and to despise what is out in the open.  Similarly there are many both within and without Christianity who go to great efforts to “sanitise” the faith and make the gospel acceptable by editing out the difficult bits.  Finally in our everyday lives the world itself is always tempting us to renounce Christ and make ‘sacrifices to Caesar’.

In response to each of these temptations perhaps the best way for us to honour the memory of St Polycarp is to join with him in saying:

“…how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

+ In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.