Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, provides a valuable link between the church of the apostles and the church of the second century. His martyrdom was recorded in detail, and this provides a touching account of his death.
Polycarp was born about 70 CE, probably in Asia Minor. He learned some of his Christian faith from St John, who lived his final years in Ephesus. Polycarp himself taught Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyons in 177. Polycarp became the leader of the Christian community in Smyrna and was bishop there for many years. In the early second century Asia Minor was the area in which Christianity found the strongest support.
When Ignatius of Antioch passed Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome in 107, he wrote to the church in Smyrna, and a letter of Polycarp to the Philippians about the same time also survives. Polycarp made no pretensions to scholarship and theology, but exhorted the Christians in Philippi to live circumspectly and bring no discredit on the church. He quoted from Paul and from Matthew’s Gospel in support of his comments. The church was still very young and only slowly developing firm theological convictions. Polycarp was particularly anxious about those who deny that Christ was truly human. Some found it easier to believe in a Saviour who was a heavenly visitor rather than one of us.
From about 150 the church in Asia Minor became the centre of public dislike. Pagans and Jews alike sought to have the church crushed. The state was promoting with some zeal the religious oath to the emperor as a sign of loyalty to the state, and the Jews, who lived in an uneasy truce with Rome after the bloody and unsuccessful rebellion twenty years before, regarded the Christians as a destabilising influence. Both groups, therefore, found the Christians a convenient target.
Polycarp himself was arrested, probably in 156, and urged to deny his Christianity and acknowledge the lordship of the emperor. “Swear and I will let you go”, the governor told him, “Curse Christ.” Polycarp replied, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme against my king and saviour?”
“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). In these words, Simon bar-Jonah confessed his faith in Jesus, who accepted the title with an answering pun: “You are Peter, and on this rock (petra) I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Characteristically, Peter promptly gets things wrong and is denounced as a stumbling block (Matthew 16:22-23).
The rough and impulsive fisherman figures prominently in the New Testament. He and his brother Andrew were the first of the disciples to be called. It was Peter who tried to walk on the water and began to sink; it was he who on the impulse of the moment wanted to build three shelters on the mountain of the transfiguration; it was Peter who rashly boasted his faithfulness to death and within a few hours denied any knowledge of his master.
After the resurrection, however, Peter rapidly grows in importance as a leader of the Twelve, and, after Pentecost, risks imprisonment and death, speaking out boldly in the name of Jesus and proclaiming his belief that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and has been raised from the dead. He was, as Paul says, one of the pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9), the rock whose strength and courage sustained the young church as it felt its way beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. First there was the mission to Samaria. Then, after initial doubts about the admission of Gentile converts, Peter has the humility to accept a change of heart and to baptise the Roman centurion Cornelius and his household (Acts 10).
Even then, Peter had to struggle with his inbred prejudices. Paul, writing to the Galatians, reports how he felt bound to rebuke Peter for giving in to the pressure of Jewish Christians who wanted him to separate himself from the table-fellowship with Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-14).
Except for an oblique reference in the first letter of Peter (1 Peter 5:12) and a possible hint by Paul (Romans 15:20-22), there is no reference in the New Testament to Peter’s presence in Rome, but the reports that he was there are early and well-attested, and the site of his burial under the high altar of St Peter’s Basilica has considerable evidence in its favour. According to tradition he was executed during the Neronian persecution in Rome in 64 CE.
A special observance for “The Confession of St Peter” has been included in several recent Anglican revisions of the Calendar. It provides an observance for Peter similar to “The Conversion of St Paul” (25 January), in contrast to the joint commemoration of their deaths (29 June).
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