This sermon was shared on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13th, 2016 at Meridian Street United Methodist Church.
Mark 15: 15-23
15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.20 And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it.
“He had probably saved all his life to make this pilgrimage. It was weeks since he had left home, Cyrene, in Northern Africa, which is today Tripoli, Libya. The journey had been long and dangerous, but now he was almost there. Surrounded by a chattering throng of pilgrims, he strode excitedly down the hill toward the city that lay like a glorious jewel below them. The whispered promise “Next Passover in Jerusalem!” was about to come true for him. For the young Libyan pilgrim, it would be this Passover!
Then it happened: suddenly the flow of the crowd changed, and the mood of excitement was now mixed with the smell of fear. Instead of sweeping on toward the city, they seemed pressed in a new direction, mixed in with a different crowd from out of the city gates, baying for blood. Close by, there were shouts of derision and hate. And then Simon – for that was his name – found himself facing a wedge of steel. Right in front of him was a phalanx of soldiers with three bowed and bloody prisoners, each staggering under the weight of a great cross.
And even as Simon tries to extricate himself to go on his way, one of the three prisoners stumbles and falls, and the full weight of the wooden cross falls on top of his body. Simon stares at him struggling – and failing – to rise. Then he feels a sharp sting across his own shoulders: it is the flat of a Roman spear blade, and anyone living in the Roman Empire knows what that means. The person so laid hold of is in Roman service until released. There is no evading this conscription.
Then comes the sharp command: “You there! Carry this cross!” Before he knows quite what is happening, the cross of Jesus singles him out. It lays hold of him, and Simon the religious tourist, finds himself walking behind Jesus, carrying his cross.” This is a powerful description of Simon’s experience written by South African Methodist minister, Rev. Peter Storey.
I’m sure that Simon, the religious pilgrim, never wanted to carry the cross or at least never imagined he would.
Simon was from modern day Tripoli, Libya in Northern Africa, a city that had a strong Jewish community including converts during Jesus’ day. It was likely that Simon wouldn’t have wanted to carry this bloody, unclean, heavy wooden beam. He was forced to carry it for the bloodied, bruised, and beaten Messiah. In one way or another, we are Simon in this story. There are times in our lives when we see the burdens, pain, suffering, and crosses of others and are called into action, lifting the weight of the cross, even if it’s only for a portion of the journey. Every Christian helps Jesus carry the cross, for Jesus does not carry it alone.
When have you been Simon, when an expected cross came before you and you were tasked with the challenge of how to respond? There was a woman in my congregation several years ago who was very active. I learned quickly that she had been diagnosed with cancer several years before. This woman was a part of the women’s group, Bible studies, mission work, she did it all. And when her illness began to overwhelm her, our congregation was there for her. I went to her house to pray with her, read Scripture with her, and simply be present with her. Many others in the congregation did the same. We weren’t able to remove the cross from her life, but we were able to help lift it for a time.
When we face that unexpected cross and choose to help someone carry it, we might never know the implications of doing so. In our reading from Mark, we read that Simon is the father of Alexander and Rufus. The name Rufus comes up again in the letter to the Romans, when the author writes in closing: “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord.” It’s not too far a reach to conclude that this Rufus is the son of Simon. Could it be that Simon’s experience greatly changed his life and his sons? When we choose to help another, we never know who is watching and who is changed as a result.
There are times in our lives when we need to be like Simon and help someone else carry their own cross, but there are also times when we need to be like Jesus and allow others to help us carry ours.
If we think back for a moment to the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus went into the Garden to pray and wrestle with all that was to come, he didn’t go alone. Jesus took with him his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. It was the same on Good Friday. After Jesus experienced the pain of being tortured and mocked, he was given his cross to carry, but he was not to bear it alone. While we are called to help one another, we are also called to be open with the crosses we carry and accept support. Jesus did. Jesus was overwhelmed, physically, emotionally, and I’m sure spiritually. There was no going to Golgotha alone. After Jesus went through a very traumatic and painful experience at the hands of Roman soldiers, he was now tasked with carrying his own means of execution, a large beam of the cross. History would tell us that Jesus would carry the horizontal beam, while the vertical beam would be awaiting him at the top of the place called Golgotha, where criminals would be executed.
Jesus couldn’t bear his cross alone. He even told his disciples, his followers, in Matthew 16, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We all have a cross of suffering and pain to bear. Jesus needed Simon to help carry the cross. It is never God’s plan or intention for us to carry the burdens, pain, and crosses of our lives alone. We were meant to carry the cross for one another.
This means that at times, while we’re busy helping others with their crosses, we might need to ask for help too. Sometimes it’s harder asking for help. I realize that Jesus didn’t seek the help in the reading from the Gospel, it was the Roman soldiers who forced Simon into labor, but Jesus was not capable of continuing down the road to Golgotha. He needed help. It’s alright for us to ask for help in our time of need. Even if it means we become vulnerable, opened to ridicule or judgement, at times, for our own good, we need to open ourselves and ask for help. We might think we can go it alone, but we can’t. We need each other. We need the love and support of others, our church community, and God. To find hope, we need one another.
As we were studying this passage that included the heaviness of Jesus being beaten, tortured, and mocked during our Monday Morning Bible Study this past week, someone asked what we were all thinking, “Where’s the good news in this?” Or put another way “What makes Good Friday good?”
In Jesus’ life, suffering, crucifixion, and death, we find salvation from our sin. In this painful time, as Rev. Adam Hamilton reminds us in our study book, “God was also fully identifying with us and was able to experience what we go through as human beings.” God knows what it means to feel small, to be attacked mentally and emotionally, and to be physically abused. God knows what it means to experience the fullness of human pain and suffering.
Jesus’ passion, his suffering, his crucifixion, and his death, point to the great love that God for has us. Georgia Harkness, the great Methodist theologian wrote, “The cross was God’s way of uniting suffering with love.” Just as Jesus was fully human, Jesus was fully God. Therefore God knows the fullness of human pain and brokenness. He experienced all that we do on earth. The suffering, pain, and burdens we carry with us are never beyond our God. That’s good news. We do not suffer alone. Neither did Jesus.
Whatever cross we carry today, whether it be painful, scary, or beyond difficult, know that Jesus walks the way to Resurrection with you. Whatever burdens we have today, know that Jesus experienced our pain. Whatever fear, concerns, or challenges we face, know that Jesus has faced them too. Jesus stood in that place of suffering, moving forward in faith, finding hope in what was to come on Sunday.
Pope Francis in a recent message said, “Know in your heart that God is by your side. I would like to say forcefully: always know in your heart that God is by your side; he never abandons you! Let us never lose hope! Let us never allow it to die in our hearts!”
Simon was called to share the weight of the cross, and so are we. We aren’t called to remove the cross from each other’s lives, but to support the weight of the cross as we continue the journey together. We aren’t called to carry our cross alone; at times we will need the assistance of others to move forward. How can we possibly move forward, closer to Holy Week, closer to Good Friday, closer to death with hope? How can we move forward with hope? All we have to do is look at the cross and know that we’re not alone. Amen.
- The sermon from Rev. Peter Storey is from the book Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church”. The sermon was preached on Sunday, September 18th, 1988 with the title When the Cross Lays Hold on You.