Polycarp of Smyrna
1 John 3:16-20
Today the church remembers Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. He is known as a disciple of John the Evangelist and an early martyr of the faith. Polycarp is an important historical link between the apostolic age and the early church. First, he confessed the orthodox Jesus. This fights against the theory that the Christology we confess today was a late fabrication by certain strains of Christianity in a power struggle against competing groups. Second, he quotes or alludes to many books of the New Testament cannon providing us historical evidence of the vetting process of the early church. Finally, he serves as a link to John the Evangelist, an apostle of Christ. Polycarp lived into the 150s AD. This means that mid-second-century Christians could be sure that the church’s teaching was orthodox and apostolic because they had a living link to the apostles. This is extremely helpful for the Christian apologist today in the defense of the authenticity of the New Testament testimony of Christ.
Yet Polycarp was pastor first. His pursuit of the truth of Christ was for the love of sinners. What good is truth unless it serves love? I don’t mean that love trumps truth. We can easily lie to people under the guise of love. We can even follow our own desires with the excuse, “God loves me and just wants me to be happy.” But this misses the point that Jesus is the truth and Jesus is love. Truth and love are not contradictory. We sinners are the ones who pit the two against each other. God’s order and will (truth) for us are ultimately because of his love for us. Even the evil that comes our way is used for our ultimate good.
John and his disciple, Polycarp, defended the truth about Christ but not for the sake of being right. Rather they fought for truth for the sake of love. I’m not sure we can say the same about us. You and I (and the rest of the world) want to be right. Who wants to be wrong? But we have to ask ourselves the hard questions, “Is being right our end goal? Is being right the penultimate or the ultimate end for us?” I think that we have to admit that we make it the ultimate goal instead of the penultimate goal and love is lost. Paul wants us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) because love is the ultimate (1 Cor. 13:3, 13). Truth serves love.
But even this talk is foolish. It separates love from truth as if there was a Jesus of truth and a Jesus of love. The truth of Christ is always for love. Even his law is to move us to the gospel. Our words should never split truth from love. Doctrinal purity should not be for the sake of doctrinal purity. Doctrinal purity is for the sake of the love of sinners. Truth and love in Christ are the same. May we strive for the same unity.
Listen to the “the one who bears much fruit”, Polycarp: “Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up in faith and truth and in all gentleness and in all freedom from anger and forbearance and steadfastness and patient endurance and purity.”
Now listen to his teacher, John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16).
Now listen to their teacher and ours: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (Jn. 15:7-9).
Christ’s love for us is insurmountable. He even forgives we who often superimpose our desire to be right over his testimony of love. This is who he is: a God who even loves fools like us. And that’s the truth.
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