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Meet the First Christians

February 23, 2011

Imagine being able to sit at the feet of the apostles and hear their stories of life with Jesus from their own lips.

Imagine walking with those who had walked with Jesus, seen him, and touched him.

That was what Polycarp and Ignatius were able to do as disciples of Saint John the Evangelist and what Clement of Rome was able to do as a disciple the Apostle Peter.  Polycarp, was a Bishop of Smyrna and Ignatius was the second Bishop of Antioch and was actually consecrated Bishop around the year 69 by the Apostle Peter.  Clement of Rome was also ordained by the Apostle Peter and was one of the first bishops of Rome after Peter.  In fact, tradition has identified him as the Clement that Paul mentioned in Philippians 4:3 as a fellow laborer in Christ.  All of them were holy men who were deeply loved by the Christian faithful, they always made it their special care to defend “orthodoxy” (right teaching) and “orthopraxy” (right practice) among the early Christians.

However, being part of the second generation of Church leaders had challenges that the first generation could not teach about. What did you do when those eyewitnesses were gone? How do you carry on the correct teachings of Jesus? How do you answer new questions that never came up before?  With the apostles gone, heresies sprang up pretending to be true teaching, persecution was strong, and controversies arose over how to celebrate liturgy that Jesus never laid down rules for.

Polycarp and Ignatius confronted heresies and controversies.  During his journey to Rome to be martyred, Ignatius made good use of the time by writing seven letters of encouragement, instruction and inspiration to the Christians in the churches of Asia Minor and Greece. The content of the letters addressed the hierarchy and structure of the Church as well as the content of the orthodox Christian faith. It was Bishop Ignatius who first used the term “catholic” to describe the whole Church. These letters connect us to the early Church and the unbroken, clear teaching of the Apostles which was given to them directly by Jesus Christ.  Around 96, Clement sent a letter from the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth, a major city in northeastern Greece and the site of St. Paul’s evangelization addressing some of the disputes among the presbyters. This letter is known as Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians.  When the Bible was being compiled this letter was considered for inclusion into it as an inspired writing.

We still have these letters as a great treasure of the Church today.

In the end Polycarp was captured and taken to the proconsul who pronounced him to die by burning when he would not renounce Christ.  In 107, during the reign of the brutal Emperor Trajan, Ignatius was taken under guard to Rome where he was devoured by wild beasts.  Clement was also imprisoned under the Emperor Trajan and was then executed by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea.

Knowing all of that the question before us now stands: Since these men were taught by the Apostles and since they handed down what the Apostles taught, which is still left extant in their writings, why wouldn’t a modern Christian follow the beliefs in full set out in them, or at least read them in their fully extant form?

If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest William Jurgens, Faith of the Fathers which contains the full extant letters of the early Christians.  It is my fervent hope that all Christians would find it a priority to study the unfiltered words of the Early Fathers.  For therein lies the fullness of the faith and the truth of what the Ancient Christian Church believed.

If a disciple of St. John the Apostle told you things the way that St. John had told them in a letter, wouldn’t you believe they spoke an unerring truth of what comprised Christianity, and wouldn’t you want to follow that truth?

“On this Rock I will build my Church, and the Gates of Hell shall not overcome it.

“Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

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(Some of the information in the preceding paragraphs are excerpted from Catholic Online and Wikipedia)

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