3.1.15 2 Lent B
March 1, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I bet everyone here has seen the news items now and then that tell the 10 most popular names for boys or for girls for the current year. Well, I think it’s just about guaranteed that the boys’ list never has and never will have this name on it: Polycarp.
That’s right, Polycarp. He’s one of my favorite saints from the early church. Polycarp was a bishop in the city of Smyrna, in the Roman province of Asia, in the early and mid 2nd century AD. (Smyrna is present day IZmir, on the western coast of Turkey.) I know I’ve mentioned him before from the pulpit, but I just can’t resist it again. His feast day was just last week, so I guess that’s why he’s on my mind.
Polycarp died during one of the periods in the Roman Empire when Christians were persecuted. He had been bishop of Smyrna for many decades. Then, at age 86 he was condemned to be burned to death if he didn’t renounce his faith publicly. He would not curse Christ in order to save himself. In fact, we have a record of what he said as the fire was lit: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
Examples of sacrifice like Polycarp’s helped to inspire people to convert to the Way of Christ. They showed publicly that there was something more important than success in this life or than saving one’s skin. This phenomenon was noticed so much, in fact, that one early Christian writer named Tertullian made the statement that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Now, the Irish in the Dark Ages were inspired by the example of the early martyrs, but many were actually frustrated because Ireland at that time was rather peaceful. People weren’t being killed for their faith.
So they invented other ways to be martyrs.
There were 3 kinds, or “colors” of martyrs in the Celtic imagination: red, green, and white. The red martyrs shed their blood for Jesus and for the sake of the gospel. Green martyrs renounced the comforts of ordinary human life. Many of our Lenten practices fall into this category. Many of us here today are green martyrs, witnessing to the life of Christ within us and denying ourselves some pleasures, so as to remind ourselves of how dependent we are on God for true pleasure.
And then what about those Irish white martyrs? They were the men who left home and what was familiar / and set off for unknown places to carry the good news of the gospel to whomever they encountered. White martyrs included Columba, who founded the abbey on the Scottish island of Iona, and Cuthbert, who went to the east and founded the abbey on the northern British island of Lindisfarne.
Fast forward a good 1300 years, and we see that there are still martyrs for the Christian faith today. Open up the newspaper and see how dreadfully / ISIS and related groups are murdering and harassing Christians. It is a very good thing to pray for these innocent victims, and we believe that prayer helps, even if it’s retrograde prayer. So please keep these deeply suffering people / in your prayers. (And pray for the persecutors as well.)
As I wrote this I realized that some current radicalized Moslems are dying for their beliefs by making themselves victims of their own violence. Their definition of “martyrdom” differs significantly from the martyrs I’m holding up today, because their deaths are self-inflicted—suicidal. They are actively seeking to die. In the early days of Christianity we know of a few who did seek to be put to death—but who never died by their own hands. That is a very important distinction.
Now, Jesus had some words to say about martyrdom and we find them in our gospel today. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” [Mark 8:34-36]
Some Christians of past centuries and some Christians today are literally giving up their lives for Jesus and for the gospel. Jesus speaks a wonderful paradox when he says that those who give up their lives for him and for his gospel will actually be saving them.
And what will it profit US to gain the whole world in terms of material things, but give up our lives in return? I think this is a question that’s worth a whole lot of pondering for Fairfield County people like me—like all of us. Just think of how often we’re urged to chase after stuff that turns boring the minute we acquire it. New cars, bigger homes, fancy trips, the newest electronic thing, country club memberships, more stuff, more stuff, more stuff. IF the pursuit of these items pulls us off track from our attachment to Jesus, then they’re worthless. They’re worse than worthless—they are harmful to our spiritual health.
Here’s some truth: We are called to be martyrs, too. Now, I don’t mean necessarily that we’re called to the red martyrdom. But we are called sometimes to green martyrdom—to renounce some good things so that we can be reminded about how much we rely on God for everything.
And we’re called to be martyrs in another sense, as well. That other way of martyrdom is apparent from the word “martyr” itself. In the Greek language, the word “martyr” means “witness.” That’s someone who speaks to the truth of what they know. Someone who demonstrates that truth by how they live and who they love and what they leave behind in the world.
So think about this. There has been only one Polycarp. And none of us here today / will likely be put to death for our faith. But we all must be witnesses to the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Christ to the people in our families and to the people we encounter in various situations.
May each of us take up the crosses that are put before us, and make ourselves living sacrifices to the glory of God. Lose your life to save it. Pray for the red martyrs, / and be a witness to the goodness of God and the saving power of Jesus Christ.