Palm Sunday, Year B
25 March, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Mark 11:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-39
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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There’s not a lot of need to do an in-depth exposition of the gospel we just read, since it’s pretty much a straightforward historical account of Jesus’ trial and execution. And we’re pretty familiar with all the characters in the story, like Pilate the Roman judge, Barabbas the insurgent, and the two thieves who were crucified beside Jesus. And lots of writers and preachers over the centuries have given us lots of valuable stuff to think about with regard to those people. Every character mentioned is significant. But there’s one person involved whom we usually tend to give the least attention– Simon of Cyrene.
The way things worked in those days in places under Roman occupation was that the sentence was carried out as soon as the judge pronounced it. Some background here: according to St John’s gospel, Pilate the governor was extremely reluctant to have Jesus executed. So in an effort to appease the religious leaders, who were stirring up the crowd, he sent Jesus to be flogged instead. This wasn’t done with an ordinary whip, which the usual depictions of it suggest. It was a many-stranded whip with bits of sharp metal and rock tied to the ends of each strand, which would have torn deep into his flesh and maybe even into some of his organs. So even if he hadn’t been crucified, he probably would have died anyway. Suffice to say that Jesus’ body was pretty much mutilated by the time they finished, which meant that he was barely able to stand before Pilate when his trial resumed, and which explains why he died in such a relatively short time on the cross. It typically took several days, even up to a week, for someone to die on a cross, since they weren’t usually flogged the way Jesus was. Straightaway after sentencing, the condemned were forced to take up the crosses they were to die on, and carry them to the place of execution. They just had to carry the crossbeam, also contrary to the usual depictions, since the post was already in place, but that would not have been a light piece of wood– estimates run between sixty and eighty pounds. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how horribly difficult it must have been for Jesus to be forced to carry that beam in his condition. That’s clearly implied by the fact that the soldiers grabbed somebody out of the crowd to carry it.
Mark says, “they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” That’s the only mention of this man in the gospels, which is why we tend not to pay much attention to him. Mark tells us more about him than the other gospels. Matthew and Luke just give his name and where he came from. Cyrene was a Greek city on the African coast in what is now Lybia (between Benghazi and Tobruk, if those names mean anything to you), and it had a sizeable Jewish population, a lot of whom would have made the thousand-mile trip to Jerusalem for the high holy days, including Simon. Mark identifies Simon’s sons as well, which seems like an odd thing to do. Usually in the Bible people are identified either by who their fathers were or where they came from, or both, but not by who their sons are. School kids do that– they identify adults as So-and-so’s mom or dad– but not grownups.
When I lived in my hometown, I was known as Eva Wetmore’s son or Jack McIntosh’s grandson. Then when I got married, I was known around the diocese as the guy that married Canon Gordon Smith’s daughter. For some biblical examples, when Jesus renamed his chief disciple Peter, he began by addressing him as Simon bar Jona (Simon son of John); two other disciples, James and John are identified as the sons of Zebedee; and before his conversion St Paul was known as Saul of Tarsus, his hometown. But to identify a person by who his sons were is unusual, since the sons hadn’t yet done anything to make a name for themselves. So something significant is going on here, and a little bit of detective work turns up the most likely answer.
Alexander is a Greek name, and Rufus is a Roman name, which reflect the multiculturalism of Cyrene in those days, similar to how names like Dmitri Jones or Vladimir Shanks might sound to us (to single out my fellow readers of the gospel today). Well, the name Rufus appears once again in the New Testament, at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans where he sends greetings to particular people, lots of whom have Greek or Roman names. He says, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother– a mother to me also” (16:13). Tradition has it that this is Rufus of Cyrene, the son of Simon, that Simon converted and became a prominent Christian leader, and eventually moved his family to Rome, where Rufus also became a leader of the church. That seems to be the only plausible reason why Mark would identify the father by who his sons were. So there’s the background as to who Simon was.
What he did, or was forced to do, for Jesus on that first Good Friday, so often escapes our notice, but it’s pretty significant. Centuries later the Church gave Simon the title of patron saint of passersby, because that’s how Mark first describes him in the gospel– “they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene…to carry his cross.” He’s the patron of all those who happen to be in the right place at the right time, or as he probably thought when the soldiers grabbed him, the wrong place at the wrong time. But it worked out well for him and for the Church, because he’s been the helper ever since of all those people who have sought out his prayerful assistance when they’ve found themselves thrust into a particular situation like the scene of an accident, or helping people do what they couldn’t do on their own, or standing up for the helpless. Yesterday’s March for Our Lives is a good example of that.
Sometime before Jesus suffered and died, he taught his disciples, and prospective disciples, saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). No matter how many times we’ve heard that, I don’t think any of us can have a full appreciation of what he meant, although most of us have some idea. But those who first heard him say it knew exactly what it meant, which is that those who were compelled to carry their own crosses were those whom the ruling authorities had condemned to death, and not just for any crime, but for treason, for speaking or acting against the political or social order of the empire. Crucifixion was the most agonizing and inhuman form of execution the Roman’s could come up it, and was reserved to non-citizens only, occupied nations and the enemies of Rome, all of whom were considered lesser beings.
Dehumanizing one’s enemy in any way, whether by a particular form of execution, or any form of torture, is a very anti-Jesus thing to do, because as Jesus himself teaches, it’s a complete rejection of the love of God. St John teaches that those who profess to love God, yet hate their neighbors are liars, because it’s just not possible to truly love God while harboring hatred in your heart for another human (1Jn 4:20). So to willingly inflict violence on another person, or to let it happen when you can do something to stop it, is to be guilty of not loving God. But enough about that.
The charge against Jesus amounted to high treason. In admitting to Pilate, however vaguely, that he’s a king he set himself against Caesar, the Roman emperor. That gave Pilate no choice but to order his crucifixion. So what Jesus means by a willingness to take up our own crosses in order be his followers is that our devotion and loyalty to him has got to trump every other loyalty. Our citizenship in his kingdom takes priority over every other kind of citizenship or membership. That means that when the laws or values or ideals of a nation, or a party, or any other group we belong to come into conflict with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then like Pilate, we have to take our stand with our true king– for him it was Caesar; for us it’s Jesus– even if it could mean mistreatment, or imprisonment, or death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was hanged by the Nazis for plotting against Hitler, famously said,
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man [=the old unconverted life] which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. (The Cost of Discipleship, 99)
Our first self-offering to death, by the way, is when we’re baptized. St Paul teaches that in going down into the water we die with Christ: “Do you not know,” he says, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” If we want to follow Jesus, we all have to go there, but we don’t stay there. From there he raises us up, Paul says, as he was raised “by the glory of the Father, that we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4).
Now, Simon didn’t willingly take up Jesus’ cross and carry it for him. He was just a passerby, who had that duty thrust upon him. He was just one of those thousands of Jewish pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. But in doing that for Jesus, if the tradition of the Church is to be believed, Simon did indeed take up his own cross at some point, when he decided to become a follower of Jesus and to be baptized. It could well have been that he stayed in the city long enough to have heard about Jesus’ resurrection before heading home. Lots of Jews did, since God in his providence capitalized on the timing of events so that all those pilgrims could carry that astonishing news home with them to the far reaches of the empire.
What the inclusion of Simon in this gospel tells us is that we ought to think more seriously about all those followers of Jesus who embody the witness of Simon. Bishop Will Willimon says that “In any faithful congregation, there are those little people who in quiet, unspectacular ways demonstrate some rather spectacular faithfulness” (Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year B Part 1, 212). A parishioner said to me one time, “I’m just an insignificant member of the church, so you probably don’t care what I have to say.” First of all, I marvelled at that person’s extreme humility, then replied that there are no insignificant members of the Church. The fact is that every such faithful follower of Jesus is exactly where they need to be, led there to be a witness and a minister to all the other members. And quite often– probably most often– they’re completely unaware of the impact that their faithful service has in the life of another person, in the life of the Church, and in building up the kingdom of God.
Simon didn’t understand at the time that what he was really drafted into was a part in the glorification of the Son of God. “Now is the time,” we heard Jesus say in last week’s gospel, “for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12:23). It was a gruesome burden at that moment, but it led to a glorious outcome. “Thus it begins,” Bonhoeffer says, “the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ,” i.e. the cross is at the center of our fellowship with Christ. For most of us here, taking up our own crosses isn’t going to lead to a horrible death, but it will require us to give every other loyalty a lower place. “When Christ calls a man,” Bonhoeffer says, “he bids him come and die.” What that death might look like for each person who answers the call of Christ may be very different from everyone else’s. But, Bonhoeffer says, “it is the same death every time– death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man [=the old life] when he is called.”
In the same vein, Fr Austin Farrer says that “Crosses are never what we ordered, but always either greater than we ordered, smaller than we ordered, or other than we ordered– and it does not matter much; for God measures the love with which they are carried, and not the poundage of each particular weight” (Said or Sung, 25). The weight of our crosses and our ability to carry them don’t matter so much as the willingness to carry them– that’s genuine discipleship, and that’s our part in the glorification of Christ. In the Name of … a.m.d.g.
Ian C. Wetmore+