Look Up, Look Out: Lessons From St Polycarp

A sermon on Psalm 3 and Revelation 7:9-17

Today in the Church of England we remember Polycarp. Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna in the second century, which is modern-day Turkey. One of the reasons why Polycarp is considered a figure of importance is because he is reported to be a disciple of the apostle John, and in the early church context where they were thrashing out what is orthodox versus what is heresy, the closeness of apostolic succession of Polycarp to Christ via John, meant his witness and his teaching was considered to be highly authoritative. Against a backdrop of oppression and persecution, being a follower of Jesus was considerably costly and Polycarp was ultimately martyred.

Given the chance to recant his faith, Polycarp said, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ ‘Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved me?’ For so many years I have served Jesus Christ and he has done me no harm, so how could I speak against the God who loves me so much he died to save me? Another stirring line from Polycarp, ‘Hear me declare with boldness: I am a Christian.’

At the point where everything is on the line, Polycarp looks up. He looks up to the God who has been faithful, the God who died to save him, the God to whom there is no greater joy than being reunited with. Of the many lessons we can learn from Polycarp, one of them is this: look up! Continually look up to God. Why? Because God is our truth, our help, our guide. Looking to him anchors us in his love so that, whatever we may be facing, we know that we do not face it alone, because God is with us.

In our Psalm today, David continually looks up. ‘But you, O lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head… He answers me from his holy hill… The Lord sustains me.’ Look up, look up to the God who will comfort you in times of distress, who will nourish you and uphold you, in the tough times, the mundane moments, and the glorious good times. Look up, look up at the God who returns your gaze with such a look of love it’s simultaneously overwhelming and empowering.

The New Testament scholar, Paula Gooder, says of God’s love, ‘knowing God loves me has kept me going through it all. For the first time in my life I know myself to be loved, truly loved, and it’s a love that will never fail – I won’t be snatched from it; it won’t withdraw; it won’t turn brutal and sadistic; it won’t lie to me. This love pulses beneath everything I am. It is enough.’ It is enough, you are enough, so don’t forget to look up, look up to God.

My housemates and I all took the Love Languages Test a few days ago. If you haven’t taken it, I really recommend you do, it’s so helpful for understanding a bit better the people you spend a lot of time with. For example, Laura’s main love language is quality time, in fact, we planned this reflection together whilst having a mate date at Nando’s a few weeks ago. Our housemate Fiona is shown love through acts of service, Ruth and Emma need words of affirmation, and Catherine needs plenty of hugs. As for me, my love language is gifts, so please do remember that for when you come to join us here at Wycliffe. Why am I telling you this? Well, because after you look up, then look around.

Community is one of the greatest gifts God gives us. This is not only our immediate community, but the community we are bound to throughout the ages, with all the saints who have gone before us, like Polycarp, whose witness inspire us as we live out our calling. In our passage in Revelation, we see just how vast and expansive this community is, ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ all crying out ‘salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne!’ We hear how they have come out of the great ordeal and now, clothed in white, they worship God on the throne forever.

The scene painted for us in our reading from Revelation is an extraordinary one. We are in the throne room, before the throne of God, ‘and the one who it seated on the throne will shelter’ us. We will hunger no more, thirst no more; neither the sun nor scorching heat will strike us, but we shall be led to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is what Bruce Gillingham, one of our tutors here, would describe as a ‘wow’ moment. The God who sits on the throne is also the God who comes to us, draws us close, and tenderly wipes away every tear from our eyes.

This passage always gives me goose bumps and it also gives me profound hope, as well as reinforcing to me just how extraordinary God’s love for me is. And, yes, God does comfort us now and he does sustain us now and he does show us his love now, but what we see in Revelation is what is to come. We need to look around. We need to look around at the people God has gifted to us in this moment to treasure, to enjoy, and to reciprocally make God and his love and his truth real to one another. Look up to God and look around at the irresistible image of God bursting out of those around you.

So, look up to God, your sustainer, your strength, your King and Father. And also look around, look at those treasures God has given you to do this part of your adventure with so that we can join together with David, John, Polycarp and all the women and men who have gone before us, as together we grow in boldness to declare the truth of our God, our saviour Jesus Christ, the ones who loves us, redeems us, and will one day bring us home. Look up and look around.

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