It was a long time ago in the early years of the Christian church, a faithful leader named Polycarp, who served as the bishop of the eastern Mediterranean city of Smyrna, had been taken before the local official and representative of the Roman Empire. Many things would be asked of Polycarp. Many answers would need to be given. He was brought into the room and the interrogation began: "Swear an oath and I shall release you. Curse Christ."
It was a simple enough matter for the official that questioned Polycarp. He had done it before and he would do it again, but Polycarp answered, "Eighty-six years have I served him and he did me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?" The pro-council was frustrated and adamant.
"Swear by the fortune of Caesar." Why, he wondered, was this man so stubborn? It's such a simple thing to say these words. You can believe whatever you want, old man, just say the words!
But different words came from the wizened Christian servant. "If you vainly assume that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar as you say and pretend you do not know who I am, then listen plainly. I AM A CHRISTIAN."
Well, that was all the Roman official could stand. He ordered Polycarp to be stripped, humiliated, and executed. But even at the pyre, words of prayer and thanksgiving came to him.
Lord, God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ through whom we have received full knowledge of yourself, God of angels and powers and all creation, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day and hour so that in the company of the martyrs, I may share the cup of your Christ and so rise again to eternal life in soul and body immortal through the power of the Spirit. For this and for everything I praise you, I bless you, I glorify you through the eternal high priest of heaven, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son.
Well, that's the story. Words spoken and prayed, faith and trust expressed, life given. The words and the actions have been repeated thousands upon thousands, maybe even millions upon millions, of times throughout the life and history of the Christian church. Women, children, men, in times past and in our own day and age, have spoken such words and exhibited such faith in every part of the earth. Such has been a part of the Christian life since the beginning. The realities of challenge, persecution, opposition, and even death itself prompted the early Christian leader who wrote the first letter of Peter to urge this pattern of life.
He writes, "Even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts, sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence."
Oh, yes, people have lived this exhortation and they live it today. I have met some of them in my ministry-people who have suffered for their faith during the wars of the 20th century--as refugees from political regimes who would viciously suppress the expression of their faith, as leaders in the midst of communities where the powerful would oppress and take the lives of those who disagree with them. I have met them. I have witnessed how these people persevere, how these human beings carry on. Christ is their defense and they do account for the hope that is in them with gentleness and reverence. The Spirit of God has been and is at work in them. The power of the risen Christ sustains them.
Most of us North American Christian people do not have such worries. We're not called upon to make our defense before hostile forces that threaten our lives; still we suffer, still there is challenge, still there is opposition--even if it is of a much more subtle nature--still there is adversity and pain and tears. Here, too, I have witnessed human beings who suffer illness, pain, and despair. Here, too, I have seen people who are worn down by poverty, loss of respect, and immense challenges.
One of the students at the seminary I serve prepared a project where he told the stories of children in the most economically challenging neighborhoods of Chicago--children with whom he had worked as a social worker before his present preparation to be a priest. What powerful and painful stories they were-stories of children without some of the most basic means of safety and security that we so often take for granted in our society as a whole. But there was something else there as well--a faith, a perception of God, a spirituality based on a God who held them in trust even at times when seemingly no one else did.
I learned something the evening of that student's presentation, that God gives gifts of spirit, that God gave gifts of spirit, perseverance, and power in a way that was beyond my understanding, that God has never abandoned those children, indeed, that God never abandons us.
The stories of those children witnessed to me about faith and trust. They helped me to realize that for all of us who would say, "I am a Christian," there is a need for faith and for trust, for all of us who share resurrection belief, there is the real need to move beyond our fear to hope. For all of us who are in the community of Christ, there is the real need for perseverance in the face of adversity. Yes, we have adversity in our lives. Yes, there are complications to our believing. Yes, there is opposition, uncertainty, suffering, and pain in our living; and, yet, the Spirit of God is given to us. Yet, we have the companionship of the risen Christ for our journey; yet we have the community of faith, sisters and brothers who also believe and with whom we have solidarity.
Our call is to keep on going, to persevere in faith, to take one step at a time in our journey, to move ahead and persevere in our living and believing. We certainly do not have to be perfect, and we certainly do not have to have all the answers. What we do have to do is to place one foot in front of the other and move on in our living and our believing.
Augustine of Hippo, another leader in the life of the early church, described the movement of the Christian life in a very particular way. He would begin by describing the destination of our journey in faith and life, the eternal love and presence of God. He would envision a time of security from adversity and challenge and a place where there is neither opposition nor death. But then he would say something further. He would say that, in the meantime, we need to keep on walking. Augustine's own words say it so powerfully. "So brothers and sisters, let us sing Alleluia now, let us sing as travelers sing along the road, but keep on walking. Sing, but keep on walking. What do I mean by walking? I mean press on from good to better. If you press on, you keep on walking."
Yes, friends, sing Alleluia, but keep on walking.
Christianity is a journey. It is a journey of faith, of hope, of love. It is a journey in times of great joy and hope and it is a journey in times of challenge and adversity. Perhaps the greatest gift demonstrated by the saints, witnesses, and martyrs of Christian history has been the gift of perseverance. Certainly, I have seen it so many times and in so many people in my own journey, people who keep on walking, who continue to persevere, who move forward even in the midst of pain, suffering, challenge or uncertainty. They have been witnesses to me in word and in example.
The question before us today is this: Where are we on the journey? Where am I on the journey? Have I become stuck in some way? Has a particular challenge or test stopped me in my tracks? Can I command the faith that is in me? Indeed, am I moving forward, walking ahead, persevering?
The Good News of the Gospel is news of solidarity and companionship. Christ is the companion on the journey. It is the news that the risen one is with us as a fellow sojourner on the way. It is the news that the Spirit of the risen Christ is our advocate and guide for the journey. The Spirit gives us words and works, guides our pathways and our movements, strengthens and fortifies us for our journey.
Yes, sing Alleluia, the resurrection song, the song of life, the song of victory, the song of hope and keep on walking.
Let us pray.
O God, our blessed Creator, whose glory fills the whole creation and whose presence we find wherever we go, preserve us as we make our journey in the Christian life, surround us with your loving care and companionship, protect us from every danger and bring us in safety to our journey's end. Through Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer. Amen.