Archive for February, 2014

The way the Church is built and builds has been a disputed topic for some time now. The many and sundry blueprints for the Church at corporate (district and synodical offices) have been promulgated to “grow the church”, e.g. church growth.  There are as many ‘new’ ideas to ‘grow the Church’ put forward as there are many fears that we are not growing and we are going to die.   This ‘new’ plan will save the Church!  Wrong.  The Church is saved and is being saved by the One Who alone finally builds His Church: ” And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (St. Matthew 16: 18)  Anything else is the beginning of sheer unbelief, just as Peter wanted to prevent the Lord from the Cross.

The Scriptures contain the building plans, building materials and the identity of the builders for the Church:

Builders :  The Lord is clear He is the builder of His Church.  The Lord also calls builders, such as the Apostles and then pastors and He calls, instructs and encourages the  builders to use the best materials available.

Building materials: The gold, silver and precious stones of His Word:  the Word of the Bible, Law and Promise, the Word of God in the Sacraments, the Word in prayer, the Word of rebuke and consolation.

Building plans, blueprint: The Scripture is quite clear on the Lord’s blueprint as He He builds His Church:    a Temple formed, reformed and conformed (see  1 Corinthians 6:19,1 Peter 2:5 Romans 8:29, to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ (see Luke 24:46-48). 

The past two Sundays after the Epiphany the Epistle readings are  1 Corinthians 3:1-9  and 1 Corinthians 3:10-23.

The following passage from 1 Corinthians is quite illustrative of the Lord’s builders, building materials, and blueprint for His Church and I will be exploring this Text with you:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—  13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

 16 Do you not know that YOU are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in YOU17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and YOU are that temple.

In  verse 15 the translation “skilled” is in Greek, sophia, as “wise”, e.g. as in philosophy, literally “love of wisdom”.  The Apostle clearly identifies the “wisdom” given him:  the wisdom of  the Crucified (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:21 ). God’s wisdom is most assuredly not human wisdom.  The Medieval Ages could not have been simply the “dark ages”, as they developed the architectural plan of a sanctuary that proclaims clearly the Cross of Jesus Christ:

The Greek word for “master builder” is the one from which we have our word, “architect”.  Paul, Apollos and many others build. Paul laid the foundation of the Church in Corinth which is the cornerstone of Jesus Christ, not religious experience, human wisdom, man’s plans and the like.  Jesus Christ, the cornerstone rejected by the original builders (Israel) and men, cast out, has become the chief cornerstone (cf. Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11 Ephesians 2:20).  The Apostle laid this foundation by the only means Christ gave to His Apostles and His apostolic Church:   preaching “Christ and Him crucified”, 1 Corinthians 1:23.  Our preaching is cross-shaped as missionary work and evangelism:  

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2: 2)


It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3: 1)

The Sacraments are likewise cruciform, see  Romans 6:3-5;   1 Corinthians 11:26.  The stones for His Church are not quarried out of granite, but out of Jesus Christ, now “living stones” , see 1 Peter 2:5. Peter (Rock) from Christ, not Christ from Peter.

The two lists of construction materials that the Apostle lays out side by side,

gold, silver, precious stones”


“wood, hay and straw” .

Those two contractors’ lists are strikingly different  The first list is obviously more valuable than the second and it is clear from the text, the desirable materials.  Gregory Lockwood in the Concordia Publishing House Commentary on 1 Corinthians notes that the first list were the building materials for the Temple.  It is so obvious in the Apostle’s comparison that the Temple building materials endure because they are non-combustible.  Fire will not burn them but  fire will test everyone’s work.  Further, it is plain to see that the Temple of which St. Paul writes is the Church.  The Greek pronoun “you” is plural, as we say here in the South: y’all.  There is no Church of one, no ‘super-Christians’, but a communion, a “spiritual house” being built  Lockwood comments:

In addition (and this is most important in the context), these three more valuable items are noncombustible, whereas the materials in the second group are all combustible. The OT refers to gold, silver, and precious stones as building materials used in the tabernacle and the temple. Thus Paul anticipates the temple imagery of 3:16-17.7

The precious, noncombustible materials represent preaching, teaching, and pastoral care that rest upon the Gospel. The combustible items signify teaching and methods motivated by human “wisdom” (1:17-22; 2:1-5, 13; 3:19) and therefore at odds with God’s “wisdom” (1:24, 30; 2:6-7)—the doctrine of Christ.

Wood, hay, straw…one match, it’s ablaze and gone.  Let’s say that synodical and district offices are akin to a contractor’s office, then the only task for which they are to oversee is to see that the building materials are the gold, silver and precious stones of His Word and Sacraments of His Church, as outlined in Scripture and the Confessions. The Word endures to eternity and from eternity and in time and space, flesh and bone.  The Word  is not ephemeral like wood, hay and straw of human wisdom, plans, schemes, techniques and tactics.  We point to the Word of promise, not to church programs.  Episcopos, or bishop, the role of district president, literally means “oversight”, not “overlook”. Bishops, pastors and district presidents are not to be designing new blueprints,nor using substandard building materials.

We cannot keep on using substandard building materials as we have done now for decades, quick let’s have a ministry, get some funding and 5 piece band.  The Lord builds His house, not a coffee house, to sell people a little Christ with their capuccino.   We do not package and sell the Word of God, peddling it, then the Word becomes  a commodity and the Lord’s House becomes  a whore house:

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.(2 Corinthians 2: 17)

We are not messing around with a weekend carpentry job finishing the basement.  One reason to use easier materials is that the “job gets done” and many a weekend carpenter has worked with wood and that’s fine for finishing a basement.  Using the inferior “plans of mice and men”, of human wisdom and that work will not last.  Building by using substandard materials and they tend to collapse and people die.    Yet, it makes pastors feel useful and the job is done quickly.   The basement, the foundation has been laid and it is precious in God’s sight.  The original builders rejected the cornerstone, Jesus Christ.  what the Lord is building and which is precious in His sight.  “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”  The Law of God is frightening as well it should be. We are using sound building materials, that is “sound doctrine”.

The other aspect of the two groups of building materials is this:  I opine that “gold, silver and precious stones” not only are more costly, but harder to work with than wood, hay and straw.  Gold and silver take time to smelt and burn the dross. Pearls were not cultivated then, but one had to dive into the depths of the ocean to find them. In fact finding one, one sells all he has to buy it.  This triumvirate lasts as the Word of the Lord  endures forever.

Our calling is not to master the public but to make public the Master.  What is the Church to do?  Like seed, cast His Word to all (see St. Matthew 13: 1-23).  Ours is not to figure out how it will work but to trust He is at work in His Word according to His Word.  We are to confess Christ.  

Pastor Bonhoeffer preached it well in 1933, in Berlin, about building the Church and confession Jesus Christ:

…it is not we who build. He builds the church. No human being builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever intends to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess-he builds. We must proclaim—he builds. We must pray to him-that he may build. We do not know his plan. ‘We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great timesof construction. It may be that from a human point of view great times for the church are actually times of demolition. It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions, don’t ask for judgments, don’t always be calculating what will happen, don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Let the church remain the church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord, from his grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.


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Intro:  This coming Sunday ( 2 March, 2,014)  is Transfiguration in our Church year and the Gospel reading is always one of the Transfiguration narratives.  This year it is St. Matthew 17: 1-9.  This makes sense because this coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.  The Transfiguration narrative is between two of the Lord’s passion prophecies in chapters 16 and later in chapter 17. On the mount of Transfiguration, the Lord shows forth, an epiphany,that He  is, “…God from God, light from light, very God from very God, begotten, not made, being one Substance with the Father by whom all things were made”(The Nicene Creed) and it is another revelation of the One God in three Persons, the blessed Holy Trinity.  St. Ephrem the Syrian’s sermon below is a witness to both the revelation and the epiphany on the “high mountain apart”.  This style of preaching is really “that old time religion”! This is just a smaller quote from a longer sermon!  Ephrem was a deacon who died on 18 June, anno Domini 373.  Pray for his first homeland of Syria, one of the first countries in which the Christian faith took root.  One of Ephrem’s prayers is a familiar one during Lent in the Orthodox Church and should be with Lutherans as well.

O Lord and Master of my life!

Take from me the spirit of sloth,
faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity,
humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother,
for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

From St. Ephraem the Syrian’s Transfiguration Sermon:

His glory reveals His divine nature, which is from the Father; and His body reveals His human nature, which is from Mary. Both natures have united, and, without change and without commingling, have been joined together in one hypostasis or person. The Same is the Only-begotten of the Father Who is the Only-begotten of Mary. And he who separates them is himself separated from His Kingdom; and he who commingles His natures into one will have no part in His life. He that denies that Mary gave birth to God shall not see the glory of His divinity; and whosoever denies that He was clothed in flesh Who was free from the stain of every sin shall be shut out from salvation, and from the life which is given by His Body.

The events of His life, and His own divine powers, teach those who can learn that He is true God, and His sufferings openly proclaim Him true man. And if this does not convince those who are weak and foolish of mind, they shall suffer punishment on the day of His dread judgement. For if He were not flesh, for what reason did Mary bring Him forth? And if He was not God, who then did Gabriel call Lord?

If He was not flesh, who then lay in the manger? If He was not God, to whom did the angels coming on earth give glory?

If He was not man, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes? If He was not God, whom then did the Shepherds adore?

If He was not man, whom did Joseph circumcize? And if He was not God, in whose honour did a new star appear in the heavens?

If He was not man, whom did Mary nourish at the breast? And if

He were not God, to whom did the Magi offer gifts?

If He was not man, whom did Simeon take in His arms? And if He was not God, to whom did Simeon say: Dismiss me in peace?

If He was not man, whom did Joseph take and fly with him into Egypt? And if He was not God, in whom was the prophecy fulfilled: Out of Egypt have I called my son? (Mt.ii. 15; Os. xi. 1).

If He was not man, whom did John baptize? And if He was not God, of whom did the Father from ,heaven say: This is my beloved Son, linwhom Iamwellpleased? (Mt-iii-17)-

If He was not man, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if He was not God, to whom did the descending angels minister?

If He was not man, who was in”vited to the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee? And if He was not God, who changed the water into wine?

If He was not man, in whose hands were the loaves of bread placed? And if He were not God, who fed and filled from five barley loaves and two fishes the multitude in the desert, five thousand men, not counting the women and children?

If He was not a man, who slept in the boat? And if He were not God, who was it rebuked the winds and the sea?

If He was not man, who was it ate with Simon the Pharisee? And if He were not God, who forgave the woman her sins?

If He was not a man, who sat by the well weary from the journey? And if He was not God, who gave the Samaritan woman the water of life; and who rebuked her, she that had already five husbands?

If He was not of our flesh, who so wore the garments of a man? And if He were not God, who then was it that wrought signs and wonders?

If He was not a man, who spat upon the earth, and made mud from the clay? And if He were not God, who caused eyes to see because of the clay? (Jn. ix).

If He was not man, who wept at the tomb of Lazarus? And if He were not God, who by his command alone called forth the four days dead?

If He was not a man, who was it sat upon an ass’s colt? And if He were not God, before whom did the crowd march to give Him glory?

If He was not a man, whom did the Jews make prisoner? And if He were not God, who commanded the earth, and it threw them flat to the ground?

If He was not a man, who was beaten with blows? And if He were not God, who healed the ear which Peter had cut off, and who restored it to its place?

If He was not a man, whose face was spat upon? And if He were not God, who breathed the Holy Spirit upon the faces of the Apostles (J11, XX. 22).

If He was not a man, who was it stood before Pilate at the judgement seat? And if He were not God, who caused the wife of Pilate to suffer many things in a dream?

If He was not a man, upon whose garments did the soldiers cast lots, dividing them amongst them? And if He were not God, for what reason did the sun grow dark above the Cross?

If He was not a man, who was it hung upon a cross? And if He were not God, who moved the earth from its foundations?

If He was not a man, whose hands were pierced by the nails? And if He were not God, how was the veil of the temple rent in two, and the rocks split asunder, and the graves opened?

If He was not a man, who cried out: My God, My God, why hast Thou abandoned me? And if He were not God, who then hath said: Father forgive them, for they know not what they do?

If He was not man, who hung with thieves upon a cross? And if He were not God, for what cause did He say: This day thou shalt be with me in paradise?

If He was not man, to whom did they offer gall and vinegar? And if He were not God, at whose voice did they shake and tremble? (Ps. lxxvi. 19).

If He was not a man, whose side was opened by a lance, and there came out blood and water? (Jn. xix. 34) And if He were not God, who hath broken the gates of hell, and burst the iron bars? (Ps. cvi. 0). And by whose command did the dead that slept in their graves come forth?

If He was not a man, whom did the Apostles behold in the Upper Room? And if He was not God, in what manner did He enter, the doors being closed?

If He was not a man, in whose hand did Thomas feel the wounds of the nails and the lance? And if He was not God, to whom did Thomas cry out saying: My Lord and My God?

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Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, You chose Your servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve. Grant that Your Church, ever preserved from false teachers, may be taught and guided by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

St. Matthias, Apostle

St. Matthias is one of the lesser-known apostles. According to the Early Church Fathers, Matthias was one of the seventy-two sent out by Jesus in Luke 10:1-20. After the ascension, Matthias was chosen by lot to fill the vacancy in the Twelve resulting from the death of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:16-25). Early Church tradition places Matthias in a number of locations. Some historians suggest that he went to Ethiopia; others place him in Armenia, the first nation to adopt Christianity as a national religion. Martyred for his faith, Matthias may well have met his death at Colchis in Asia Minor, around AD 50. The Church of St. Matthias at Trier, Germany, claims the honor of being the fina burial site for Matthias, the only one of the Twelve to be buried in Europe north of the Alps.

Reflection: From Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, volume 27,Luther’s Works:

. . . Christ wanted no one to be made an apostle by men or the will of men but as the result of a call from Him alone. For this reason the apostles did not dare elect Matthias; they gained his appointment from heaven in answer to their prayer. And it was from heaven that God called Paul himself and made him an apostle, in particular through the voice of the Holy Spirit. “Set apart for Me,” He says, “Paul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them.” Thus Paul boasts in Rom. 1: If. that he was set apart for the Gospel of God,    inasmuch as he himself, together with Barnabas, was set apart for the uncircumcised and the Gentiles, while the rest of the apostles were sent to those who were circumcised.

Note also that Paul makes the name “apostle” so emphatically expressive of an office and of dignity that he uses it as a participle and says “an apostle, not from men,” which means “sent, not from men”. . . . All these facts aim to make you see with what care Christ has established and fortified His church, lest anyone rashly presume to teach without being sent by Him or by those whom He has sent. For just as the Word of Cod is the church’s first and greatest benefit, so, on the other hand, there is no greater harm by which the church is destroyed than the word of man and the traditions of this world. God alone is true, and every man a liar. Finally, just as David once left behind all the means by which Solomon was to build the temple, so Christ has left behind the Gospel and other writings, in order that the church might be built by means of them, not by human decrees.

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Lessons:  St. Matthew 5:38-48 Psalm 119:33-40, HE 1 Corinthians 3:10-23 Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

  From the Gospel, St. Matthew 5:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

 The Lord in His Sermon on the Mount to His newly called disciples presupposes they will have enemies. He said earlier to them, You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, different than the society and culture round about. The disciples will have enemies, not because they attacked and pillaged the world but because they serve the Savior of the world, and love Him, above all things, and their enemies,  and the world knows it and hates them for it. They love Him as He first called and loves them.  If a church does not have enemies, maybe that church is no longer salt or light.  It is tasteless and dark, and the devil loves that, if he can love anything.   Jesus says love your enemies, not surrender to them.  A church that does not have enemies, maybe has surrendered the truth who sets us free to the enemy, and the loss of saving truth obviously does not save…the church nor the enemy.  It is obvious from Leviticus the Lord calls us to be holy not nice.  It is to His holiness, the holiness of His love, we are called by the holy Lord become flesh and made holy by His Wounds inflicted by His enemies, that is, usFor if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.   

 Jesus says six times, You have that it was said…but I say to you.  Again, He is not correcting the Law of God but it’s misinterpretations.  “Eye for an eye” is used as text, actually pretext for vengeance.  Still is. You’ve heard, maybe you’ve said, especially when discussing capital punishment.   “You know eye for an eye!!!”  Shalom Aleichem, who wrote the short stories of Tevye the milkman which was made into the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, said, “Eye for eye..”, then everybody would be blind and toothless.

 First, This is said to the government, and is a, “… sound principle for the instruction of the judge; Fair compensation should be granted for injuries received. It was the Lord’s way of curtailing revenge”(Kretzmann). It is quite ‘normal’ if someone hits you to say quite ‘naturally’:  I’m going to kill you, and mean it.  Civil law curbs our wanton hatred and with it, violence, vengeance and vigilantism.

 Second, again the Lord presupposes the disciples, His church will be persecuted and this is the response to personal persecution. But as persecution just may be against the law of the nation the church is in, the church and her Christians must seek legal recourse.  The Apostle did when he was about to be flogged, Paul told  the Centurion that he was a Roman citizen. It was against the law of the Empire to flog a Roman citizen, he did not want to be beaten…again.  Jesus does not forbid legal recourse.   

 Third, as indicated,  revenge is considered “normal” or “natural”, that is, normal and natural to fallen human nature.  It is the plot of many a movie, soap operas, novels and video games.  It is so fallen-natural to hate the enemy.  I know.  I did not and can still not have warm Christian feelings toward certain people from my previous congregation, and living in a small town, I can have several awkward moments in one visit to Walmart or Krogers…and them as well.  It is ‘natural’ to hate, and that’s the problem, considered as natural, that is, acceptable.  The Lord’s solution: pray for those who persecute you. C.S. Lewis knew a man who met Adolph Hitler.  This man had every reason to despise Hitler.  Lewis asked his friend, What was Hitler like?  “Like all men…like Jesus Christ”.  It is so, so easy to vilify an enemy as less than human, as Tolkien did with the orcs, physically distorted and ugly creatures.  But our enemy looks like us. Pray for those who persecute you, no, it is not easy, believe me. Loving is not necessarily a warm feeling, but serving the enemy…with those who wronged me, if I waited for my heart to prompt me to serve those I do not like, even hate, it will be a long time. Our prompt is not the fallen human heart, but it is His Word and the Word made flesh. But don’t merely believe me.  Believe the one who prayed nailed to the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Including me, and you and the other guy. After all, as Jesus said, His Father causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. 

 It is a good system, after, it is the Lord’s and of course, it is more than a “system” but eternal life Jesus points us to in Himself as He came from the Father to us all, the just and the unjust, giving His rain for us all and His forgiving for us all.  Believe Him always and everyday for those who persecute you, and the guy whom you would love to persecute.  The Lord fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit, which includes prayer for the enemy, not to wound and kill the enemy, but heal him or her and ourselves:  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  It is only in communion with Jesus Christ we can so live and be actually natural, according to the divine and human natures one in Jesus Christ. We do not pray as we ought but the Lord, the Holy Spirit prays in sighs too deep for words:  Lord, have mercy.

 Fourth, the law of God shows us when we are the Lord’s enemies!  It is amazing to read that the Lord our God put forth as a commandment not to curse the deaf nor trip the blind. How outrageous!  How horrible!  This isn’t right! It’s not normal! I never! Really, “I never”?!  Only God can say “never” and “ever” but if it’s wrong, I can do it.   Were people tripping the blind and cursing at the back of deaf of  person?  Maybe not…maybe.  Mr. Chad Bird has this reflection on today’s Old Testament lesson, in his blog:

 “…obvious wrongs are expressly forbidden because humanity excels at calling evil good and good evil. Granted, I do not foresee a day when tripping the blind will be deemed decent behavior. But, then again, I suspect that few Americans, fifty years ago, ever envisaged a day when it would be considered decent and acceptable to clinically murder fifty million unborn babies either. Be not deceived. Any boundaries to humanity’s capacity for evil are drawn with pencils, easily erased and widely expandable. Good is defaced as “bigoted, narrow-minded, oppressive.” Evil is prettified as “loving, freeing, merciful. This one command, don’t trip the blind, thunders this universal truth: humans perpetually fail at being humane.”

 It is accepted as “normal” and “right”, the “choice” of  the killing of 50 million unborn children.  We heard so many supposedly small ways in the Old Testament lesson from Leviticus we think we do right when it is not even close, doing wrong:  towards the poor, our neighbor’s property, getting as much as we can in life.  As in harvesting the fields to the edges and leaving nothing for the hungry and sojourner because I want it all!  The refrain for all those commands is “I am the Lord”.  It seems like such a small things that the Lord God puts His Name on, but they are not small things.  He lays Himself on the line for our own humaneness, living.  The Lord did once and for all. His love and mercy is perfect and mercy’s perfect deed is the Cross and that is the perfection the Lord guides us toward and more, in…in His mercy: for you, for me and for the other guy, even the enemy. 

 “…you are Christ’s, but Christ is God’s. Since the believers belong to Christ by faith, in and through Him their royal power is exercised. In this relation, therefore, there is praise for no one but Christ. And Christ is God’s, the believers thus, through the Son, being united also with the Father and partaking of His eternal power. God, therefore, is all in all, and it behooves all Christians, instead of spending valuable time in petty bickerings, in forming factions, and in boasting in men, to devote the energy of faith to the spread of His honor and glory. God’s field of tillage, God’s building, God’s temple, we Christians are, because we belong to Christ. And this great honor, on whose account we fall down before God in humble adoration, teaches us to deny the ungodliness of the praise of men and to glory in the Lord alone.” (Rev. Paul Kretzmann)





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Intro:   Polycarp’s martyrdom on this date around AD 156 deeply impressed the nascent Church and can not be glossed over.   Polycarp was a link between the time of the Apostles and post-apostolic era.  He was martyred when he was 86 years of age by being burned,and when the flames did not hurt him, he was stabbed in the heart.  Eyewitness accounts said the smell was of baking bread.  His name means, “much fruit”.  Below is a short bio from The Apostolic Fathers edited by Jack Sparks of the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Take the oath and I will let you go,” said the proconsul. “Revile Christ.”

“I have served Him eighty-six years,” replied Polycarp, “and in no way has He dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Thus the aged and much revered bishop spoke, in full knowl­edge of the outcome. His martyrdom was sealed. His life had stretched from the days of the apostles till the middle of the second century, and on a February day in about 156 he moved on with honor to the church enrolled in heaven.

We first meet Polycarp as the relatively young bishop of Smyrna when the aging Ignatius of Antioch was on his way to mar­tyrdom. It was in Smyrna that Ignatius made that famous rest stop on his final journey, and Polycarp was the only individual on record to whom the great martyr ever addressed a personal letter. In the years that followed, Polycarp gathered Ignatius’ letters and passed them on to others.

Irenaeus, who was bishop of Lyons in the latter half of the second century, tells us that Polycarp was a disciple of the apos­tle John and indeed knew others who had seen the Lord in the flesh. The witness of Irenaeus is important because he appar­ently grew up in Smyrna. What he says of Polycarp indicates that the bishop of Smyrna was most concerned about the pres­ervation of the orthodox faith. One incident he reports demon­strates the severity of Polycarp’s attitude toward heresies and heretics. Polycarp, says Irenaeus, once met the heretic Marcion on the streets. “Do you recognize me?” asked Marcion. “In­deed,” replied Polycarp, “I recognize you as the firstborn of Satan!” (Adv. haer 3:3,4).

Though Irenaeus hints at several letters by Polycarp, only  one has come down to us. That letter is to the church at Philippi and reflects the same concern for truth and orthodoxy we have already mentioned. His letter is filled with, indeed almost made up of, quotes from the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles of the New Testament, as well as the letters of Clement and Ignatius. Some critics have sneered at Polycarp because he is so uncreative and offers no new theological insight. We can be glad he was the way he was. Through Polycarp we have not only a link with the ear­liest days of Christianity, but a faithful transmission of apostolic doctrine as well. No, he was not creative. He was a loyal disci­ple of Christ and the apostles.

Near the end of his life Polycarp made a visit to Rome to dis­cuss with Bishop Anicetus a number of church matters, appar­ently including the date of Easter. The Eastern churches were still celebrating Easter on the exact date of Jewish Passover, while Rome was using a specified Sunday each year. Neither agreed to change, but their fellowship was not disturbed. Before he left Rome, Polycarp, at the invitation of Anicetus, led in the celebration of the Eucharist. The two men parted in full agree­ment to leave their respective traditions as they were.

Last of all we have an eyewitness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp. Perhaps by request, the church at Smyrna pre­pared a full account, to be sent to the church at Philomelium and other places. This clear and simple testimony of the martyrdom of an aged saint should bring tears to the eyes of any believer. Some have questioned the record because of the miraculous ac­count of the means of his death. But there is great danger in rejecting a miracle on the grounds that “such things just don’t happen.” Some have done so and thus have rejected the mira­cles of the Scriptures.

Polycarp’s last prayer is characteristic of the man and a clear testimony of his faith. He concluded with, “I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest Jesus Christ your beloved Son through whom to you with Him and the Holy Spirit be glory now and forever. Amen.”

Below is a selection from The Martyrdom of Polycarp.  Please note that the first Christians were accused of “atheism” because they would not sacrifice to the false god of Caesar, and so they were considered as not believing and thus imperiling the ‘divine’ order of the Empire and the Emperor.

“…the police captain, Herod, and his father, Nicetes, met (Polycarp); they transferred him to their carriage and sitting down beside him tried to persuade him, saying: “Why, what is wrong with saying, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ and sacrificing, and so forth, and thus being saved?” At first he did not answer them, but when they persisted, he said: “I am not going to do what you advise me.”  Since they had failed to persuade him, they uttered threats and hurriedly pulled him off so that as he was descending from the carriage he scraped his shin. And without turning around, he walked along briskly as though he had suffered no injury. As he was led into the stadium with the uproar so great that it [the announcement of Polycarp’s apprehension] was not heard by many….

 Now a voice from heaven came to Polycarp as he was entering the stadium: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man!” (Josh. 1:6,7,9.) No one saw the speaker, but many of ours heard the voice. And then as he was brought forward, there was a great uproar now that they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended. So when he was brought forward the proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp; and when he admitted it, he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: “Respect your age” and all the other things they usually say: “Swear by the Genius of Caesar, change your mind, say, ‘Away with the atheists.’ ” Polycarp looked sternly at the whole crowd of lawless heathen in the stadium, indicating them with a wave of the hand, groaned and looked up to heaven, and said: “Away with the atheists!” When the proconsul persevered and said: “Take the oath and I will let you go; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied: “I have served him eighty-six years and in no way has he dealt unjustly with me; so how can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

 Since he persisted and said: “Swear by Caesar’s Genius,” he answered: “If you vainly expect that I will swear by Caesar’s Genius, as you suggest, and pretend to be ignorant who I am, listen (to what I say) openly: I am a Christian. If you want to learn the teaching of Christianity, name the day and hear (about it).”  The proconsul said: “Persuade the people.” Polycarp replied: “To you indeed I have considered myself accountable; for we have been taught to render fit honor to rulers and authorities appointed by God in so far as it is not injurious to us [cf. Rom. 13:1,7;1 Pet. 2:13ff]; as for these, I do not consider myself bound to make my defense before them.”

Comment:  Note that what the Christians were asked to do, burn a little incense to Caesar and swear by him is really a ‘small thing’, as it was pitched toward the Church.  As the proconsul said, what is wrong with saying, Caesar is Lord?  Indeed!  It might seem such a small thing to “go with the flow”, do what others are doing which seems so much fun and the like.  But it’s not a ‘small thing’ and Polycarp knew what it meant:  denying Jesus Christ who saved him.  

I like Fr. Sparks’ comment that Polycarp’s one letter shows he was not creative.  He quoted the Bible. No, he was not creative. He was a loyal disci­ple of Christ and the apostles.”   I took a course in seminary, “Creative Ministry”.   We make ministry ‘creative’?  No, the Lord does.  He re-creates us through His Ministry of Word and Sacraments through His called pastors and bishops.  Polycarp was not creative:   he was faithful.  He was a faithful servant of Jesus.  Satis est.  That is enough and Christ will fill us by His grace for us sinners.

Let us pray:  O God, the maker of heaven and earth, who gave to Your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for the Faith, give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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