Above Homage

Above Homage

It was the later part of the 2nd century. Just as in New Testament times, the followers of Jesus continued to be bitterly persecuted, both by the Jews and by the pagan Roman empire. In the city of Smyrna, a young man by the name of Germanicus was arrested and sentenced to death on account of his faith in Christ. As he was led into the arena, where he was to face his death, the Roman proconsul begged him to just deny his faith so that he could be pardoned. Just offer sacrifice—pay homage to Caesar and the pagan gods, and you will be free! But he refused to apostatize, and chose to be torn apart by wild beasts rather than to deny Christ.

As Germanicus died, the onlooking crowd of pagan worshipers shouted “Down with the atheists!” (That’s what Christians were called—Atheists—because they denied the pagan gods of Rome). “Down with the atheists!” they cried. “Get Polycarp!”

Now Polycarp was a very elderly bishop who lived in Smyrna. It was said that he had been a disciple of the apostle John, so he was one of the very last surviving links in the Christian church to one of the original apostles of Christ.

When the old bishop heard of what the crowd had said, he wasn’t upset at all. He was happy to stay in the town, but his followers finally persuaded him to try to escape to the countryside. He fled from house to house, but eventually he was betrayed, and men came to arrest him. When they came, he didn’t try to flee or resist, but he persuaded them to wait for an hour while he prayed, before they proceeded to arrest him.

Polycarp was brought back to the town by donkey, and into the arena, where crowds were waiting to witness his execution. “Are you Polycarp?” the proconsul asked. “Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, ‘Down with the atheists!’”

Polycarp looked around him at the multitude of wicked heathen in the stadium. He gestured towards them and said, “Down with the atheists!”

“Swear,” urged the Proconsul, “reproach Christ, and I will set you free.”

“86 years have I have served him,” Polycarp declared, “and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

The Proconsul threatened to bring the wild beasts if Polycarp would not repent, but Polycarp replied: “It is unthinkable for me to repent from what is good to turn to what is evil.”

Finally, a fire was prepared, where he would seal his testimony with his blood. As the executioners prepared to light the fire beneath him, he prayed these words: “I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice…”

I am amazed and inspired to read the accounts of Christian martyrs who, despite all the attempts of tyrants and despots to control and force the conscience, have maintained their loyalty to God, even at the cost of their lives. I think of what it teaches us about God, and about the freedom that God has given to each of us—a type of freedom that can never be taken away.

We stand aghast at the horrific society that could take pleasure in inflicting such torture and death on an aged and gentle man. How sad it is to see how human governments, throughout history, have tried to compel the thoughts, the consciences, and the worship of other men and women. From Pharaoh in Egypt, to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and Darius in Persia, pagan kings have tried to coerce the consciences of men, and every time God has come through in miraculous ways.

We say it’s wrong for men like Darius and Caesar to enforce false worship, but now I have a new question for you to ponder. What if—just suppose—a good Adventist Christian were to become king, or president, of the nation. What if good men were in charge, rather than bad men—wouldn’t it be a good thing if they put rules in place to force other people to be good and worship God?

Just imagine, if every place of non-essential business could close on Sabbath, and everyone could be free to go to church? If every evil movie were banned, and people were required to read their Bibles and given time to pray every day? Just imagine how good our world would be, if everyone worshiped God just like you and I do? No one would waste their money on gambling, or drugs, or alcohol. Everyone would love each other and we could have heaven on earth, right?

It sounds like a wonderful plan—except that it’s a plan that’s been tried before, with disastrous consequences. Only a couple of centuries after Polycarp was martyred, the tide turned for Christians in the Roman empire. Rather than being persecuted, Christianity was embraced. Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian, and with him multitudes of pagans flocked into the church—not out of love for Christ but out of political expediency. And rather than reforming society, the greater effect of this change was the corruption of the church itself. Eventually, the Christian church became the strongest political power in Europe, and for a centuries she enforced Christian dogma and persecuted all those who dared to disagree with her doctrine. And rather than having a heaven on earth, this period of Europe’s history became known as the Dark Ages, when every form of learning was squelched, and those who dared exercise their power of thought often paid the price with their life!

It wasn’t until this country was founded in the late 18th century that a major modern society embraced this principle that we call religious freedom. In the past 200 years, our form of limited, representative government, grounded in law and based on the principles of freedom, has become a model for other societies around the world and has paved the way for rapid advances in learning, technology, trade and everything that makes for a healthy society. It also opened the door for revivals of religion including the birth of this movement known as the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Yet still today, many question the roots of this principle of religious freedom. Perhaps still, many wonder, it would be better if the church could have more sway over public life? Perhaps a little bit more “Christianity” in the government could right the ills of our society? But if we take a lesson from the history books, we should know it doesn’t work this way.

What’s more though, for us as Christians, we should ask “is it Biblical?” After all, God requires homage, worship, and obedience, right? If you or I should find ourselves in a position of power, would it not be right and commendable, not only to worship God ourselves, but to compel others to do so as well? If my neighbor is worshiping God in the wrong way, and I have the power to make him worship better, would it not only be my right but my duty to push him into the right path, if possible, to save his soul?

I suppose one could ask the question further: since God does have the power, why doesn’t He compel His subjects to worship him? Why does evil exist, if evil is opposed to God’s will? And in answering this deep philosophical question, from the principles of Scripture, I believe we will begin to find the roots of this principle of religious liberty.

Is there something that God desires above the homage of His subjects? The answer is yes. Above homage, God desires true heartfelt worship—a worship that springs from the love of those whom He created—a love that reflects His own heart of love and flows from a free choice given to His creatures to serve Him, or not to serve Him. Above demanding our homage, God’s character is defined first by His heart of love, and in that love God’s character demands that we, too, must have the freedom to choose to love Him in return.

Consider this passage from 1 John 4:16, 19:

“And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. … We love Him because He first loved us.”

The story of the Bible is the story of a God who, like the father in Jesus famous parable, waits longingly for His children to choose to return to Him. A God who, like the merchant man seeking precious pearls, gives up everything in order to redeem His precious children. Yet despite His desperate love for us, and though He could easily do it, He will never cross that line to force us to “love” him in return—for that could never be true love. And above homage, what God most desires from his creatures is love—true love—love that springs from a heart that is truly free.

Never once in the Bible does God force someone to have a relationship with Him. Yes, at times He must administer stern justice. In Old Testament times, God established the theocracy of Israel, and a nation was guided by God Himself and the men and women whom He appointed. Yet even in this, though the laws of God were enforced in society, yet men and women remained free to choose whether to serve God, or to reject Him, and we are given this history of the consequences of their choices as a lesson book for our learning today.

When Jesus came, in fulfillment of all the prophecies pointing to the coming of a great king and deliverer of Israel, many expected that he would set up a government that would force men and women to turn to God, and crush out those who fought against God’s people.

But Jesus said to His disciples in John 8:23 “You are of this world; I am not of this world.” At his trial, Jesus told Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

Jesus taught that His kingdom would be, at first, an invisible kingdom—a principle of godliness that would grow up in the hearts of men and women like a mustard seed. Rather than teaching His disciples to fight and kill, he taught His followers to “resist not evil” and to turn the other cheek. And when he sent his disciples to preach the good news throughout the cities of Judea, he admonished them, when rejected, to simply shake off the dust of their feet and move on to the next city.

Once, he and his disciples were rebuffed from a Samaritan city, and one of his disciples was ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy that city. But Jesus responded, “’You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.’ And they went to another village.” (Luke 9:55-56)

Even the apostles carried on the tradition of Christ, as Paul describes in Romans 13: not resisting secular government but instead supporting and respecting the secular government and focusing on spreading the gospel as a principle that points men’s hearts to God’s eternal kingdom of love and freedom.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:17:

“Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

God values freedom above all else, because freedom is an essential part of love. Jesus said in John 8:32

“you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

The religion of Christ is the source of all true freedom.

So I ask you today: “Are you free?” Have you embraced this liberty that comes from the service of Christ? Can you stand, like Polycarp, and say in perfect freedom of conscience—even knowing that it may be your last hour—“86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”

Secondly, having embraced this freedom, how does this teach us that we are to treat others? We have a commission—yes a mandate—to teach this gospel of the kingdom to all the world. And yet in sharing this message, do we show the love of Christ in a way that gives true freedom to those whom I desire to share the gospel with? Or do I hold my friendship with them as a contingency on their accepting my belief?

What about my brother or sister in the church, who interprets the Bible differently than I do? As Seventh-day Adventists, we have an incredibly wide spectrum of beliefs even among members of our world church! Even within our local congregations, there are many who believe differently. And while holding to our beliefs passionately, can we still give a brother or sister the room to also hold their passionate belief without excluding him or her from our family?

Last but not least—how does this principle of freedom affect our attitude in our public sphere of life? This could be another message entirely, but let me briefly address this question. Most people today, in our country, believe that everyone should have “Freedom of Worship.” We should be free to come to church, to preach and to pray, to have a devotional life, in whatever way we see fit according to our conscience. But when it comes to Freedom of Religion—that is, protection of religious practices that come into the public sphere—our freedoms are fast eroding even in this country.

What do I mean by “religious practices?” Certainly assembling for worship and private prayer and devotion are included, but religious practices can also include wearing of certain clothing elements, having special dietary restrictions, or observing certain times or days for religious purposes—like prayer times for Muslims or the weekly Sabbath for Jews and Seventh-day Adventist Christians. It is these types of religious practices that are increasingly losing their protections, and thousands are suffering from loss of employment or other missed opportunities, or forced to break their religious practices, because protection for religious freedom is breaking down.

That is why the Religious Liberty department of our church in North America works to support court cases around the country in support of Religious Liberty—whether those are for Adventists or other people of faith who are being discriminated against. We also publish a magazine, Liberty Magazine, which is sent to judges and community leaders in every community around this country, making them aware of relevant issues that touch this principle of Religious Liberty. The special offering we are taking up today goes to support this effort.

Now I’m not here to make this message into a commercial, so I’ll go back to my original question: “What does God desire above homage?” He desires each and every one of us to be free—truly free. He has paid the price for our freedom, but even this immeasurable gift He does not impose upon us. He offers it to us, and desires that we will accept this freedom and freely return our love to Him!

What’s more, he calls us to give this same freedom to our brothers and sisters—even when it hurts to see them turn from the right way. Can you afford to give that freedom to someone in your life today?

The story of Polycarp’s Martyrdom was adapted from this story from the Christian History Institute.

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