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Exaudi – Sunday after the Ascension
“Leave Us Not Without Consolation”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
St. John 15.26-16.4
16 May 2021
+ In the Name of Jesus +
You’ve seen pictures of the great Roman Coliseum or depictions in movies or television programs of Roman gladiatorial stadia, places where Christians were martyred in front of bloodthirsty pagan crowds. Smyrna, on the western Greek coast of the Aegean Sea, also had such an arena.
On the 25th of April, 155 AD, the proconsul of Smyrna, a man who had the name Irenarch Herod, brought into the stadium his latest and greatest prize: the Christian bishop of Smyrna. Not content with feeding Christians to wild beasts, the proconsul would parade the chief Christian of his city into the arena, where he would be given a chance to renounce Christ and his Christian faith by making a sacrifice to the Caesar and the Roman pantheon of gods, or else this latter day Herod would do the devil’s worst and make a grand display of the bishop’s death.
As the old bishop was led near to the stadium, the crowd roared, “Away with the atheists” – away with those who deny the pagan gods. There is no god in their view but the acceptable ones. The proconsul tempted the bishop: “Swear and I will set you at liberty, reproach Christ… swear by the fortune of Caesar…”
This old bishop, however, knew and surely took consolation in today’s Epistle from blessed St. Peter more than the word of any Caesar.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Pt. 4.12-14; ESV)
And no doubt, this old man had the words of His Savior and Lord in his ear too. “Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”
The old bishop’s name was the blessed St. Polycarp of Smyrna. He believed in his heart that Christ had died and risen for him, and with these fruitful words he confessed the Lord Jesus:
“Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? …Since you are vainly urgent that, as you say, I should swear by the fortune of Caesar, and pretend not to know who and what I am, hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian. And if you wish to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them.”
Hearing that, the proconsul condemned St. Polycarp to be burned by a large fire. His response:
“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.”
As they bound St. Polycarp and prepared the fire, he looked up to heaven and prayed thus:
“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.” 
According to the Christian record of his martyrdom, the giant fire formed a great arch around Polycarp and would not consume him, so finally the proconsul had a soldier approach the fire and run a spear through him. The blood came gushing out of the martyr’s side and doused the fire out.
St. Polycarp lived a long time ago, and you may even say he lived and died much closer to the time of our Lord – and so perhaps it was easier for him to make such a bold confession in the face of death. St. Polycarp, who was born in 69 AD, according to the writings of other early church fathers, was converted to Christianity by the apostles themselves, was ordained the bishop of Smyrna by St. John himself, had talked to many who had heard and seen Jesus Himself.
But the old bishop had more than close proximity in history to Jesus Christ on his side.
He had the words of Jesus in his ear and on his conscience and heart, he had the consolation of the promised Holy Spirit:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” (Jn 15.18-21; ESV)
Listen carefully to the Lord: this world and its prince do not want you to remain a Christian, and as they did with St. Polycarp, will go to any length to cancel out the faith of every believer in Christ.
They will do these things on account of Jesus’ name into which you are baptized, that great name that puts you at enmity with this world. You should not be surprised that the world will persecute and seek to harm and kill Christians. A Christian pastor in Canada was arrested publicly last week for conducting services in his congregation. Some pastors in this country were so threatened during the last year. Professor Tim Quill will be here from Fort Wayne on Sunday May 30 to speak at our 9am bible class about our fellow Lutherans in Siberia and the seminary’s work there – and he will talk about some of the persecutions that Lutherans there endured in the last century. Our nation is trending towards the same pagan totalitarianism, and we are actually coming back towards the first century paganism of the Roman Empire in many ways.
But the devil will also test you with the coldness and darkness and unknown journey of simply departing this life by some sickness, or accident, or simply dying of old age. This fear of the grave drove so many to despair or doubt during the last year, and perhaps it did for you too at times. It is the devil’s voice that whispers, will God be good to His Word at the dark grave? Will God indeed bring you to the heaven He promises?
In the face of however the grave may come, realize that your greatest need is not your physical needs, nor is it receiving physical mercy. What you really need is what St. Polycarp had: the consolation of conscience, the peace of conscience that surpasses all understanding, a peace that cannot ever be taken away.
The strength of the martyrs is not their rescue from pain, it is their rescue from the accusation of the Law, that they and every Christian – you included – can face death itself with confidence because the Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus, the God-Man crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness of your sins, and that on Jesus’ account you can trust that God’s will is good for you, and that in the face of all things you can trust that He keeps His Word to you:
For Jesus has said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
St. Polycarp and St. Martha (to whom Jesus spoke these words, John 11) both answer a resounding and earth-shattering “Yes!” This answer is born of faith wrought by the Holy Spirit through the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. Your main need is the comfort of the Holy Spirit, His witness about the Christ who rescues you through His loving self-sacrifice. Real comfort for St. Polycarp and all of you saints baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a consoled conscience at peace with the true and living God who has called you by name and has told you that He loves you, unconditionally and without limit.
So let the dark grave engulf its prey. Why do you tarry, O grave? Bring forth what you will. Let its hour come for it is in service to God. It is but the portal to life immortal for all believers in Christ.
So be prepared to join St. Polycarp and the band of martyrs who boldly confessed the faith, by the power and comfort of the promised Holy Spirit. Pastor-Emeritus Meyer discussed the martyrs in his latest blog post on our website this week, entitled “What Causes The Christian Church To Grow”:
The ancient Christians had a saying which should be in the forefront of our thinking: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” It can be observed in every era that when Christians are persecuted for their faith and die for it, the Church grows! If we wish to see the Church grow we need to stand up squarely against those who would silence Her. We should not back down for fear of being “canceled,” as our culture loves to do. We must be bold and courageous and proclaim Christ to our fellow citizens, both privately and publicly. Without question we will earn the world’s scorn and hatred, but that is exactly what our Lord said would happen to faithful Christians.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +
 All material on St. Polycarp obtained from The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, accessed in English translation at www.newadvent.org/fathers/0102.htm ; Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1.