SIMON OF CYRENE; NO MORE A STRANGER
A glance at this evening's sermon theme may cause you to ask, how is this guy part of the Holy Family? Even if we are talking about the extended Holy Family, how does a perfect stranger like Simon fit in? We can admit right away that we have little information about him. There are only three verses, one in each of the first three Gospels that say very much the same thing about him. We know he was from Cyrene, a place to the west of Egypt on Africa's north coast, that he was on his way into Jerusalem when the execution squad was heading out, that he was coming from the country, and that the soldiers made him carry Jesus' cross. Mark names his two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Those are the only facts we know.
It is unlikely that Simon was a disciple, even a remote disciple. Neither was he one of the crowd that was arguing, indeed, screaming for Jesus' blood. He woke up that fateful morning completely uninvolved with Jesus of Nazareth. By sunset, he was a lock to get his name in the New Testament. Jesus and His executioners were going out; Simon was coming in, "from the country," probably having spent the night in a farmers' town. Was he a Passover pilgrim? His name certainly was Jewish, although his sons' names were those of Greek-speaking Egyptians. There is no reason not to accept the tentative conclusion that he was a pilgrim, arriving a day late. Since he had come all the way from Cyrene, that wasn't bad.
Nothing in Simon's past experience could have prepared him for what happened that day. As he approached Jerusalem he was probably worrying about how long it would take to get through the custom house, and whether or not he could find lodging. All of a sudden, those things did not matter. The soldiers commanded him to stop. They were taking three men out to a place of execution, and one of them was too weak to carry His cross. They told Simon, "You just volunteered to carry that for Him." There was nothing Simon could do about it. The soldiers were armed and in no mood for games. He might have had business in the city, but the soldiers thought their agenda was more important. So Simon picked up the cross and trudged along behind Jesus.
Once he was caught up in the procession, what could have been going through Simon's mind? First of all, he must have worried about being mistaken for the criminal. That did not last very long. It was obvious that this criminal was well-known, and apparently hated. They yelled insults at Him, taunted Him about the Law and the temple; Simon was apparently safe from that mishap, but a new nerve started to act up. Suppose they think he was a follower of Jesus. How terrible to be considered a friend of Jesus! To have your name linked with His! Did Simon try to discourage this by insulting Jesus as well? Would you? Oh, yes, this sermon is about us after all. Have we been following a Lord we don't really trust? Do we step in His steps only because some bullies threw a cross over our shoulders? Are we strangers who want to remain strangers? DO we dare get close to Jesus of Nazareth? Isn't that a dangerous place to be?
Jesus was extending the Holy Family even as Simon plodded along behind Him. He was including Simon. By sunset Simon would be a different man. Not that the procession took all that long. Calvary was close to the city. Within half an hour they would have arrived. Once there, Simon's services were no longer needed, but his life was different. He didn't worry about the custom house or the lodging any longer. Everybody seemed to be coming out here. Having had some time to look at Jesus, Simon could see that this Man was hardly a criminal. The other two cursed their fate, cursed the soldiers, and cursed the crowds. Jesus was silent. Something very wrong was happening here. As they took off Jesus' robe, Simon could see the bloody work of the scourging, the painful stripes inflicted by the flagellum, leather thongs tied to a handle, often with rocks tied to the ends. No matter what Jesus had done in the past, He certainly wasn't dangerous now. There was still the danger of being associated with Him, yet something forced Simon to stay. Mark knew the names of his sons, and assumed that his readers knew them, too. That is rather good evidence that Simon was no longer a stranger.
What did Simon of Cyrene see? First, he saw the crucifixion. The crowd would fill him in as to the context, the trial that morning, the anger of the priests and scribes, perhaps even the events of the previous week … and sooner or later Lazarus was bound to come up. Second, he saw the sky grow dark, felt the earth shaking. There was no voice from heaven, but perhaps the silence of heaven is even more amazing. He saw Jesus die. Simon heard the enemies say, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save." Of course not. Had He saved Himself He could not have helped us. Simon did not know that. Unlike you and I, he did not have years of New Testament study to help him understand these things. God was expelling the Rightful Heir to extend family membership to strangers like Simon, who would no longer be strangers.
Simon saw one other thing; the few people who watched with Jesus, miserable at His misery, heartbroken at His pain, grieving at His death. His mother was there, and John, and Mary Magdalene. These were not outlaws, not revolutionaries or trouble-makers. Their anguish was so great! Did they move Simon to ask questions? Let us remember when we have to grieve, when we have to suffer, or fail, that is the time to display patience and humility. We may move somebody to ask the most important questions. By wanting to know us better, they can know the Lord better. Instead of asking, "Why me?" seek the good in the situation and come through it as a Christian. Be eager to love God's Law and do His commandments. That's by no means easy, but it is a service we perform for the Simons of this world. Jesus will be using us to extend the Holy Family. AMEN.
~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross