Preaching to the saints of the Lutheran Church at Christ-Elkhart and Faith-Hugoton in Kansas since February 8, 2015. All sermons prior to that date were preached either at Trinity Lutheran Church-Layton or First Lutheran Church-Tooele, Utah.
Luther likes to remind us that the fear of death is the real death. We see this come into play with Quintus, earlier in this account of Polycarp.... We see it also in the servant youth who betrayed Polycarp in fear for his own life. And we saw it even with Jesus’ disciples as He went to Calvary—particularly Peter in his threefold denial of Jesus.
And yet, once put in the public square with the choice to renounce Jesus or die, we see with Polycarp as we saw with Stephen, that God provides courage and even visions of heaven that overcome fear of the terror of the here and now with the reality of awaits for those who are faithful unto death--
To hear the entire sermon preached for Laetare, "The Nature and Steeling of Faith," click on the MP3 audio link provided above.
A servant of the Word and His folk,
For those of you who prefer to read or read along while listening, the preaching transcript follows below.
Nota bene: Sermons are meant to be heard, as per Romans 10:14-17. Let the reader understand.
TEXT: And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. . . . But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” . . . And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Acts 6:25-26; 7:55-56, 59
Luther likes to remind us that the fear of death is the real death. We see this come into play with Quintus, earlier in this account of Polycarp. Remember, Quintus had sought to make a name for himself by a martyrdom, rounding up people and shaming them into walking with him straight into martyrdom, and then only for he himself to chicken out at the last moment—for his faith was not in Christ but of himself and therefore came up wanting in the biggest way.
We see it also in the servant youth who betrayed Polycarp in fear for his own life. And we saw it even with Jesus’ disciples as He went to Calvary—particularly Peter in his threefold denial of Jesus.
And yet, once put in the public square with the choice to renounce Jesus or die, we with Polycarp as we saw with Stephen, that God provides courage and even visions of heaven that overcome fear of the terror of the here and now with the reality of awaits for those who are faithful unto death--even those disciples and Peter himself, who denied Jesus as He went to the cross. They were delivered up to death, faithfully confessing the one true faith handed down to them. All but John--and of course Judas, who committed suicide because he was out only for money and to save his own skin and knew he had failed Jesus—but all the others went to their deaths faithfully confessing. And other than John, all themselves were martyred for their faithful confession.
So now, let us continue to hear the story of St. Polycarp.
Chapter 11. No threats have any effect on Polycarp
The proconsul then said to him, “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast you, unless you repent.” [As if he had anything of which to repent—at least to the proconsul.]
But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”
But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause you to be consumed by fire, seeing you despise the wild beasts, if you will not repent.”
So we see the procounsul trying to up the ante, to find something that would scare Polycarp into recanting his faith and speaking against his God and His Savior.
[Nevertheless] Polycarp said, You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.
Polycarp, fortified by the Word of God, no doubt had in mind the words of Jesus from Matthew 10, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” v. 28 But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. And as both the Psalmist (Psalm 111:10) and the Preacher of Proverbs (9:10) says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, . . .”
But this fear, this fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom and faith, ultimately is that which allows the Lord to show that He is merciful—for as we stand in fear in front of our Lord He says, “Fear not! I have had mercy on you.” And indeed the One who can destroy the body and soul in hell has not done so. If He had wanted to do so it would have been done to you already. But instead He grants us His mercy and a time for us to repent of our sin and to be converted and to be brought into the fold of His Church.
Chapter 12. Polycarp is sentenced to be burned
While [Polycarp] spoke these and many other like things, he was filled with confidence and joy, and his countenance was full of grace, [much as we heard of Stephen] so that not merely did it not fall as if troubled by the things said to him, but, on the contrary, the proconsul was astonished, and sent his herald to proclaim in the midst of the stadium thrice, Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian. This proclamation having been made by the herald, the whole multitude both of the heathen and Jews, who dwelt at Smyrna, cried out with uncontrollable fury, and in a loud voice, This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, and the overthrower of our gods, he who has been teaching many not to sacrifice, or to worship the gods. Speaking thus, they cried out, and besought Philip the Asiarch to let loose a lion upon Polycarp. But Philip answered that it was not lawful for him to do so, seeing the shows of wild beasts were already finished. Then it seemed good to them to cry out with one consent, that Polycarp should be burnt alive. For thus it behooved the vision which was revealed to him in regard to his pillow to be fulfilled, when, seeing it on fire as he was praying, he turned about and said prophetically to the faithful that were with him, I must be burnt alive.
So we see that our Lord had fortified Polycarp even before this day--that he would not be fed to the beasts. But that he knew in advance what his sentence would be, pronounced upon him by the people—people whom he had never harmed. And yet, giving him knowledge ahead of time, our Lord steeled him in faith.
Chapter 13. The funeral pile is erected
This, then, was carried into effect with greater speed than it was spoken, the multitudes immediately gathering together wood and [torches] out of the shops and baths; the Jews especially, according to custom, eagerly assisting them in it. And when the funeral pile was ready, Polycarp, laying aside all his garments, and loosing his girdle, sought also to take off his sandals,— a thing he was not accustomed to do, inasmuch as every one of the faithful was always eager who should first touch his skin. [Indeed, Polycarp did not wish to be worshiped himself.] For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good. Immediately then they surrounded him with those substances which had been prepared for the funeral pile. But when they were about also to fix him with nails, he said, Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.
Here, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we see the nature of faith. It does not trust itself to withstand, but trusts one’s self to the Lord! For we know that who could withstand such a thing as fire by himself. Even if he wished to and was faithful, our involuntary reactions would repel us from the flames.
And yet, our Lord again, steeled Polycarp for this. In the midst of the fire, loose and unsecured, he remained without moving or flinching.
Chapter 14. The prayer of Polycarp
They did not nail him then, but simply bound him. And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,
O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.
Dear people of God, we pray that it may be so for us at our end too--that as baptized children of God, baptized into Christ, we become a sacrifice with Him in His perfect, accepted and finished, once and for all sacrifice . For the sake of those who follow us, so that they too might know this Christ. And indeed as Polycarp says, we participate in that cup of Christ, which is why He draws us to the altar to receive the cup filled with His very blood—the blood of suffering, but also the blood of Life!
And though we, like Peter, at times may have denied our Lord, when it comes to the end, we know that our dear Lord forgives even that fear that overcame Peter and overcomes us. To Peter He tells him three times at the end of John’s Gospel and before He departs at His ascension—three times to match Peter’s threefold denial—“Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed My sheep.”
And every one of the disciples--again with the exception of Judas who was in it for the profit and John who was granted a full life and a natural death, even though he too was in exile for his confession of Christ—they all were executed without recanting, without denying our Lord.
What greater witness to the power and love of God our Father can there be than that He steels them and us in the face of imminent and the most horrible of deaths. As with Stephen and Polycarp, to pray and confess in witness unto death of the faithfulness and the love of God in Christ Jesus, and Him crucified--that is martyrdom. And that is the suffering and life of Christ in which we are all indeed blessed to participate, the cup of blessing from which we all most assuredly do drink.
As the psalmist sings in the 116th Psalm, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” For the death of the saints participates in the death of their Savior, Jesus Christ. The death of the saints proclaims their salvation and the salvation of all to the world, that those who witness the martyrdom of the saints might also believe and be saved—in the name of the Father and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Insofar as this sermon is a true proclamation of the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ, it belongs to Him and His Church. Therefore its use is free to all who deem it worthy and beneficial.
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