The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

IN MEMORY OF CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS

Delivered 5/29/05
Text: II Timothy 2:1-13
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

This is a big weekend. All around the nation, it is a holiday...Memorial Day...the weekend that serves as the unofficial kickoff for the summer. Of course, Memorial Day means much more than that, particularly to families who have lost loved ones to the wars our nation has waged. Tomorrow will be a day for memories.

But memories do not have to be limited to tomorrow. I would propose TODAY as a Memorial Day for us...a visit to ANOTHER cemetery...that hallowed ground that contains the mortal remains of loyal soldiers who have given their lives for an even greater good than freedom and democracy...those who have given their lives in defense of the Christian faith - as Paul would describe them, "good soldiers of Jesus Christ." They too need to be called to mind so that we might remember with gratitude the glorious heritage that we share.

Over here is an interesting headstone...the grave of a man named Polycarp. Polycarp lived in the second century after Christ, a time of intermittent but bitter persecution for the church. Christians were sometimes covered in the skins of wild animals and then torn to death by dogs; they were crucified or set on fire to burn like torches in the night; they were confronted by lions in the arena...and for no other reason than they confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. Polycarp was one of those and a leader among them. He was the Bishop of the church at Symrna, on the Mediterranean coast of what is modern day Turkey.(1)

Polycarp was one of those valiant defenders of the church who refused to make compromise even if his very life depended on it. He was arrested and brought before the Roman proconsul and urged to renounce his faith. "Respect your years, " the proconsul cried, "Swear by Caesar and I shall set you free; DENY CHRIST." But softly Polycarp replied, "For 86 years I have been his servant and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?"

Back and forth they went with the proconsul alternately threatening death by wild beasts or burning at the stake. None of it seemed to bother Polycarp. It was almost as if the bishop were perfectly content to die...and he was. The proconsul was amazed. It seemed as if he wanted some way to avoid his task, but there was none. He sent a crier into the middle of the arena to announce three times, "Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian." And the crowd came back, "BURN HIM ALIVE.'

The rest happened in less time than it takes to describe. The crowd rushed to collect wood and kindling from workshops and public baths to build the pyre. When all was ready, Polycarp prayed: "O Father of Thy beloved and blessed son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know Thee, the God of angels and powers and all creation, and of the whole family of the righteous who live in Thy presence, I bless Thee for counting me worthy of this day and hour, that in the number of the martyrs, I may partake of Christ's cup, to the resurrection of eternal life of both soul and body in the imperishability that is the gift of the Holy Spirit..." When he had completed his prayer, the man in charge lit the fire, and a great flame shot up. Polycarp was dead. His followers gathered up his charred bones from the arena and gave them a Christian burial. A soldier of the cross who had made the supreme sacrifice in defense of his Lord.

Polycarp's grave is only one of many in this hallowed ground. Over here is another...the tomb of an Englishman named John Wycliffe, the man who came to be called "the Morningstar of the Reformation."(2)

Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England sometime around 1324. Apparently he came from a cultured family, but little is really known about his upbringing. He entered college at Oxford and eventually became a part of its faculty with records indicating that he was regarded as one of its most able members. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1361 and soon was appointed as one of the King's chaplains. So far, a relatively uneventful existence.

But, as time went along, Wycliffe became offended at the wealth and power of the established church hierarchy and preached against it. He criticized the monks who roamed the countryside begging for alms and denounced them as being like "women in their idleness." (These days, he would have gotten in more trouble for THAT than he had ever bargained.) He criticized those who lived their lives cloistered in monasteries, as he said "choosing their own contemplation and rest while suffering other men to go to hell." He complained about the lack of real Biblical preaching in his day saying that sermons should not be developed out of church tradition but rather be based on "the naked text." He was concerned that the Latin Bible which was used by the church had no meaning for the common people, and so began the first English translation of the entire Old and New Testaments that had NOT been authorized by the church.

Needless to say, all that opposition to accepted church practice kept John Wycliffe in constant hot water. Fortunately, he had some powerful friends and was never given anything more than a reprimand by the church authorities of his time. In fact, the church was in such disarray at that moment that one man was claiming to be Pope in Rome and another claiming the same thing in France - no one knew who had authority to do anything anyway. At any rate, all Wycliffe's activity took its toll and he died in 1384 after a stroke at his home in Lutterworth.

Even though Wycliffe was not martyred for the faith, he had most certainly given his life to it...the dedication expected of a loyal soldier. His efforts greatly influenced those who came in the two centuries after him, those who would harvest the seeds of reformation which he had planted. To his undying credit, he was insistent that good soldiers have their orders written in a language they could understand, and thus today, ALL Christians, no matter what their church affiliation, support that effort. That "Morningstar of the Reformation" has a LIVING epitaph in the name of a wonderful evangelistic outreach, the Wycliffe Bible Translators. With those thousands who came to Jerusalem on that birthday of the church, Pentecost, we too can be amazed that we hear the Gospel in our own language. For that, we can thank John Wycliffe.

Both Polycarp and Wycliffe were soldiers of the cross on the home front, defending the faith in their native soil. But over here is another grave, this one belonging to a man who was willing to give up even his home to take up "the sword of the Spirit." His name is William Carey.

Carey was another Englishman, born in 1761, the son of the local schoolmaster.(3) He was converted at the age of eighteen through the witness of one of his fellow workers. He was an apprentice shoemaker, but felt called to preach, eventually becoming pastor of Moulton Baptist Chapel and supporting himself as a schoolteacher and maker of shoes.

But Carey had a burden. He was convinced that Christ's Great Commission to "preach the Gospel to every creature" still applied to Christians and he was afraid that commission was not being carried out. In 1792 he published a tract called An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen, hardly the kind of title which would excite book buyers on Amazon.com today but in the days before television it did all right. In that same year in a sermon in Nottingham, Carey coined a sentence which has been a rallying cry for the church from that day to this: "Attempt great things FOR God; expect great things FROM God."

Carey was not one to be content with simply talk - he was a man of action. And so, the following year, he and his family sailed to India to begin a work that would last the rest of his life. Once in India, he became foreman of an indigo factory in Bengal, a job which only required his attention for three months out of the year, leaving him free to study the language, to preach and to teach during the rest of the time. A few years later, he was joined by two other English Baptists, and for the next quarter century, the three labored together to build a growing network of mission stations there. They initiated mission schools, conceived the idea of Serampore College, founded the Agricultural Society of India and took a leading part in the campaign for the abolition of widow-burning, the practice of throwing the wife of a deceased man onto the flames of his funeral pyre, a campaign which was successful by 1829.

Carey was one of the first to recognize the need for developing native pastors and evangelists to spread the Gospel to their own people, an effort that, in our day, has seen a tremendous growth of Christianity in the third world. He said, "It is only by means of native preachers we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel through this immense continent."

William Carey was a soldier...in the truest sense a "veteran of foreign wars." He died in 1834 and left a living legacy: "Attempt great things FOR God; expect great things FROM God."

Over here is one more grave, a relatively new one. Actually, it is not a grave at all...just a marker. There is nothing buried beneath it. The inscription on it is hardly blurred at all by the passage of time - after all, it was carved just over fifty years ago. It belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.(4)

Bonhoeffer would be in his ninety's today if he had lived. He was born into a well-to-do German family in Breslau in 1906, one of eight children. He became interested in the ministry as a vocation as a boy, making the decision to become a pastor at the age of 14. He studied at several universities and received his theological degree at age 21.

Needless to say, all was not roses in the Germany of the young Bonhoeffer: there was growing resentment to the peace of Versailles which had been forced on the nation after World War I; there was considerable social distress as a result of economic conditions; there was enough political unrest to allow Hitler to come to power. Bonhoeffer realized early on the dangers that the Nazis posed and publically denounced them, the beginning of what would become a short lifetime of resistance.

In 1939 he was invited to give a series of lectures here in America and, for his own safety, was encouraged to remain in the United States by friends both here and in his homeland. But in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr he wrote, "I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people." So Bonhoeffer went back.

Within a year, he was prohibited from preaching. The following year, he was prohibited from publishing. He became active in the resistance movement and was arrested in April, 1943. Like the apostle Paul, Bonhoeffer did some of his most memorable work from prison, calling attention in his letters and papers to the necessity for a "worldly Christianity," the kind of faith that is willing to get involved in the great struggles of humanity. He complained that most modern preaching of justification by faith was a kind of "cheap grace." Grace, he insisted, comes only when people step out and follow Christ in costly discipleship. Bonhoeffer had been particularly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, and in his book on that passage, The Cost of Discipleship,(5) he wrote, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Bonhoeffer was to heed that summons. On April 9, 1945, in the concentration camp at Flossenburg, just a few days before it was liberated by the Allies, he was tried for treason and hanged. His body was burned and his ashes spread to the winds. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, just 29 years old, a soldier of the cross who was willing to give up his life for the Master who gave his OWN life for us all.

But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
'Tis all that I can do.(6)

Polycarp, Wycliffe, Carey, Bonhoeffer...men who were and are willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of their Savior, men whose lives fairly DEMAND a Christian Memorial Day to celebrate their accomplishments, men whom we do well to remember for the challenge they present to us.

How will YOU be remembered on Christian Memorial Days in years to come? What kind of Christian soldier will people think of when they think of you? Will it be one like Polycarp... fearless in your confession of faith? Or will you be remembered like Wycliffe...willing to take positions that might be unpopular? Or will you perhaps be thought of as William Carey... one who took seriously the Lord's Great Commission to spread the Gospel everywhere? Will you be remembered as Bonhoeffer...one who was even willing to "come and die?"

Yes, this is a big weekend for America as we unofficially celebrate the beginning of summer and especially as we remember our heroes who have given their all in defense of the nation. May God grant that this be an even BIGGER weekend for us as we take the challenges of the great defenders of the faith and use them to rededicate ourselves as faithful soldiers of the Kingdom.

Amen!


1. Historical information from Eerdmans' Handbook to the History of Christianity, Tim Dowley, Ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1978), p. 81

2. Clyde Fant & William Pinson, eds, Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. I (Waco, TX, Word, 1971), pp. 227-238

3. Eerdmans' Handbook, p. 548, and Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), pp. 393-402

4. Eerdmans' Handbook, p. 602-603 and Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. XII, pp. 93-105

5. New York: Macmillan, 1959

6. Isaac Watts, "Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed"

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