This is my third blog while on a train en route from Venice to Naples. My trilogy is written. It’s amazing how prolific one becomes simply by adding an unlimited intake of carbs in a short period of time.
When we toured the Coliseum in Rome, you could almost sense the ghosts of those who were martyred there. Though the numbers of those who were killed are disputed, there is no debate that Christians (especially under Nero) were tortured and murdered in the Coliseum as a form of public entertainment. Some were fed to vicious animals. Others were burned at the stake. All who were murdered were guilty simply of publicly confessing Jesus as Messiah. (If that seems hard to believe, do not forget that Christians are the most martyred population on earth today – thanks mostly to groups like ISIS, al Qeda, and Boco Haram.)
As Page and I reflected on the things that happened in the Coliseum, we discussed the story of Polycarp. In the very early years of Christianity, Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna. Smyrna then is the city of Izmir (in Turkey) now. Page lived in Izmir for five years. Together we have visited the Church of St. Polycarp in that city.
When Rome was actively persecuting Christians throughout the Empire, a decision was made to travel to Smyrna and arrest Polycarp. He was a man of pronounced and far-reaching influence, considered by many to be the most important religious figure in the general region of Greece. Roman authorities strategized that if they could remove his influence, his followers would disperse and disappear. Their phrase was: “Cut off the head, and the dog will die.” But, the authorities underestimated Polycarp.
Troops were sent to Smyrna to arrest the aged Bishop and bring him back to Rome. He was transported to a prison without incident. Once there, government officials began to plead with Polycarp to release a public statement. In truth, they had no desire to kill him. Furthermore, they believed he would be worth more to them alive than dead... if. “IF” they could coerce or convince him to renounce his faith, they would let him go. If Polycarp publicly said, “I was wrong. It was a lie. Jesus is not Lord, he was just a man like all others,” then his followers would have nothing left to follow. So, the Roman authorities reasoned with him. Bargained with him. Cajoled him. Threatened him. But the aged saint would not move from his faith.
Finally they told him the day had come to be taken to the Coliseum. However, that did not have to be his fate. He still had the option to deny his faith, and he would be set free either to return to Smyrna or to remain in Rome as a friend of the state. Polycarp refused. He was transported to the Coliseum where people had gathered to watch the show. Once there, he was tied to a large stake on the floor of the Coliseum. The stake was built on a platform of straw and covered with even more straw so that with one touch of fire it would erupt, turning him into a human torch. Tied to that stake and seeing a soldier nearby holding a burning wand, Polycarp was asked one last time to deny his faith. He was even told he didn’t have to be honest. Both the Romans and he would know his renunciation was a lie, that in his heart he was still a believer. They didn’t care what he believed down deep. They just wanted a public denial in order to diffuse The Movement. “Just say the word, and we will release you,” they said to the old man tied to a straw-covered stake. That is when Polycarp responded with a word that became the rallying cry of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, serving as a source of previously unmatched commitment and numerical growth. He said to his captors, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then should I blaspheme my King who saved me?” With that they lit the fire … and its flames spread throughout the Roman Empire, igniting a virtual eruption of Christian growth.
There has to be something in life that is unequivocal for us, some fixed point of commitment from which we will not move. Truth. Valor. Compassion. Nobility. Justice. Service. Principles. Honor. Kindness. Something. For Polycarp, it was faith. He was not flexible in his commitment to the premise that Jesus is Lord, life’s most full and true revelation of the nature, spirit, and will of God. “How then should I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And when others observed that his faith was not for sale, it inspired their own.
There are so many lessons from the life of Polycarp – things like how easy and safe it is for most of us to be Christian, how little we are called upon to sacrifice, how brave and devoted were the saints who went before, how some things should never be for sale, and on and on the list goes. But as I stood there in the place where that horrible but holy fire was lit, what I remembered was his faith and how when it’s genuine and immovable, others will observe. And when they see the real thing, they will be drawn to it. You and I will likely never have our faith put to the test as did St. Polycarp. But day-by-day people will observe how we live and treat others. If they see within us a faith that is genuine, they will be drawn toward it. And if they take up residence within this community of Christianity and draw others who draw others who draw others, there may just be hope for this world of ours, after all.