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Sermons from Moorpark Presbyterian Church

Simon of Cyrene

by Pastor Dave Wilkinson

Mark 15:16-24

March 22, 2009

Audio version:Click here to hear this sermon

       It was the Saturday night, of Thanksgiving weekend.  Boston’s Cocoanut Grove was packed. The overflow from the dining room surged down a narrow stairway to the Melody Lounge. This dimly lit basement bar offered a South Seas ambiance, with artificial palm trees, driftwood, rattan and a ceiling draped in blue satin. The only illumination came from behind the bar, supplemented by low-wattage bulbs hidden in the palms. Even this was too bright for one young man. He reached up and unscrewed a bulb in order to kiss his date in privacy.  Like many others there, he was in uniform. It was 1942.  The U.S. had been fighting WWII for nearly a year.

       Dr. Vincent Senna was having dinner that night in the Grove.  He was paged because one of his patients had gone into labor. Grumbling and feeling a bit resentful, Dr. Senna rushed to the hospital in time to deliver the baby -- and save his own life.  Because after he left, a bus boy lit a match in order to see to replace the loosened bulb.  The Cocoanut Grove burst into flames and over 490 people died.

       The interruption that ruined Dr. Senna's evening saved his life! This is also the story of Simon of Cyrene – an interruption that gives life. 

       Simon has come to Jerusalem for Passover from Cyrene in North Africa.  Many assume he is a Jew. There were many Jews in Cyrene.  But it is at least equally possible that Simon is a convert to Judaism and not Jewish by blood.  Or he may be a God-fearer – a Gentile who worships the God of Israel but doesn’t keep the whole law including circumcision.  We meet a number of these God-fearers in the Book of Acts.  I believe the evidence suggest that Simon is not Jewish by blood but is either a convert to Judaism or a God-fearer.  I’ll tell you why later. Wait for it.

       Simon has come to Jerusalem for Passover. The city is jammed so he stays outside the walls.  He comes to the gates on Friday – the day the Passover lambs are sacrificed. His mind is filled with thoughts of God and the great worship he will soon be part of.  But suddenly a detail of Roman soldiers and a crowd of people spill out of the gate.  A man is in the middle, struggling forward under the weight of a heavy beam.  This is a crucifixion – an execution.

        Simon gives a shudder at the unexpected spectacle. Suddenly the prisoner drops the cross on which he will be crucified. Merciless flogging has caused him to lose a great 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 someone else to do so. Simon is the closest able-bodied man. He simply finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A heavy hand slaps Simon’s shoulder, and a rough voice commands, "Shoulder that cross!"  Simon is unwilling. Matthew and Mark both say that he has to be "compelled." He struggles. He protests.  But it is useless.  Rome is Rome.  

       Simon is suddenly mixed up in the public execution of a man who must be some notorious murderer! The Romans compel Simon to walk with the criminal himself in the middle of this mob — and carry the cross!   He turns sickly at the sight of the heavy beam and the blood-drops on the roadway!   Taking the cross, Simon is covered by Jesus' blood.  He struggles and sweats, carrying the heavy cross down rough city streets, a hostile crowd on both sides of him. Some of the bystanders laugh. A few spit. Simon can only spend one Passover in Jerusalem, and it's turning out like this! What a nightmare!

              The blood has ruined Simon’s whole trip.  The blood makes Simon ceremonially unclean.  He is no longer able to participate in the Passover or Temple worship.

       Have you ever been disappointed like this?  Have you ever planned for something and saved and anticipated something only to have it snatched away.  Last January we celebrated the marriage of my son Kevin and his wife Stephanie.  After a year of planning we didn’t want anyone to get sick.  We didn’t want any hurricanes.  We didn’t want anything to get in the way.

       It’s the same for Simon.  His plans have been derailed by a chance encounter.  If he’d entered the city by another gate or arrived five minutes later it wouldn’t have happened.  But it has happened.  Everyone can see.  But there is no alternative. Simon carries the prisoner's cross.

       Why do Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention this incident?  Well Simon bent under the weight of the cross and following in Christ's footsteps is a dramatic image of what is required to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus made it clear to His disciples that he would die at the hands of the Jewish leaders and the Romans.  Then He told them.  'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross follow me."   

       Clarence Jordan, author of the "Cotton Patch" New Testament translation, was getting a red-carpet tour of another minister's church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and luxurious decorations.  As they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. "That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars," the minister said with a satisfied smile. "You got cheated," Jordan said. "Times were when Christians could get them for free."

       That is true.  We must carry our cross.  We’ll talk more about what that means in our small groups.  But at this point Simon hasn’t volunteered. He’s been coerced. 

       On the way to Golgotha, Simon may have hated the Romans, and hated this criminal whose cross he is forced to carry.  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. Then they place the bottom of the cross in a deep hole, push the top of it skyward, and sit down to watch their prisoner die.

       What happens to Simon? Does he stay and watch the slow death, or does he leave?  Does he throw the cross down on the ground and get away as fast as he can?  And once he gets away, does he enter in to the standard coping mechanisms of anger, apathy, acceptance or anesthesia? Does he go get drunk?  Does he re-channel his frustration and take it out on the wife and kids?  Does he get bitter at God – “how could a loving God allow this to happen?”   

       Maybe.  But there is evidence in scripture that suggests that Simon chooses another, much more life-affirming route. 

       All three Gospel accounts give the impression that Simon was both unknown and coerced into carrying the crossbeam.  Yet Mark's Gospel also lists the name of Simon's sons — "Alexander and Rufus." Mark's Gospel was written to the church in Rome.  There is no reason for Mark to name the sons if the believers in Rome don’t know them.  Then in Romans 16:13 Paul writes, "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too."  Something clearly happens to Simon that leads him and his family to faith.  Something happens to his sons that make them leaders in the church in Rome.  Something happens to his wife that makes her like a mother to Paul. 

       Good Friday isn’t the end for Simon and Jesus. Simon stays on in Jerusalem.  He learns a great deal about this remarkable young prophet of Galilee, this Jesus of Nazareth.  The more he hears the more he wants to hear. Despite the fact that Jesus was crucified as an abhorred criminal, the common people seem to think there was nobody like Him. Again and again Simon hears of the remarkable purity of His character, of His friendliness with tax-gatherers and those who had gone wrong, and of His wonderful sympathy with all those in trouble. Many of His amazing miracles are related, and some of His remarkable parables are recounted.

       Then there are those strange rumors about the disappearance of the body from the tomb even though the tomb was sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers.  There is something strange about it all. The chief priests seem uneasy; and the soldiers themselves, so Simon hears, seem pretty vague.  The chief priests seem bent on a hush-hush policy.  But rumors abound. 

       Seven weeks pass.  Once again Simon comes in through the city gates about 8 o'clock in the morning, at the time of the morning sacrifice and makes for the Temple.  But he finds the way blocked by a crowd of curiously excited people.  People are standing on tiptoe and craning their necks to see some person or persons who must surely be doing something extraordinary.

       It is Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has come upon Jesus’ disciples.  Simon hears Peter preach about Jesus who was crucified – and who God raised from the dead.  Now Luke makes a point of telling us that the crowd that witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – who heard the good news of the resurrection and came to faith – included at least some from the parts of Libya about Cyrene.   I think Luke tells us this on purpose.

       Simon is there and no one in the crowd listens more intently.  When then the people cry out, “What must we do?” Peter answers, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

       Simon hears the call of God on his life.  He knows that the blood that he once thought had defiled him has made him clean – a truth later expressed in Hebrews 10:19, “Therefore we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus.”  Being sprinkled with the blood of Jesus, as Simon literally was, doesn't bar us from God and worship.  It makes us fit for God and worship.   Simon believes.             

       Now look with me at Acts 13:1.  There Luke gives a list of the men of Antioch who sent Paul and Barnabas out on that epoch-making first mission to the Gentiles.  Luke says, "There were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers, Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene."  Simeon is the same word as Simon, and Niger means black.  So the verse means that two of the key, visionary leaders of the great mission church at Antioch, were Simon the Black Man and Lucius – both from Cyrene.   In other words, Simon of Cyrene.   

       Now that’s not conclusive evidence.  I know that.  I realize that I sound like a narrator of a T.V. history investigative show full of “could it bes?” and then taking those possibilities as fact.  “Could it be that the Apostle Paul had a black step mama?” 

       But the evidence is certainly strong that Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross was a black man who had come first to faith in the God of Israel and then to faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and savior of the world.  That may well be why Simon was the one the soldiers grabbed – he stood out from the crowd and he didn’t look Jewish. And yes, it could be that the Apostle Paul had a black step mama. 

       What we are looking at here is the providence of God – how something that at first looks like a terrible interruption of our plans turns out to save our lives.  Was it simply the Roman soldier who pulls Simon out of the crowd?  Or does a power greater than Rome call him? Is it an accident that he ends up in this nightmare situation?  Or is it more than an accident?

        Maybe it was because Simon was compelled to carry the cross of Jesus that the first mission to the Gentiles took place. That would mean that we are Christians partly because one day a Passover pilgrim from Cyrene, to his bitter resentment at the moment was impressed by a nameless Roman officer to carry the cross for Jesus. 

       Long centuries separate us from Simon, but we know him very well. When he came face to face with this cross not chosen, he would have said, "Why me? Why not someone else? Why was I standing in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

       After Pentecost Simon understands that the difference between Jesus and Simon is that Jesus had a choice. Rome was not more powerful than Jesus. He could have as He said, called down 10,000 angels to rescue him. But He chose to die. He chose to die because it was God's will.  Simon later knew that he was compelled to carry the cross for Jesus only because Jesus first voluntarily carried the cross for Simon.

       After Pentecost Simon understood that it wasn’t Jesus’ exhaustion or casual cruelty that caused that Roman to say, "Pick it up!"  It was God himself who had chosen to confront Simon of Cyrene.  He allowed Simon to carry the cross Jesus couldn't carry so Jesus could die the death Simon did not want to die.  By the providence of God a man was standing at the wrong place at the time. And by the providence of God he carried the cross.

       This is how it happens as we walk through life.   Suddenly we turn the corner and there Jesus is.  He says to us, "will you accept my cross?"  And when He offers us the cross, He is saying "let my death be your death.  His death becomes ours and his life becomes ours.

        Circumstances brought Simon to the foot of the cross as circumstances ultimately bring each one of us to the foot of the cross. When we ask the “why me” question the answer is always the same.  God allows things and circumstances into our lives that will bring us to the foot of the cross. 

        Those circumstances always awaken feelings us is.  Simon had plenty of feelings about what was happening to him.  But there at the foot of the cross we are faced with a choice.  We can embrace our own will.  We can hide in coping mechanisms like anger, apathy, acceptance or anesthesia.  Or we can go through the moment looking to see what God has to show us. 

       The choice is always the same. 

       Simon may have been compelled to carry that cross, but Simon himself has to decide how it will be carried.  That’s also our decision with our crosses.  And if we choose God we will see that what starts out looking like a terrible interruption is actually the door to life.