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The Love of Polycarp
In this sign, you shall conquer.
“And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” — Matthew 24:12
Both my wife and I have been struggling with darkness lately. It’s something I’ve touched on frequently over the past year of Unprepared. Everywhere we go, people seem broken, like they’ve stopped caring. Where is love? Where is community? Where is connection?
I am a Christian. I’ve decided to speak more openly about here at Unprepared, simply because I don’t know how else to speak of hope without the context of Christ. I can tell you how to grow cabbage or clean a shotgun, but I can’t tell you how to have hope for the world when everything is bizarre and bleak. For that, I must turn to a higher power.
But I am also in the problem-solving business, not the whining business. Whining gets us nowhere, and fear is not our friend. We need light against the darkness, but from where?
Jesus called himself the “light of the world,” and promised that those who follow Him will share in that light.
“Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” — John 8:12
Those of us who proclaim the gospel have a duty to share light with the world. We can’t sit around hoping light will appear.
“No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light.” — Luke 11:33
But so many Christians do hide their light—however little they may have—under a bushel. Online Christian communities are full of fighting and sniping over things like Bible translations, doctrine, liturgy, and any number of things. Those things may be important, but public disputes about them do nothing to spread light against the darkness.
“Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; 16Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain.” — Philippians 2:14
I am admittedly a terrible example to follow. Let me show you a better one.
The joyful death of Polycarp
Many Christians have never heard the name Polycarp, but he was a student of John the Apostle, and many believe that John’s address to the Church at Smyrna was addressed to Polycarp himself, who was bishop there.
Polycarp is interesting for many reasons. Not only was he a student of an apostle, there is a tremendous historical record surrounding him. No one can deny that Polycarp both existed and was a deeply revered man.
At age 86, Polycarp found himself on the wrong side of Roman law, as documented in the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Ironically enough, his crime was atheism, since he did not embrace the Roman gods.
Like any good prepper, Polycarp bugged out, albeit it wasn’t his idea.
Now the glorious Polycarp at the first, when he heard it, so far from being dismayed, wanted to remain in town; but the greater part persuaded him to withdraw. So he withdrew to a farm not far distant from the city, and there he stayed with a few companions, doing nothing else night and day but praying for all men and for the churches throughout the world, for this was his constant habit.
But eventually—following the pattern of Christ—he was betrayed and the Roman authorities found him.
So taking the lad with them, on the Friday about the supper hour, the police and horsemen went forth with their accustomed weapons, hurrying as against a robber. And coming up in a troop late in the evening, they found the man himself (Polycarp) in bed in an upper chamber in a certain cottage;
With his fate sealed, how did Polycarp respond? Did he run? Did he fight?
So when he heard that they were come, he went down and conversed with them, the bystanders marveling at his age and his constancy, and wondering why there should be so much eagerness for the apprehension of an old man like him. At that, he immediately gave orders that a table should be spread for them to eat and drink at that hour, as much as they desired.
He fed them. And in doing so, brought them great shame.
And he persuaded them to grant him an hour so he might pray unmolested; and on their consenting, he stood up and prayed, being so full of the grace of God, that for two hours he could not hold his peace, and those that heard were amazed, and many repented that they had come against such a venerable old man.
Of course, many modern readers who hear this story will think it’s the sad death of an old man. Or maybe he was just out of figs to give, as behooves an 86-year-old? Some might say he was a “cuck in longhouse.”
But focusing on Polycarp’s death misses the bigger picture. For he wasn’t a victim, he was a soldier in a conquering army who died on the battlefield.
We don’t know what happened to the men who arrested Polycarp, but we do know “many repented.” That experience changed them, but how?
You brought a man to his death and he treated you as a guest of honor. How could you ever look at the people you love the same way again? How could you ever be angry at them for their small transgressions? How could you be annoyed at the man who bumps into you on the street? How could you not be just a little kinder? How could you tell a beggar no? You killed this man, and he served you a feast.
Maybe you’re even a little curious about this Christian thing. In any case, how could you just keep going on with business as usual?
There were many like Polycarp. Hundreds of them, who all faced persecution and death with charity and joy. And with each one, the signal spread.
And hundreds of years later, they conquered the empire, when Emperor Constantine looked to the sky and saw the cross with these words:
IN HOC SIGNO VINCES
“In this sign, you shall conquer.”
Nearly 2,000 years later, Richard Dawkins held to the same logic as the Romans when he wrote, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”