Have you ever saved up your money to make a big trip? I imagine we all have at some point. My brother and I did that for several years, leading up to our trip to Scotland in 2021. We had a blast, saw so many really amazing things, touched history in powerful ways, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Traveling can do that. We see beyond ourselves to witness something different, hopefully something amazing. We get taken to a perspective beyond our usual surroundings to see the world with fresh eyes. And when we go travel somewhere, it’s for an important reason; to explore, to get away, to be enchanted.
I remember traveling to Venezuela for a Missions class in seminary, with a pit stop in Aruba and Curaçao on the way. Both were amazing, beautiful, islands, and I found myself longing to return some day and stay for a long time. I was enchanted. At the Curaçao airport, customs was downstairs from the terminals. Walking around and exploring, I noticed that customs was completely unmanned, the lights even dark. I could have walked right through, out the doors just beyond the passport check stations, and entered Curaçao unencumbered. For a split second, I even thought about it! Then reason took back over and I walked back upstairs.
Sometimes, traveling has that kind of enchanting effect, where we’ve gone somewhere that we fall in love with and a part of us wants to stay forever. Sometimes, traveling is enchanting because we’re finally at a place we’ve dreamed of forever, a place that we’ve longed to go visit and finally the day has arrived.
Traveling is enchanting. So it was for Simon the Cyrene. Let’s hear his story from the gospel of Mark, as we explore today’s object from our common Lenten devotional: the cross.
Traveling is enchanting.
Mark identifies Simon as a Cyrene, which identifies him from a region in North Africa, in modern-day Libya. If you know your geography, you know that Libya is pretty far down the Mediterranean coast from Jerusalem, where he is in our scripture this morning. As much as travel in Ancient Rome was easier than in the rest of the world at that time, this is still a far, risky, distance to travel. In fact, it’s the equivalent of driving from here to Phoenix, Arizona.
Except, of course, Simon didn’t drive. He probably walked part, rode a mule for part, took a ship for maybe several parts of the trip. But all of that was fraught with danger. There were bandits on the roads that were ready to rob you and beat you up. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan rescues a man who’s been left on the side of the road, beaten up by robbers. Jesus uses that illustration because it was so common to find someone like this samaritan, robbed, beaten up, left on the side of the road. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, there were storms on the Mediterranean that could come out of nowhere and wreck a ship. If you remember the stories from Acts, that’s exactly what happened to Paul, and it was a common occurrence for ancient travelers.
So traveling was hard, dangerous, exhausting work. And by foot, mule, and boat, Simon has traveled from Phoenix to Macon; from Cyrene to Jerusalem.
Consider as well that this trip is probably a once in a lifetime event for Simon; one that he has saved up for years in order to make. There was a large Jewish community in ancient Cyrene. For Jews across the Roman Empire, there was no place more special than the second temple, the one rebuilt on the foundation of Solomon’s Temple, in the center of Jerusalem. And there was no time of year more special than Passover.
So Simon, a Jew and member of this community in Cyrene, having probably saved for a lifetime, embarks on this long journey to Jerusalem to visit the temple at Passover. It’s a religious pilgrimage, the trip of a lifetime! We can imagine he’s excited, he’s thrilled, he’s ecstatic, he’s enchanted as only travel can do. Think of the last time you left for a big trip, maybe the trip of a lifetime: how excited you were, how grateful you were to go, how thrilled you were at the thought of finally getting to go where you’d been dreaming of.
Add to that religious fervor. Simon is going to worship God and remember God’s salvation through the Exodus at the Temple, in the holy city of Jerusalem, at Passover! No previous Passover in Simon’s life could be so great as this one. Not only is he probably excited, but he feels the joy and peace that comes from anticipating a wonderful, holy, moment with God. This is the trip of a lifetime! Perhaps he anticipates that it will be the greatest moment of his life as he makes the long journey to Jerusalem.
Simon, as he arrives at Jerusalem, is looking forward to the hopes and dreams of all the years coming true; to experiencing this trip of a lifetime.
When he finally gets to Jerusalem, as he is coming into town, everything he has anticipated and hoped for suddenly and drastically changes. A Roman soldier taps Simon on the shoulder with a spear. That’s the universal signal that tells someone that they are being compelled by the Roman Army for a task. And when you’re tapped on the shoulder with a spear, when Rome compels you, you cannot say no. Simon must do whatever the Roman soldier tells him to do.
There’s Jesus, walking down the Via de la Rosa, carrying the crossbeam of the cross where he will hang. He’s been beaten up by soldiers, taunted, tortured, and now he’s having to carry a large, heavy, piece of wood. We don’t know if Jesus stumbles, if he’s just too exhausted to go on, or what the reason is. But when the soldier taps Simon on the shoulder with his spear, it’s to tell Simon he must carry the crossbeam for Jesus.
Simon’s trip of a lifetime, the one he’s saved for, the one he’s anticipated for so long, the one he risked the perils of travel to make, enchanting as he expected it to be, has turned into a nightmare.
Consider that Simon knows nothing of what’s happened before this moment. He knows nothing of the sham trial before Caiaphas and Pilate, he knows nothing of the crowds chanting to give them Barrabbas and crucify Jesus. He probably has never even heard of Jesus and certainly wouldn’t recognize him. Jesus has been a minor celebrity just in Galilee and Jerusalem, thousands of miles from Cyrene. Jesus has probably little to no reputation beyond Galilee at this point.
So Simon knows nothing of any of this and nothing of Jesus either. He’s a complete and total outsider, thrust into drama he did not choose.
He’s done nothing wrong, nothing to deserve this. All he did was travel to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage, the trip of a lifetime, and have the bad luck of showing up at the wrong time. Simon is simply and horrifyingly thrust into a drama he did not choose.
Perhaps, this morning, we can relate to that.
We have known drama that we did not choose but got thrust into anyway. The workplace is famous for that. Maybe we get promoted and someone else who thinks they deserved it doesn’t. Factions break out. Tensions rise. Lines are drawn. Or maybe it’s the reverse: someone else gets promoted and you think you deserved it. The result is the same. Either way, you didn’t ask for that drama. It just happened.
Or, at the workplace, a new boss comes in and changes everything. Seemingly overnight, your whole world at work changes. That happened to me in my past. I was thrust into drama I didn’t choose, which turned out to be a painful experience.
It happens in families, too. We didn’t choose for our parents to get divorced but it happened and we found ourselves caught in the middle. Or we didn’t choose for our parents to get very sick and need lots of care and attention, creating drama around who’s spending enough time with mom and dad or who’s paying for all the care and things like that, driving a wedge between siblings. There are many ways we can get caught up in family drama we did not choose.
It also happens wherever people are gathered together in community. We’ve known drama we did not choose on boards of community organizations, at church, at commission meetings, at the club, at Rotary, at the gym, and all sorts of other places. Like my old professor said, politics is just a fancy word for relationships. And relationships sometimes bring drama, including drama we did not choose but drama we’re caught up in anyway.
There are times where we can choose whether or not we want to engage in drama. Social media is a great example of that. There, we can see something that makes us mad and we can choose whether or not to engage with it. Almost always, the right answer is to not engage with it. But today, we’re focused on those moments in life where we’re like Simon the Cyrene, thrust into drama we did not choose, unable to avoid it, forced to go through it until the end.
And that’s what Mark reports Simon did. He carried the crossbeam of the cross where Jesus was crucified all the way to Golgotha. He went through the drama until the end. That was the only way through the drama he did not choose.
But what about for us? What do we do when thrust into drama we did not choose?
What do we do when our families erupt in drama and we didn’t choose it but we’re caught up in it anyway?
What do we do when our workplaces erupt in drama and we didn’t choose it but we’re caught up in it anyway?
What do we do when our civic organizations or community boards or volunteer agencies or clubs and gyms erupt in drama and we didn’t choose it but we’re caught up in it anyway?
What do we do when our society, whether here locally or across the country, erupts in drama and we didn’t choose it but we’re caught up in it anyway?
What do we do when thrust into drama we did not choose?
To get at the answer to that question, let’s fast-forward the story here in Mark about twenty or thirty years.
At that point, churches have formed in people’s houses. There’s a need for people like Mark to write a gospel so that these churches can read and learn about the teachings and story of Jesus. Paul is traveling around the Roman Empire, preaching and founding churches, writing letters to them that eventually become books like 1 Corinthians and Ephesians. Christianity isn’t called Christianity yet, but instead The Way, and it’s spreading like wildfire around the eastern side of the Roman Empire, down into Egypt and up into Greece.
The Way at this point is so small that the leaders of the movement are well known to church-goers. These leaders come and visit to encourage and instruct, traveling around from church to church, just like us Methodist preachers. They itinerate, and when they’re not traveling, they’re writing letters like Paul did.
So notice with me how Mark identifies Simon the Cyrene. Note first that we have his name and where he’s from. That’s remarkable in and of itself. Simon is an outsider, someone who has just arrived to Jerusalem for the Passover, and Mark knows his name. Clearly, Simon didn’t drop the crossbeam at Golgotha and walk away. If he had, history wouldn’t remember his name, much less where he came from. Mark names Simon because Mark knows Simon and expects that his readers know Simon, too.
Not only that, but Mark identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” That means, Mark expects that his readers will not only know of Simon, but that they’ll also be familiar with Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus. These are not random people whose names somehow got preserved. There are many characters across scripture, and especially in the New Testament, whose names we do not know. But that’s not the case here. Mark knows Simon, Alexander, and Rufus. Mark expects those names to be known by his first readers; that’s why he identifies them, because he wants his readers to know the backstory of three people they probably already know.
Which means this: Simon, Alexander, and Rufus are probably leaders of the early church.
In fact, other New Testament books possibly witness to two of these three. Paul refers to a man named Rufus in Romans 16, calling him “eminent in the Lord,” apparently a leader of the church in Rome. In Acts 13, Simeon of Niger is listed among those sent out on a church mission from Antioch. Simeon is just a different way of saying Simon and Niger, at this point in history, refers to the region around Cyrene. So it’s possible that the missionary in Acts 13 is the same Simon in Mark 15 and that Rufus in Romans 16 is the same as the one mentioned here, the son of Simon the Cyrene, aka Simeon of Niger.
I love the thought that these men show up later in our history, in the New Testament, as leaders of the church. There’s no way to prove that definitively; we just don’t know enough about them. But regardless of whether the Rufus and Simeon of Romans and Acts are the same as those listed here in Mark, these three names are known leaders to the early Christian community. They’re obviously important people who were known by the early church; otherwise, Mark would not have named Simon, much less his sons. He only does so because he expects his readers will immediately identify with them, knowing them from the growing Christian movement they called The Way. And it’s very possible that their conversion to Christianity began here, with Simon’s trip of a lifetime turning into a nightmare, as he’s compelled to carry the cross of Christ, experiencing drama he didn’t choose.
It means that this Simon, mentioned by Mark, and his sons, became Christians because Simon was thrust into drama he did not choose. And not only that, it means that Simon most likely became a leader of the early church and inspired his sons to do the same because Simon was thrust into a drama he did not choose.
If that Roman soldier had never tapped Simon on the shoulder, turning his trip of a lifetime into a nightmare, the church would have been robbed of three of its early leaders.
Simon was thrust into drama he did not choose. But God turned what was meant for evil into a powerful good.
So what do we do when we are thrust into drama that we did not choose?
We, like Simon, carry the cross of Christ, believing that what the world means for evil, God will use for good.
Today’s object, and the one studied in the devotional this week, is the cross. It’s a common object in our lives. We have several around the church, we have crosses often hung around our necks, we have crosses at home; we’re surrounded by crosses.
And what a great reminder to us that sometimes we must carry burdens we did not ask for. Sometimes, we must endeavor on through drama that we did not choose.
Simon was converted by having to carry the cross of Christ. Apparently, he stayed at Golgotha, picked up the story of Jesus, learned about the man, and was converted. His sons, as a result, were converted, and probably became the church leaders referred to in Paul’s letters. God did an amazing work of redemption in their lives.
So it will be with us. The promise here in the story of Simon the Cyrene is the promise of God’s redemption. Sometimes, we get thrust into drama we didn’t choose. It happens to all of us from time to time. And sometimes, the drama we get thrust into is overwhelming, dark, difficult, unbearable even; much like we can imagine carrying the crossbeam was for Simon.
But God will do a powerful work of redemption through us. Consider that the cross itself is the ultimate symbol of God’s redemption; of God’s power to turn evil into good. God took a symbol of execution, of the power of Rome, and made it into a universally recognized symbol of hope and of God’s good power. The cross went from a sign of death to a sign of life and life abundant.
That’s what God does. God takes what was meant for evil and turns it to good. God will provide in powerful ways. We must just walk on, carrying the cross that’s been thrust upon us, until we reach the finish line. And we have to do that, like Simon, without knowing where the finish line is!
This is a tough message. None of us want to hear that we must do what we don’t want to do. I’m an eight on the Enneagram. That’s the chief thing you don’t do to an eight. Eights will not be controlled. I feel that deeply; I react strongly when I feel like I’m being controlled. But even if you’re not an eight like me, none of us want to be told that we must do what we don’t want to do, much less that we must suffer against our will by being thrust into drama we didn’t choose.
But Jesus himself told us that we would. Jesus himself says that to take up our cross daily and follow him will be costly. And part of that cost, part of that suffering, is when we don’t choose to take up a particular cross but, instead, like Simon, find it thrust upon us.
So, when you find yourself embroiled in drama you did not choose: when drama erupts at work, at home, in your family, in your civic organization, at your club, at church, in our community, in our society, and it cannot be escaped but instead is thrust upon you; in other words, when you find yourself like Simon having to bear a cross you did not ask for, when you find yourself walking down the road with painful steps and slow, look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing! God will provide, God will take care, God will redeem your present suffering; the drama you know now is not the final word.
So carry the cross that you bear until you reach the finish line. Walk faithfully down the path God has set before you. Carry the cross. Like Theodore Roosevelt said, pray not for a lighter load but for a stronger back. In the words of our middle hymn today, in the midst of drama you did not ask for, say to God, “Here I am, Lord…I will go, Lord, if you lead me; I will hold your people in my heart.” You’ll get to the finish line, the drama will end, and there at the end, you’ll know the power of God’s redemption, turning that drama, even a drama that feels like evil, into something powerfully good.
The early Christian movement wouldn’t have been the same without Simon, Alexander, and Rufus. God made something amazingly good out of drama Simon did not choose. So it will be for you and for me. In the midst of the drama you know, especially drama you did not choose, cling to that belief. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Redemption is coming.
God will turn your suffering, the cross you bear, the one you did not ask for, into a powerful good for the world.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.