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Smyrna and the Challenge of Christian "Atheism"
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polycarpWhen Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna was arrested in 155 AD by Roman authorities, the charge levied against him was that he, like the members of his flock, was an “atheist.” They didn’t mean that Polycarp held no faith in God, which is the modern definition of an atheist, but rather that Polycarp held to and taught a radically exclusive belief in one God, who had come in the flesh in Jesus Christ and, consequently, he didn’t believe in the gods of the Romans. Worshipping and sacrificing to those gods was an important part of being a good citizen in the Empire, thus Polycarp and those like him were not only exclusive in their religion, they were traitors to the state.


Imagine a “Christian atheist!” It seems like such a paradox, but it was an important distinction that set Christians apart from their pagan neighbors and, as various waves of persecution swept over the Mediterranean world in the early centuries of the church, it was the kind of belief that led many of these Christians to horrific deaths at the hands of authorities who, on behalf of the Emperor, would accept no disloyalty.


The Martyrdom of Polycarp tells the story of the Bishop’s arrest and eventual execution in the arena at Smyrna. It’s a powerful tale full of conviction and, in some ways, a dark kind of humor. Polycarp was given several opportunities to recant his faith, to offer a token of worship to Caesar, so that he could be let go. As an old man of 86, even the Roman officials wanted to allow him to die in his bed rather than face wild animals or being burned at the stake in front of the crowd. At one point, the proconsul told Polycarp, “Have respect to your old age…Swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent and say, ‘Away with the atheists!”


Polycarp looked at the proconsul, looked to heaven, and then looked at the crowd.  Then, waving his hand toward the crowd, Polycarp said loudly, “Away with the atheists!”


We’ll be talking more about Polycarp this Sunday as we continue our series on the seven churches of Revelation. Revelation 2:8-11 reveals that the persecution that swept up Polycarp and led to his martyrdom was already beginning to happen decades earlier to the same church. Jesus’ exhortation, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer” was prophetic. To be a Christian atheist in the Roman world often led to a literal dead end to one’s career, one’s livelihood, and even one’s life.


One of the things I’ve been musing about as I prepare this week’s sermon is whether Christians today could be charged with a similar kind of Christian atheism. Oh yes, like the church in Ephesus, we might be very orthodox in our belief in Christ and the doctrines of the Christian faith, but might our faith also be syncretized with the worship of other gods like politics, nationalism, sexuality, or consumerism? Do we offer them sacrifices without even realizing it, thus compartmentalizing our Christianity while “swearing by the fortune of Caesar?”


Christian “atheists” will always stand apart from the prevailing culture. In one sense, that kind of witness can be attractive to outsiders who see Christianity as an alternative to the brokenness of the pagan world. Such was the case with the early church. On the other hand, failure to give homage to the gods of the age can be dangerous even today. We may not be sentenced to being mauled by tigers in the midst of Mile High Stadium, but such atheism puts us at risk in other ways. It’s interesting to note, however, that of the seven churches Jesus sends sermons to, only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no condemnation. They were both churches that persevered in persecution, refusing to compromise with their culture.


The sermon to the church at Smyrna is challenging and calls for a radical commitment to Christ and faithfulness “unto death.” Many of our brothers and sisters around the world hold their Christian “atheism” in the face of the real threat of death. We may not be there (at least not yet) but we do need to consider how we will persevere in a culture that increasingly demands worship of its values. We need to take Jesus’ words seriously: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer…Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.”


Join us on Sunday as we talk more about Smyrna, Polycarp, and the radical call to be “the church of the persevering persecuted.”

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