“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then “‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.” (Luke 23:26-34)
I grew up in Roman Catholicism. I only became a Lutheran at the end of high school—a classic rebellious teen, I suppose. I went to a Roman Catholic grade school and middle school, which I still remember with great fondness: St. Robert Bellarmine, named after a theologian who wrote against the Lutherans.
I was an altar boy. It was a pretty sweet gig. When there were services or funerals during the school day, we’d get out of class to serve, and we’d sometimes get money for doing the funerals. Talk about a win-win for a grade school kid—get out of class and get paid. I was living large. I do remember, though, one particular type of service that was always different. That happened during Lent. It was for the Stations of the Cross.
In the parish in which I grew up, the Stations of the Cross were along the east and west walls of the church. I knew the ones in the back pretty well. Roman Catholics and Lutherans aren’t so different, after all, when it comes to which pews are the most popular. There are fourteen stations, eight of them from the Gospel accounts, and at least three of them show up in this text.
As old as I get, I’ll never forget those services. There wasn’t any fancy music. In fact, they were very barebones in comparison with most services. It’s not that they were particularly extraordinary. It’s that they were just out of the ordinary enough. I was familiar with the stories. I saw the stations whenever I went to Mass, which was often multiple times a week. But moving from one to another, going through all of them in these services, was striking.
One of the stations from our text always hit me as particularly interesting. It was the Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene is seized and forced to help Jesus carry his cross. I remember wondering about Simon. All we are told in this text is where he was from. I remember wondering how his day had been going before this, if he had any clue what was happening, if he’d ever heard of Jesus before. I remember wondering what he did for a living, what he did after carrying the cross. Was he a mess of dirt and blood and spit and sweat at the end? What was he was thinking during the whole thing and after? How did it affect the rest of his life?
It’s hard to imagine Good Friday. We know about it. We commemorate it. But it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to be there. Not just what it might be like to be Jesus, but to be anyone else. It was a day of extremes, of crowds and abandonment, love and hate, sympathy and anger, tender mercy and heartless cruelty. There is a King, but He’s crowned with thorns. God is there, but as a homicide victim. Simon carries the cross past mockers, wailing women, Roman occupiers, confused foreigners, and the few disciples who remained. He bears not only the cross, but the jeers, the sorrow, the pain, the dirt, and blood. Just think how all this must have struck him.
Imagine being Simon. What must have gone through his head when they seized him? He surely was embarrassed, frightened of being associated with whatever this Man had done to be condemned to such suffering, to such a death. He surely was confused. With so many people there, why him? Why was he chosen for this task? He was just passing through. He hadn’t done anything wrong. I’m guessing he’d even kept his eyes down, like we’ve all done when a teacher asked a question we wanted nothing to do with or an administrator mentioned some task we had no desire to tackle.
There was even more in play, though. We find out more about Simon from another of the Gospels. Of all places, we find out from Mark, which is odd, because Mark is usually much shorter on details.
Simon pops up in Mark 15. There, too, he only gets one verse. That verse tells us a little more than Luke’s though. Mark writes, “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” (21). Both Luke and Mark give his name and his place of origin. Both say he was coming from the country. Both seem to emphasize that Simon was in no way connected to the events of that day before this. In fact, Mark says he was passing by. He wasn’t even hanging around as a spectator. But Mark adds something else. He says Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus.
Were Alexander and Rufus with Simon? We’re not told, but plenty of church art has them there, whether because they were or because it makes great imagery. What we do know is that Mark, who loved to keep things short and to the point, felt it necessary to mention them. Why? Because they became Christians, it seems. In fact, Rufus pops up in a few places in the Bible and church history. Whether they saw and heard everything that day or only heard about it later, what happened to their father must have been quite a sermon.
We aren’t told how Good Friday changed Simon. Did he become a Christian? It seems likely, but we can’t say for sure. We can almost certainly say Alexander and Rufus did, however. What Simon saw, and what Jesus did, some with his help, changed them. And it changes us.
How have you been pressed into service? How has the cross been placed on you? I don’t know, but you do. Know that God can use it, and He will, for you, but maybe also for others. You might not even know the sermon you’re preaching, but it might well be powerful. Simon had Alexander and Rufus. Whether they saw what transpired or only heard about it from him afterward, he gave them a sermon. May God makes us sermons, too, and may we never tire of hearing His sermons through others.
Simon was heading in from the country, passing by, on his way somewhere else, anywhere but there. Nevertheless, God changed his directions. His Google Maps glitched, and the rest is history.
In German the Stations of the Cross are the Kreuzweg. I won’t put the German students in the crowd on the spot, but it’s a neat word. It literally is “the cross way.” God put Simon on the cross way. With Simon, with Alexander and Rufus, may God put us on the cross way, too, because that’s where Jesus is, and meeting Jesus on the Kreuzweg, that’ll change you, and it might even change those you know and love as well.
God grant us the Kreuzweg, because, hard as it may be at times, we know where it ends, which is where it began in our baptism. It ends with forgiveness, as a dying God prays, “Father, forgiven them,” and He does, and to prove it, He rises again in three days.
What grace is this? It’s grace from Christ, who often seizes us when we least expect it, even through the hands of His enemies. What grace is this? It’s the grace that took hold of Alexander and Rufus, even as the Romans took hold of their father, to make him carry a condemned man’s cross. It must have seemed the worst day in his life in the moment. Without him realizing, though, God was making him a sermon his boys would never forget Thank God for such sermons. God grant that we may hear them and, should he call us, that we may be them, too.
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