Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Imagine, if you will, being on a journey, a long way from your home. You’ve traveled for many days, perhaps even weeks, to reach your destination. You’re looking forward to participating in a special event, one that’s very important to you. Your family is with you, and you’re laughing together, taking in the sights of a large, dynamic city, filled with many other visitors who share your excitement.
Suddenly, there’s a commotion up ahead of you. A large crowd—some of it angry, some of it frightened, all of it upset—is surging your way. The streets are narrow, and there’s nowhere to get out of the way. You press up against the stone wall, hiding your children behind you. You hope that the throng will pass you by, and that you and your loved ones won’t be separated by the onrushing wave of humanity—or worse, trampled.
The next thing you know, a gruff Roman soldier, his face hard set and his eyes harder still, is staring right at you, and pointing his spear in a threatening manner. “You there!” he bellows. “Come here! Carry this!” For a moment, you freeze, hoping that your hesitation will cause the soldier to turn his attention to someone else. Someone more involved. Someone more interested. But it doesn’t. He lowers his spear still further, clearly intent on making sure you understand. “Don’t make me tell you again,” he growls.
Shaking with fear, you quickly squeeze your boys’ hands and wordlessly give them a look and a nod that tells them, “It will be all right.” You hope and pray that they will be safe in a strange city where you’ve just arrived, and will be able to find their way back to the marketplace where your wife stopped to shop for supplies for tonight’s special Sabbath meal. Then you step into the street, where the crowd has parted to avoid the soldier’s threatening manner.
Your eyes and your brain are not prepared for what you see next. A young man, sweaty and exhausted, is collapsed on the grimy street, a large wooden beam pressing down on his trembling frame. But that’s not the worst of it. His back—or, rather, where his back should be—is a mass of raw, torn flesh. Blood oozes from every bit of its surface, and in a few places, it even pulses out from arteries ripped open by a brutal beating.
You’ve seen this sort of cruelty before, back in your hometown of Cyrene, on the southern shore of the Great Sea. The Romans have turned the flogging of prisoners into a gruesome sort of art, some seeming to relish it as they make such abuses a tool to keep their conquered territories in line.
As you struggle to gain a handhold on the beam and lift its heavy bulk off the man, you are surprised that someone in his condition was able to carry it at all, much less this far from the Roman headquarters where you are sure this punishment must have been inflicted. The man slowly raises his head, and for the first time, your eyes are drawn away from the ghastly spectacle of his back. He is wearing a ring of woven vines, covered with thorns, pressed down around the top of his head. From dozens of jagged wounds in his scalp, more blood flows down, small rivers of wet reds and dried browns that tell you he’s endured this suffering for hours. Your hatred of the Romans, those arrogant pagans, grows deeper by the second.
Through your rage, though, you notice that the beaten man is looking into your eyes. He is expressing something so unexpected that for a moment you can’t recognize it. It’s a strange combination of expressions, coming from a total stranger, and yet in an instant, you understand. It’s confidence. It’s determination. It’s gratitude to you for your kindness, even if it came out of compulsion by the point of a spear. But most of all, it’s love. Beyond the deepest sort of love you ever thought you could imagine, it’s there.
“How could such a man be an enemy of Rome?” you wonder. For that matter, how could such a man be an enemy of anyone? For a few fleeting seconds, under all the blood and sweat and ravaged flesh, you have seen purity and perfection.
You struggle to your feet, trying to balance the heavy load in a way that will allow you to walk without falling down yourself. Still, without even a conscious thought, your hand reaches down to the man, and he takes it, rising on wobbly legs to continue his journey to what you know will be a horrific end. You are carrying the beam of a Roman cross, and this man will soon have coarse iron nails driven through his wrists and ankles, pinning him to the wood like a sheepskin message on a tree.
You don’t want to see such a terrible torture, much less be a part of it, but you have no choice. You are helping send this young Jew to his death—you, a believer yourself. Why couldn’t it be somebody else? Anybody else? Everyone else? You’re sure that this is a sin, and that your sin will help kill this man. Lord, have mercy on me!
On you trudge together. Him, the sufferer, and you, the one tormented at your inability to stop sending him to his death.
We don’t know what happened to Simon of Cyrene when he and Jesus reached Golgotha, of course. And, in fact, I’ve done quite a bit of pious speculation when it comes to what Simon experienced that day in Jerusalem. Yet, if he reacted with basic human inclinations to what happened and what he saw as we might react, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that perhaps he felt much the same as I’ve related.
The very fact that we know Simon’s name, however, is a pretty strong indication that he became known to one or more of the Gospel writers, because Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Simon’s participation in carrying Jesus’ cross that day. We can’t discount the possibility that the information about Simon, and the fact that he was from Cyrene and had two sons, Rufus and Alexander, were given to the Gospel writers purely through divine inspiration.
But we also would be well-served to consider the likelihood that Simon somehow formed a connection with the small community of believers in Jesus in the hours, days, weeks, months, or years after the crucifixion, and that he became a part of the fledgling Christian Church. We know that there are people named Rufus and Alexander mentioned in the apostles’ writings—people with the same names as Simon’s sons. There would really have been no reason for the Holy Spirit to reveal these names to the Gospel writers unless they served to give their accounts increased credibility with their readers and hearers, people who might have known Simon or his sons.
Regardless of the specifics, we know from the biblical record that Simon was one of those people who were at or near the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, as the placard reads which Pontius Pilate had affixed to that cross. Simon, like Pilate, helped send an innocent man to his death.
“Wait,” you say. “Simon didn’t help Jesus be crucified on purpose. He had no power to stop it like Pilate did. He was forced to do it.” Right and wrong at the same time. While he was physically present and carried the cross under duress, Simon was no less innocent and no more guilty than Pontius Pilate for the reason Jesus had to die.
If you want to really blame somebody and have an impact, blame those religious types who were sinning against Jesus all the time. It’s all their fault. Go ahead, tell them what horrible, evil, messed-up sinners they are. They’re in the pews all around you. One is in the spot where you’re sitting, too. One is standing in the pulpit, even. Lord, have mercy.
We study the people around the crucifixion because it helps us understand that they are people just like us. People with hopes and dreams, talents and flaws, fears and achievements. Some cared deeply for Jesus. Some didn’t really even know who He was at the time. Some were pleased by the fact that He didn’t seem to be who He said He was, that He didn’t seem to be able to bring Himself down off that cross to prove His Messiahship and His Sonship to the heavenly Father.
But no matter what their attitude was toward Jesus, His attitude toward them was the same: “These are my Father’s beloved creatures, made in our image, worthy in our sight of even my horrible suffering and innocent death. Simon will carry the physical weight of my cross, but I will carry its spiritual weight. I will carry the burden of all their guilt, and I will quench the righteous fire of my Father’s wrath against sin with the priceless treasure of my blood.”
So, step away from that wall. Overcome your fears. Pick up the cross of Jesus. In embracing who you are as one who has caused His death by your sin, you also embrace and gain a companion on your journey through your own suffering and death in this world. You are bound to Him by the blood and water which flowed from His side on the cross at the time of His death.
By these, you are both perfectly cleansed and indelibly marked. By these, you are given both death to sin and life in Christ’s righteousness. By these, heaven is your final resting place, and not the tomb.
Thousand thousand thanks are due, dearest Jesus, unto You. In His holy (X) name, Amen.