I’d like us to turn our attention to one of the minor characters in the passion story. He remains speechless, and appears in only one verse. Yet this character is the one closest to Jesus as Jesus walks the road to the place of crucifixion. Here is the single verse that mentions this character: “They compelled one passing by, coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to go with them, that he might bear (Jesus’) cross.”
This Simon is a visitor to Jerusalem. He comes from Cyrene, an important Greek city in North Africa. It’s likely that he’s a Jew. Greek-speaking Jews made up a large part of the population of Cyrene, and it’s easy to imagine some of them traveling to Jerusalem for Passover. Indeed, one of the synagogues in Jerusalem was identified as serving, among others, Jews from Cyrene. (Acts 6:9)
Imagine the scene then! Simon has just arrived for Passover. He’s in the holy city of Jerusalem, for possibly the first time in his life. Roman soldiers drag a beaten and bruised prisoner through the streets, taking him away for execution. The route the soldiers choose is a long one so that people will see the prisoner’s plight and not repeat his crimes.
Suddenly the prisoner drops the cross on which he will soon be crucified. Merciless flogging has caused him to lose a good deal of blood; it’s clear he’s too weak to drag the cross any further. The soldiers will not stoop to pick it up, but legally they can force somebody else to do so. Simon is the closest able-bodied man. He simply finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Having no alternative, Simon shoulders the prisoner’s cross. He gets blood on his robe. His good clothes become smudged with dust. He struggles and sweats, carrying the cross down rough city streets, a hostile crowd on both sides of him. Some of the bystanders laugh. A few spit. Simon can spend only one Passover in Jerusalem, and it’s turning out like this! What a nightmare!
Finally they reach the killing place outside the city, and Simon drops his burden. The soldiers get on with their business of nailing the prisoner’s hands and feet to the wood. They then place the bottom of the cross in a deep hole, push the top of it skyward, and sit down to watch their prisoner die.
The soldiers know it can take a long time for someone crucified to die. They are resigned to this boredom. What keeps them alert is knowing that their prisoner has many followers. The soldiers are concerned that these followers may attempt a rescue.
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What happens to Simon? Does he stay and watch the slow death, or does he leave? We simply do not know. Scripture does not speak of him again.
All that remains to be said concerns his family. The passion account in Mark’s Gospel identifies Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus. Now Mark’s Gospel was composed about a generation after the events it describes. The reason Alexander and Rufus are named is probably that they were known to those for whom Mark’s Gospel was written, and were themselves Christians.
Does Simon of Cyrene become a Christian? Does he see something in that prisoner that makes him choose discipleship? We do not know, but it seems likely that his two sons become Christians. We can picture them listening to what their father tells them of his visit to Jerusalem, the cross he was forced to carry, and the prisoner who died on it.
So Simon of Cyrene finds himself walking beside a pathetic prisoner he has never seen before, carrying a heavy cross for him through the crowded, mean streets. Simon’s far from home, in a strange city, forced to do humiliating grunt work much against his will.
He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, or is he? Is it simply the Roman soldier who pulls him out of the crowd, or does a power greater than Rome call him forth? Is it an accident that he ends up in this nightmare situation, dirty, humiliated, exhausted, or is it more than an accident?
What Simon encounters outside the city wall is not religious in any conventional sense. It is the calculated, brutal, agonizing death of a man who can do nothing to defend himself. Yet this demonstrates the wisdom of God, waiting to be recognized. For God’s wisdom is not common sense, practical advice, moral uplift, or good feelings. Divine wisdom does not adhere to the rules of prudence. It is radical emptying of self, sacrificial living and dying, extravagant spending on the prisoner’s part of blood and breath, of life and hope, knowing that God is greater than any darkness, and the world aches to be redeemed.
Simon comes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover of his people: how once, long ago, the Lord heard them cry out in their agony as Egyptian slaves, and delivered them with mighty signs and wonders, even dividing the Red Sea waters to bring them home to freedom. Simon knows that at the heart of this story is the making safe of Hebrew homes by marking their doorways with the blood of the Passover lamb.
What he sees in the killing place just outside Jerusalem seems to him like the start of a different freedom march with a new Passover lamb, one slaughtered on a cross. He sees the promise that both Gentile and Jew are to be delivered from bondage to sin, alienation, and death. This realization slowly dawns in his heart throughout the days and years following that one visit to Jerusalem.
Simon was compelled to go to the place of execution, carrying a cross. We are gathered in the same place today for a variety of reasons. We may be here because of habit, duty, commitment, curiosity, or spiritual thirst. What matters is not how we got here, but what we recognize. Do we see a heartless execution, or something more? In this incident of a man put to death, in bread broken and wine shared at his command, in the cross as our emblem, we can recognize the depths of foolish wisdom, the start of a new freedom march, a call for us to live, not by achievement or accumulation, but by sacrifice, which manifests the power of God.
May we be always ready to give up what we cannot keep in order to gain what we cannot lose.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
— Copyright for this sermon 2003, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.