Tag Archives: Apostolic Fathers

More Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers: The Dying Prayer of Polycarp

PolycarpI’m still reading through some of the writings from our early Church Fathers, the ones known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those who wrote before the Nicene Council of 324 AD.) To make a long story short, these writers were among the second generation of the Church, mentored by Apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. They provide a rare glimpse of what church life was like in the years immediately after the biblical records. They also show the tremendous perils the early Church faced, everything from dangerously divisive heresies to life-threatening persecution.

Polycarp, mentored by the Apostle John, was the leader of the church in Smyrna, a town located in modern day Turkey. He was eighty-six years old when he was captured, arrested, and publicly executed by the Roman authorities, and after his death, Polycarp became a widely celebrated hero of the Church throughout the Roman Empire. We still have some of his writings and the detailed description of his arrest and death called “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”

Persecution and execution of Christians during this period of time was no rarity. The Roman Empire regarded Christians as “atheists” and “heretics”, atheists because they did not worship Roman idols and heretics for not acknowledging Caesar as a god. Christians were rounded up, coerced, tortured, and threatened with death to offer incense to idols and to say, “Caesar is Lord.” In response, most of these Christians refused and replied, “Christ is Lord.”

In the famous “Martyrdom of Polycarp” we have a story told by eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Polycarp’s arrest, trial, and death. There are a lot of obvious allusions to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death, specifically Polycarp riding into Smyrna on a donkey, his silence before the questions and accusations hurled against him by the governor of the city, and the roar of the crowd demanding his death. One memorable scene occurs in Chapter 9 when the Governor of Smyrna demanded Polycarp to denounce his faith:

The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. “Take the oath, and I will let you go,” he told him. “Revile your Christ.” Polycarp’s reply was, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

But my favorite, most moving scene from the entire account is Polycarp’s final prayer before the Roman authorities attempted to burn him alive. (I say “attempted” for a reason. You’ll have to read the account for yourself to find out what happened!) Here is what he prayed, rendered into current English:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of your blessed and beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have been given knowledge of yourself; you are the God of angels and powers, of the whole creation, and of all generations of the righteous who live in your sight. I bless you for granting me this day and hour, that I may be numbered among the martyrs, to share in the cup of your Anointed and to rise again to everlasting life, both in body and in soul, in the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among them this day in your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, even as you appoint and foreshadow, and now bring to pass, for you are the God of truth in whom there is no falsehood. For this, and for all else, I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you; through our eternal High Priest in heaven, your beloved Son Jesus Christ, by whom and through whom be glory to you and the Holy Spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen.

If only you and I could faithfully pray with such passion and love! So often, though, our comfortable existence reduces our prayers to formalities and formulas. Maybe if were more like Polycarp and stood a little taller and bolder for Christ, we might be forced into learning how to pray something like this. And then we’d rediscover just how much God honors the prayers of the saints to reveal the fullness of God’s glory and power.

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Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

IgnatiusHave you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors. Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.

So what awakened me to give them a second read?

I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?

Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t  read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.

So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church. Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.

Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:

If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)

Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis. There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.

Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!

One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.

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