WERE YOU THERE? Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross
Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone? Click here for audio
Mark 15:16-21, Luke 23:32-43
Pastor Donna Buell
In our Lenten Sermon series we have been exploring the theme “Were You There? Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross.” We have been examining the stories of people who were there during those final days of Jesus’ life. We have been encouraged to identify with them, to put ourselves in their place, to imagine how we might have felt, and what we might have said or done had we been there. The goal has been to draw us in to the story, so that we may see ourselves not as mere spectators or observers of these events, but as participants in them, and so that we may discover insights into what it means to be followers of the one who died on that cross.
Today we have heard about two individuals who were indeed there when they crucified our Lord; two men who found it impossible to remain detached observers. The first is Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried Jesus’ cross for him. The second is one of the men crucified beside Jesus, the one who said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” We know very little about these men. They appear in just a verse or two of scripture. And yet they each play a role in the things that took place on that Friday we call “good.”
Simon of Cyrene
Let’s focus first on Simon. Though John explicitly records that Jesus carried his own cross, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that a man named Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry it for him. Cyrene was a city in North Africa which had quite a large Jewish population. And so, though we cannot say for sure, it is widely assumed that Simon was a faithful Jew who had come to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover. We don’t know if he was there by himself or if he was there with family or others from his community. We don’t know if he was aware of Jesus and his reputation, or if he had seen or heard him at some point during that week. But we do know that he was nearby when the Roman guards led their three prisoners through the streets, from the courtyard of the palace to the place of crucifixion. We can imagine the scene, a street crowded with people, who are ordered to make way. The people pull back against the walls of the narrow streets to allow this group to pass, wondering who these men are, and what they have done to deserve crucifixion. Perhaps some of the people recognize Jesus, who is clearly laboring under the weight of the cross, and word begins to spread. As the procession passes Simon, one of the guards pulls him out of the crowd and compels him to carry the cross piece for Jesus.
Now, there are two important things to note here. One is that the Roman soldier was probably not acting out of compassion for Jesus, wanting to relieve him of his burden. Rather, it was this man’s responsibility to get his prisoners to the crucifixion site alive. They had perhaps gone too far in their beating of Jesus and he was in a weakened state. The guard merely wanted to assure that Jesus was fully alive when he was nailed to that cross, so he grabbed an able-bodied man from the side of the road and compelled him – forced him – to carry the cross for Jesus. The other thing to note is that Simon didn’t volunteer for the job. This was not an act of faithful discipleship or devotion to Jesus on his part. He was a bystander. He was compelled, probably under the threat of the guard’s sword. Simon did not choose to take up the cross of Christ. That choice was made for him.
It happens sometimes in life. We are going along our merry way, just living our lives, when something happens that draws us into events that had nothing to do with us; taking us out of the realm of bystander and forcing us to become participants.
I’ve found myself recalling an incident that occurred a number of years ago when we were living in Redwood Falls. It was a Saturday afternoon. Marty, Nate and I had been in Marshall that day, probably for a basketball tournament. As we were heading home I remember pulling up at a stop light behind a man and woman on a motorcycle. As we continued through the intersection the motorcycle pulled a quarter mile or so ahead of us. Just outside of town, as we came around a curve to the left, I saw something happening in front of me. It took just a moment to realize that this motorcycle had not made the curve and was tumbling end over end in the ditch. I pulled off to the side of the road and Marty got out and went down into the ditch and tried to keep the people still so that they wouldn’t do further injury to themselves, while I stayed on the roadside with Nate and flagged down a car and asked them to find a phone to call 911 (this was before the day when everyone had cell phones). Soon the state police and paramedics arrived and attended to the people, took our statements, and began to clean up the roadside, and we continued on our way home.
I found myself thinking a lot about those people in the days that followed. She appeared to be quite badly injured and I wondered if she had even survived. I went to the library later that week to look through the Marshall paper to see if there was an accident report, and I found the names of the people and the town where they lived, and discovered that the man had been taken to the hospital in Marshall where he was treated and released, and the woman had been airlifted to Sioux Falls in critical condition. I didn’t know these people, I never spoke with them, I never learned what became of them, but I was no longer just a bystander. I had been drawn into the events of their lives.
Was it like that for Simon? I imagine it was. I imagine that once the cross was lifted from his shoulders Simon remained there, near the foot of the cross, unable to tear himself away – having to see what would happen to this man whose cross he had carried.
Perhaps Simon felt compelled to learn more about this man Jesus. Perhaps he spoke to the cluster of women at the foot of the cross who clearly knew and loved him. Perhaps he was appalled by the taunting behavior of the soldiers and the religious leaders who were there. Perhaps he felt tainted by having played even an unwilling role in what was being done to this man. Perhaps his sleep was disturbed that night by thoughts of what he had witnessed. Perhaps he heard the rumors days later about the empty tomb or came into contact in the years that followed with those who called themselves Christians. In fact, that’s why I love that detail in Mark’s Gospel where Simon is described as the father of Alexander and Rufus. How would their names have been included in the Gospel if they had not been known by the community to whom Mark was writing? Perhaps they were among the Christians of that community, having been baptized into the faith because of the experience that had forever marked their father on that fateful day. Perhaps.
Simon had been a bystander, a spectator, just one of the crowd lining the streets of Jerusalem that day, until the hand of the Roman soldier grabbed hold of him. And there are times in life when a hand grabs hold of us; when we are grabbed from our safe place on the sidelines and compelled by circumstances beyond our control to enter into a whole new experience in life. Perhaps we or someone we love is diagnosed with a serious illness, or is the victim of a violent crime or an act of injustice, or is a casualty of war. Suddenly we are thrust into a world we never knew, and never expected to be a part of. And we cannot help but be changed by that experience. We learn more than we ever thought we’d know about treatments and procedures. We spend more time than we ever thought we’d spend in hospitals with doctors and therapists. We come in contact with other people and their loved ones who are going through their own traumas. And we begin to see our lives from a whole new perspective. We didn’t choose this. And at times like this we are tempted to ask “Why me?” or “Why us?” But at such a time the only really useful question is “What now?” What will we do now as a result of this experience? What will we make of it? How will we find meaning and purpose in the midst of this? Who will we become as a result of this experience?
I think of Patty Wetterling. In the midst of her grief and loss, she and her family were thrust into a world they never would have chosen to be part of, and over time Patty became a powerful advocate for missing children and their families. And that experience even led her to run for public office, something she probably never would have considered before Jacob was abducted. I think of Moses who witnessed an Egyptian guard beating a Hebrew slave and suddenly found himself unable to ignore the brutality of his adopted culture, and who was drawn into that conflict in a way that changed his life forever. I think of Rosa Parks who sat down at the front of the bus one afternoon and became a very public symbol in her peoples’ fight against discrimination. I think of families, including my own, who learn that a family member is gay or lesbian, and suddenly, something that used to be an issue that was out there somewhere becomes personal because it involves someone they know and love and respect. I think of a young person who goes on a mission trip whose eyes are opened to discrimination and poverty in a way they never have been before. Or of one who travels to another part of the world and discovers people just like themselves, people who love their country and their culture and who simply desire peace and wholeness for their families. Those kinds of experiences can be life transforming. And sometimes that transformation leads to a deeper sense of compassion and empathy for others. Author Eric Kolbell writes about this:
The empathy Simon felt for Jesus resulted from an experience that was not of his own choosing; the cross was foisted on him. But empathy needn’t always be acquired this way. We can look for opportunities to help others bear their crosses, because no one should have to suffer in isolation. The pain I feel is no different from yours, no different from my closest friend’s or my fiercest enemy’s, and while to experience pain is necessary, to learn from it is priceless.
If I lose my job or my health, if I am bruised by the thoughtlessness of people I don’t know or by the insensitivities of those I do, I am not the first, nor will I be the last, to suffer thus. And it does my soul good to be reminded of this, because it defines suffering as a part of the human condition and beckons me to look with softer eyes on those around me whose lives I might otherwise either not even consider, or consider with little patience for their wounds and woes. Because in the end, we are all connected-like it or not-by the struggles that beset us and the joys that enchant us, and by our moral capacity to see to it that life need not be either celebrated or endured alone. This way, when we bear the cross—our own or another’s, under duress or of our own volition—we are really bearing it for all the world…
I like to believe that Simon…recognized that in the end none of us is a spectator, really. We all participate in this terrible, hopeful, dreadful, glorious experience that is life. How wonderful it would be if only we would all know this—not with the reserve of the one who stands on the sidelines, but with the passion of the ones who have walked the dusty streets bearing that portion of the world’s pain that has been entrusted to their care.
(Kolbel, Were You There? WJK Books, pg. 85-6)
What is that part of the world’s pain that has been entrusted to my care – to your care – to our care – because of experiences in life that have opened our eyes and made us more empathetic? And how can we, like Simon, help to carry that part of the load?
The Thief of the Cross
After Simon was relieved of his burden, Jesus’ ordeal continued. He was nailed to that cross, and crucified there on that hillside, between two thieves. Actually the Greek word is lestes’ which can be translated as bandits or revolutionaries. You see Israel was an occupied territory, and there were many who wanted to see the Romans gone so that the kingdom of Israel could be restored. As is usually the case in such circumstances, there were some extremists who would stop at nothing in an effort to undermine and overthrow the Romans. These days we would call them “freedom fighters” or “insurrectionists” or even “terrorists” depending upon our point of view. And at that time, crucifixion was the form of capital punishment that the Romans used for people accused of subverting Roman law and order, and thereby disturbing the Pax Romana. These were the men with whom Jesus was crucified. And Jesus was also perceived as a threat to the peace of Rome, because some were saying that he was the promised one who would restore the kingdom of Israel. And so they crucified Jesus there, between these two men. And Jesus said “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And indeed, they did not…not fully.
Luke tells us that there were bystanders there, people who stood by and watched what was happening. He also tells us that there were religious leaders there who scoffed at Jesus saying: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” And we are told that the soldiers who were there continued to mock him as well, saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
And with all of this going on beneath their feet, Luke records an exchange between the three men hanging from those crosses. One of the men joined right in with the leaders and soldiers. Luke says “he kept deriding him, saying ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” This man, filled with anger and hatred, lashed out at Jesus, heaping more abuse upon him. But the other man rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” In that sea of condemnation and cruelty, this man showed compassion for Jesus. He came to Jesus’ defense; he acknowledged his humanity, his suffering, the ridicule and the punishment he was unjustly receiving. He did not wallow in self pity or strike out in anger, proclaim his innocence or ask to be rescued from his fate. Each of these men, including Jesus, was dying on a cross because of the complex interplay between forces beyond their control and choices they each had consciously made. And like Jesus, this man understood that. So he didn’t ask to be rescued from death, he humbly asked to be remembered beyond death: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In a sense I think that’s all any of us truly want, not only at the end of life: to come into God’s presence and to discover that God remembers us, that God knows who we truly are – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and that still God opens the door to welcome us in. We want to experience the assurance of God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, God’s love, God’s grace. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded to this man being crucified beside him; this man who had shown him compassion and treated him with dignity, saying, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
It comforts me to know that in those final moments of his life someone treated Jesus with dignity. Someone looked to him humbly for salvation. Someone was there beside him, as a companion, during those final moments of his earthly life. And that, too, is something we can do in this life. When we find ourselves in a difficult time we have a choice as to how we will respond. We can respond in fear and anger, seeking someone to blame, and lashing out at those around us, or we can reach out to those around us, recognizing our common struggles, our common fears, our common needs; treating one another with dignity and showing one another a bit of compassion.
When we respond in the first way, we leave one another to bear our suffering alone and often we add to that suffering. But when we respond in the second way, we offer one another the assurance that we are not alone, and in so doing we are a tangible reminder of the presence of God who is with us always. We may not change the course of events. We won’t erase the struggles we are enduring or fix one another’s problems, but in that moment, when surrender meets assurance, we will offer one another a glimpse of paradise; a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom where all is love and mercy and grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Will you pray with me?
In you, gracious God,
the widowed find a carer,
the orphaned find a parent,
the fearful find a friend.
the wounded find a healer,
the penitent find a pardoner,
the burdened find a counselor.
the miserly find a beggar,
the despondent find a laughter-maker,
the legalists find a rule-breaker.
In you, Jesus Christ,
we meet our Maker,
and our match.
And if some need to say, ‘Help me’
and if some need to say, ‘Save me’
and if some need to say, ‘Hold me’
and if some need to say, ‘Forgive me’
then let these be said now
in whose heart is both welcome and warning,
say to us,
do to us,
reveal within us
the things that will make us whole.
And we will wait;
and we will praise you.
[Jesus, remember us when we come into your kingdom.]
From “A Wee Worship Book” Fourth Edition,
@Wild Goose Resource Group, GIA Publications, Inc. Chicago, 1999.