Simon of Cyrene

And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Rufus and Alexander, to carry his cross.

If we were entitled to piece together all the references in the NT, some certain, some possible, to Simon of Cyrene and his sons Rufus and Alexander, we would have a picture of a man who was pressed into service one dark day, but who then willingly took up his own cross and became one of Jesus followers and missionaries. So the various clues from the last chapter of Romans, where Rufus is named, and hints in Paul’s letters to Timothy and also a Simon in Acts who along with another Cyrene preaches the Gospel to gentiles in Antioch. Cyrene was a town in N. Libya, on the Mediterranean, known for its large Jewish community.

Even with just Mark’s brief record, it is agreed by all that the mention of his sons Rufus and Alexander, in the context of the world-changing drama of Jesus’ crucifixion, cannot be happenstance. They were likely known to Mark’s readers as notable members of the church for which Christ gave his life. So the man from Libya who had perhaps come up to Passover and who ended up carrying a cross serves to remind us: one moment sooner, one moment later, one turn to the left or the right, one decision to come in from the country or stay put are all equally freighted in the outworking of God’s plans.

It is easy to think life is about great events and big decisions, when it is more like grains of sand, each one capable of bearing all the weight God needs, both to do his work and for us to be active in his service (Maclaren).

And so it was for Simon that day.

Roman execution by impaling had precursors in the cultures of the day, in the same region where today men in modern Libya are paraded before cameras and then beheaded. What is today a recruitment tool was then primarily a deterrent against uprisings. And unlike our electric chairs or execution gurneys, the practice was extremely widespread to the point of commonplace. Josephus tells of 3000 Jews crucified on one day alone.

What is notable then is that for all this, the longest and most detailed literary record of a crucifixion is the one supplied in the accounts of the NT. The general Julius Caesar and the provincial governor Pliny routinely ordered crucifixions yet their memoirs contain no mention of them (Bauckham).What people may have thronged to watch, or turned away from in disgust, and that happened as a matter of course, did not inspire re-telling beyond bureaucratic record keeping. Save for this one man Jesus Christ. And inside of the record that tells of his last hours, where we have anonymous soldiers, nameless mourners, faceless ridiculers, momentary sympathizers, a duo of deserved bandits, and a lone centurion, there we find one Simon of Cyrene, a Jew from Libya, whose sons were Rufus and Alexander, who happened to be coming in from the country. He it was who carried the cross the diminished Jesus no longer could bear.

Though in the recent movie “Unbroken” a hero holds a beam above his head for an improbable time to show he cannot be broken, our hero Jesus is without strength and unable to go on. The assistance from a bystander needed to move the drama onward is testimony, not to the lack of fortitude in the man Jesus, nor the events of the days preceding: the soldiers whipping and scourging, the severe mental and spiritual anguish, the malnutrition of false arrest, phony trial, betrayal, and abandonment. It is that Jesus Christ chose the path he now walks on, so that “on him might be laid,” as Isaiah said, “the iniquity of us all.” The crushed man is in that state by his choice, so that we might “look on him whom we have pierced” and see there life and hope. That having entered every death chamber, every unjust trial, every betrayal, every scene of cruel beheading or of men burned in cages, he might forever rob them of their final sentence and show them empty in the face of God’s love, mercy, and justice. The surface depletion of Jesus had also a deep spiritual counterpart that cost him everything.

Why does Mark mention Simon was coming in from the country? Was he a contract worker doing business while he attended Passover? Was there no room in Jerusalem? The absence of detail underscores the seemingly happenstance character of our lives’ movements. That he is compelled makes sense. The soldiers have other things to get on with. Someone, anyone who can do the job, is pressed into service. Our depictions often show a black man—Sidney Poitier played the role in the Greatest Story Ever Told—but of course all people in the region are dark by European standards. The man they led out that morning, Mark says by noon must be brought, borne to Golgotha, the place of a skull.

The circumstances of our coming out of our country to look on this Lord will vary. What Simon reminds us is that we may look, but in time we must also bear, in whatever way the compelling manifests itself for us. There’s a lot of talking in Mark’s account, a lot of dividing, deriding, mocking, putting things on sticks and lifting them up. But Simon, compelled and obedient, actually carries the wood beam on which Jesus will be nailed. Must negotiate the transfer, share the burden for a moment, jostle it into place, and finally appropriate its weight. For what is the death of Christ for those who see it is for us, but a lifting up of us, an enrolling of us, a death for our sins, and that which now enlists and compels us and our new lives in him? Gratefully robbing us of our freedom to stay in a former country.

“To whom shall we go?” Peter asked one day. “You have the words of eternal life.”

This Simon—not Peter—would never be the same again, he would never go back to the country the way he came, nor his sons either, after they looked in Simon’s eyes and heard his report. No truer words have been spoken than: I when I am lifted up, will lift up all men and women up with me. When he said them and then when the beam that Simon carried went up into its place, so we go up too. He bore the heaviest burden any man has or will bear, but just so, we are now part of his dying and his living both. Our lives are hid with God in Christ, as St. Paul said.

There is a mystery here. It has been said, he who needed nothing, who had all things, needed us all the same (Maclaren). We would not be here this evening if it were not so. Part of what we are doing is honoring the compelling of a bystander, recalling it for what it is, and like Simon, finding our true and lasting name inside this story.  For Simon and for us, the Cross has become a compelling. For that which makes Jesus different from the thousands who were crucified is: he entered the place of our sin and our death as one who could have avoided it. Out of love and in order to change all things forever, you and me, he chose this way.

Let’s dwell on this for a moment. Simon’s name is now before us in the record, and will remain so through all time, because of that by-standing place in time on a road to Golgatha. There he found a path prepared for him to walk in. People spend all they have to get a name, find a big place in time, perhaps pass it on to children. For all that striving what will they have truly gained?

Simon gained a look at, had a share in, the man who gave up his place with God to enter into our lives and into our cruelty and into our dying. While in that place Jesus retained the strength to forgive, to make a new family of his mother and the beloved disciple. Why he even had a gift God gave through him when he was most depleted. He shared. Room was there for Simon to enter in, and he found on his own shoulders the sweat and the burden, the smell and this singular man’s own crushed frame, and in that place found himself and his name, which would change him and his place in time forever.  

And so the obvious question is:

Will there be room on our shoulders to allow that beam to rest on us and change us? Will we stand and watch him be lifted up so as to draw us and all men to him? So that we, and through us others, might enter into the place where life begins and names are given, here and now, and forever to be enrolled in a book of life.

May our answer again this year, this day, this Good Friday be “Yes.” As we come in from the country of our so-called freedom and enter now, that wide landscape of his grace.

And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Rufus and Alexander, to carry his cross.

 

      

 

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