Telling the Stories that Matter: February 23 – Polycarp, Martyr, Apostolic Father, Bishop

Polycarp had only been a child when he had been introduced to the man by the name of John yet he knew that this man was important. He gave him his attention because his parents seemed to be amazed at the man and when he did this he began to hear John speak words that amazed him. Soon, Polycarp had converted to the faith of John the Apostle and had become a follower of John’s Lord–Jesus Christ. Further, he began taking teaching and guidance from John in how he might also be a man of God who faithfully pursued God’s calling upon his life. He never was a philosopher or an especially educated man but he had the benefit of spending much time with not only John but also Papias and Ignatius of Antioch. Soon, he was a leader within the Church–even without a philosophical education–in one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of the Body of Christ. It seemed that all who wanted it could claim to be the true Church that was established by Jesus. There was no clear distinction what was and wasn’t orthodoxy and many were led astray by teachers who, knowingly or unknowingly, taught their opinions as Jesus’ opinions. Polycarp relied upon the teaching and guidance he had received from John to discern right teaching from wrong teaching. Then, he used his natural gifts and talents to teach and guide others to avoid heresy. In this way, Polycarp was father to many.

One of the men that Polycarp taught and mentored was Irenaeus who would go on to grow Polycarp’s investment of time and attention by guiding the Church through another challenging and nebulous time of his own. Polycarp’s love for Irenaeus quite literally changed the world even if Polycarp himself never saw or knew it. Looking back, this kind of love and devotion is what differentiated Polycarp from his opponents. While there was much argument it was not always full of love and compassion. Polycarp on the other hand seemed to be genuinely affected and transformed by the faith that held him. He was not brilliant or well educated but he was sincere and loving and this lent weight to his arguments. The marks of transformation on his life suggested that he had truly consumed and been sustained by the Bread of Life and the life-giving water of Jesus’ teaching. When he told the story of what God had done in his life people were inspired to hand their lives over to the same God he followed. He led by example and not simply be beautiful, rhetorical flourishes.

When he was an old man (as old as ninety years by some estimates), he was arrested for being a Christian by a government that was growing increasingly hostile to those who were devoted to another power. On some level he had seen this coming for Ignatius and John had already been murdered for their faith. He was accused of being Christian and, ever sincere and honest, he gladly admitted that he was–he could see no reason to be ashamed for his faith. They gave him an opportunity to deny his faith in public or be executed. He responded: “How am I supposed to blaspheme my King and Savior? Do whatever you will.” They did whatever they willed by building a large pyre of sticks and flammable items. They tied him to the top of it and prepared to drive nails through his body so that he might not escape. He smiled at the worker and assured him: “Don’t worry about the nails. The God who gives me strength to endure the fire will give me enough to sit still without your help.” They didn’t nail him down but they must have expected him to cry out once the pyre was lit. Yet, he didn’t. Instead, it seemed that he was unscathed by the flames as he prayed and sang hymns. The crowd looked on amazed and many would be converted because of this sight but his executioners were enraged that he didn’t have the courtesy to die screaming like they had hoped he would. Finally, they stabbed him in the chest with a dagger and he died as a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 11 – A.J. Muste, Pacifist, Minister, Nonviolent

A.J. Muste was an immigrant to the United States of America, as the 19th century slowly became the 20th, but he didn’t have much say in the matter as he was only six years old when his parents moved from Holland. He received a fine education and was a proud resident and citizen of the nation of his parents’ choosing. He graduated with honors first with a bachelor’s degree and eventually with a master’s and doctoral degree. As he matured, he became increasingly involved in social causes even as he tried to figure out the question of his own spiritual calling. He was especially involved in the labor movement and helped organize disenfranchised workers together so that they might negotiate with their employers for a safer and better job. As was expected, he received much resistance from the circles he had been raised in and in which his parents circulated. Yet, he was convinced that he must do something for those in need of help and for the cause of justice and fairness. So, he was willing to sacrifice a good reputation for his convictions.

Eventually, he became a minister in a congregational church but he was committed to non-violence after his experience of World War I and the people whom he met with and with whom he conversed. This was an odd stance for a man such as A.J. but it became a hated stance as he persisted in it through the years approaching and including World War II. But, he was convinced that God had called him to a way of peace and nonviolence that revoked any right he felt toward self-defense or preemptive violence. By A.J.’s reasoning, there was no just war and so not even World War II could be rationalized or accepted. When a son of a member of the congregation where was pastor died in the war, he did not veer from his intended topic for the Sunday sermon: “The Futility of War.” It was another opportunity for him to raise his famous question: “The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence will pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?” By A.J.’s thinking there was no time when war or violence would pay or would be acceptable. When he had saied this, he must have known he would suffer for it. That afternoon the congregation called a meeting and voted to terminate him as their pastor.He, his wife, and his children were forcibly moved out of the parsonage that night and had to find somewhere else to live.

He remained a minister, associated finally with the Quakers, and committed to nonviolence even if it had cost him his job. He was at one time an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and considered an authority on nonviolent resistance. He and his colleagues and associates were arrested repeatedly for hopping fences at military facilities, paddling their boats into nuclear test sites, and sympathizing with those whom the State insisted they hate and fear. For these things, A.J. received and still receives derision but he could not more veer from these convictions than he could stop being who he was. He had become an advocate for peace and nonviolence at all costs and had proven repeatedly that he was willing to lay down anything for a chance at peace. If it is true that the peacemakers are blessed–and I do believe it so–then surely A.J. Muste has a share of blessedness for his refusal to abandon the way of peace even in the face of adversity.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 2 – Cornelius, Centurion, Recipient of Visions, First Gentile Convert

In Caesarea was a man name Cornelius. Cornelius had a life that people desired–he was a centurion among notable soldiers–but something felt out of place in his life. He prayed as best he knew how and he gave alms because he suspected it was right. He was eager to live the best life he possibly could. Then, one afternoon, he had a vision: a messenger from God came into his home and called out to him. Cornelius was petrified in fear of the angel but was able to muster up enough courage to ask, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, in a voice both soothing and discomforting, “All your prayers and gifts offered in ignorance have made their way to God. So, send some people to Joppa to find a man named Peter–they’ll find him in the home of Simon the Tanner–near the sea. After God’s messenger faded into the crowds surrounding Cornelius’ home, he called two of his servants with a shaky voice and one soldier who was like him in prayer and the giving of alms. He told them what had happened with a mix of fear and hopeful anticipation and then sent them to Joppa to do their part in the unfolding story.

Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa, by the sea, at the house of Simon the Tanner and he went to the top of the house to pray at about noon. As he was praying, hunger gnawed at him and demanded to be sated but as his thoughts turned to food for his body, his thoughts were turned to a vision from God. He saw the clouds parted and a great swath of fabric being lowered down like a heavenly picnic. On the sheet were many different animals–fat and ready for slaughter. He heard a voice that sounded like it could be his own or it could be the voice of Jesus saying, “Get up, Peter. It’s time for you to kill and eat.”

Perhaps thinking this was a test, Peter said, “You know I won’t do that, Lord. I don’t eat what you have labeled unclean.

The voice insisted, “If God has made it clean, then don’t call it unclean.” In Peter’s vision this exchange happened three times and then the sheet and all its food were gone in a flash. Peter puzzled over the vision all throughout his lunch and then all throughout the rest of the day. As he replayed the vision in his mind, he suspected that God was trying to tell him something. He was still puzzling the vision when Cornelius’ men arrived at the gate of Simon’s house looking for him. He heard a voice again say to him, “Peter, there are three men outside who are waiting for you. They’ve come because I sent them to you.”

Peter was eager to find some resolution to all of this and so he hurried down to the gate and said, “I’m Peter. Why has God sent you?”

They responded, “Cornelius has sent us to find you. He is a good man who fears God and is highly respected among the Jews. He received a vision and one of God’s messengers told him to seek you out and hear what you have to say.” Peter took the men into the home and made them his guests and when the sun rose again, he and some of his fellow Christians went with the men back to the home of Cornelius.

Eventually, they reached Caesarea and found that Cornelius had prepared quite the event and audience to hear Peter’s words. As Cornelius’ messengers went out seeking Peter, he had become anxious and eager to hear what words might come. So eager was Cornelius to know how and who he should worship, he fell at the feet of Peter and offered worship on the spot to Peter. Peter tapped him on the back and said, “Not me Cornelius. I’m human just like you.”Cornelius led Peter in to meet the audience and when Peter saw all the ones gathered to hear him, he remarked, “You all know well how Jews do not associate with other nations and have strict laws concerning purity. Well, God has shown me that no person is unclean.So, when Cornelius sent for me I came quickly without knowing why. I was responding to God’s guidance, what were you doing?” Hearing this, Cornelius told the story of the vision and the message and asked Peter if he would be so kind as to share what God had laid upon his heart.

So, Peter cleared his throat and said: “I know well that God is not partial to nations but instead looks at the hearts of individuals. But as for the word he sent to Israel–the good news that Jesus is Lord of all–you already know what happened in Judea and how it began with John baptizing Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was anointed and went about doing good things and casting out evil and the enemy wherever he went. You saw it and so did I. They put him to death by crucifixion thinking it would be an end of him but he was raised again on the third day. After this resurrection, he appeared to many and he was close to us again. He told us what it is that we should do: preach to the people and bear witness that he is the one called to judge the living and the dead. After all, it was Jesus that all the prophets talked about when they said that all those who trust in him receive forgiveness from sin through his name.”

But there was more to it than words. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on Peter and upon the audience and redemption and salvation came very near to the audience who found themselves transformed by the gospel message of forgiveness and life in the face of sin and death. The fellow Jewish Christians that came with Peter were surprised to see Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. But they couldn’t deny that the gentiles were speaking in tongues and offering praise to God who had made Jesus Lord of all. Peter turned to his fellow Christians and said, “Surely none of you can hold the baptismal waters hostage from ones such as these men and women who have heard the good news and been filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, they were baptized in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Peter remained with them for a while.

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