The cross-bearing life of the Christian isn’t a theory about which we have opinions, it is a way of life in which we learn by experience.
Living as we do on the I-25 corridor between Denver and Colorado Springs, rarely does a week go by when we are not stuck in some kind of traffic slowdown for an inexplicable reason. Traffic slows nearly to a halt and then, almost as quickly as it stopped, it breaks loose again so that the interstate resumes its resemblance to a NASCAR race.
One of the main reasons for these instant slowdowns is rubbernecking. A fender bender on the side of the road, someone getting pulled over, will cause people to slow down and take a look. Occasionally it’s more serious—a real accident with police, fire, and ambulance on scene. We naturally slow down to look, wanting to know what happened but also being glad that it didn’t happen to us.
But what’s it like to be on the other side of that equation? What if you’re the one on the side of the road with a busted vehicle or with fire trucks, sirens flashing, all around you? You move from being a spectator to suddenly being right in the middle of the action—most of the time not out of choice. It’s you who gets the mention on KOA as the one who’s holding up traffic in the Tech Center. It’s you whom the rubberneckers stare at as they slowly roll by you near Interquest Parkway. That gives you a different perspective.
Wendell Phillips, a 19th century activist who fought against slavery and for equal rights for women and native Americans, once said, “Truth is one forever absolute, but opinion is truth filtered through the moods, the blood, the disposition of the spectator.” In other words, those who are on the sidelines as spectators are quick to offer their opinions of truth. Real truth, on the other hand, is the product of experience. When one moves from spectator to participant, truth more easily separates from opinion.
Simon was a spectator in the crowd that bottlenecked the narrow streets of Jerusalem that Friday morning. He had just come into the city on a trip, a pilgrimage to celebrate the Passover. He had come from Cyrene in North Africa, or the country of Libya as we know it today, which meant that his journey had to have been somewhat arduous—cutting across the southeast portion of the Mediterranean Sea by ship or taking the long journey overland through Egypt. Either way, it took a lot for him to get to Jerusalem, but such was the pull of Jews to return to the Temple during Passover. Some estimates suggest that Jerusalem swelled from a regular population of about 40,000 to more than four times that number during the festival. It was a time for traffic jams, even though most people were on foot.
I imagine Simon walking down the street that Friday on his way to the Temple, a street which probably didn’t look much different than it does today, when he encountered a major slow down. In fact, traffic was being diverted to the side of the street while a parade seemed to be coming down the middle of it. A Roman soldier on a horse did the crowd control, his flashing sword even more compelling than a siren. “Make way!” he might have yelled, “Make way for the prisoners!” And then Simon, pressed against the front of a shopkeeper’s stall, saw the scene that had caused the slowdown—three men, nearly naked, strapped to wooden rails that may have weighed a hundred pounds or more, and carrying them on their shoulders—all the while being whipped from behind by the rest of the soldiers to keep them moving. This was a scene not all that uncommon in the Roman world—condemned criminals being sent to their execution site outside the city, where they would hand on those cross-pieces on an upright pole until the life drained out of them; a warning to the other travelers streaming into the city that this was Roman territory and here was the price of challenging that fact. The three men all looked like pitiful wrecks, but one of them in worse shape than the other two. He kept falling, and every time he dropped to his knees it would bring more blows from the soldiers and more howls of mocking laughter from the crowd. It was one of those scenes that makes a person think, “I’m just glad that’s not me.”
But then, suddenly, it was. One of the soldiers looks at the crowd and his eyes lock on to Simon. “You there! Jew!” he yells. “Take that beam off his shoulders and carry it for him.” Simon no doubt had one of those incredulous moments. Me? You’re talking to me? I’m just here minding my own business… But Simon knew the Roman law of lex angeria, which said that if a Roman soldier told you to carry his pack or another burden you had to do it, for as much as one milion—a Roman mile being 1,000 paces (two steps equally one pace), which equates to about 4,850 feet. Only after that mile could you put down whatever the burden was and go about your business.
The reason that the soldiers compelled Simon to pick up the cross beam wasn’t out of pity but out of an paradoxical practicality. Prisoners had to be alive in order to for their sentence to be carried out, so the soldier had to make sure that this broken down prisoner, weak from a night of sleepless suffering, an arrest, and a trial, and being beaten within an inch of his life that morning, would live long enough to die on the cross.
“Pick it up!” the soldier yelled again, shaking Simon out of his disbelief that this was actually happening to him. Reluctantly, tentatively, he bore the cross of Jesus Christ and walked a road, a pilgrimage, he hadn’t expected.
But, ironically, this was the very road on which Jesus had called his own disciples to join him. In Mark 8, Jesus called his disciples together, along with the crowd, and gave them this strange invitation: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it” (8:34-35). It was the road they pledged to follow, though their pledge was more an optimistic opinion borne out of what Wendell Phillips called their moods, their blood, the disposition of spectators. Another Simon, Simon Peter, promised to go down that road all the way. “Even though I must die with you,” he told Jesus, “I will not deny you” (Mark 14:31). But that was the truth of opinion, and when the time came to turn from spectator to participant, Simon Peter was nowhere to be found. He and his fellow disciples chose to save their own lives instead of losing them for Jesus’ sake.
And so the cross-bearing task fell to a stranger who carried it the last mile, a thousand paces, to the scraggly little hill outside the city wall. The weight of the beam and its splinters dug into his shoulders, the smell of blood and sweat mixed with the scent of wood, the jeers and cries of the crowd aimed at the stumbling, bloody, and broken Jesus. Simon was no longer in the audience for this drama. He was at center stage.
A thousand paces later, Simon put down the beam so that the one he had been following behind could be nailed to it. I imagine him feeling lighter all of a sudden, like when you’ve carried a heavy pack for a lot of miles and then set it down. You feel like you’re floating. But was there something else that Simon felt? No doubt he felt grateful, that his own brush with death and pain was over, his unexpected burden lifted. He could go about his business, having done what he was compelled to do. But, I wonder, did he feel changed in that way that we often feel after a close call wakes us up to the perilousness of our situation? After all, Simon no longer needed to have an opinion about crosses, about the guilt and treatment of criminals, or the cruelty of Roman justice—he now had experience. When the cross beam was hoisted up on to the pole with Jesus on it, he would see the passion of the one whom he had followed not through the distance of opinion, but through the compassionate lens of experience. Writer Erik Kolbell puts it this way:
“Simon was the lucky one for having been chosen, not the disciples who fled for their lives. He was lucky because of what he had learned but what he had experienced. What those disciples never fully appreciated was that when Jesus challenged them to take up the cross, he was offering them a gift. Had they stayed, and carried it for him, they would have been the ones so much closer to him, so much closer to his pain, and therefore his love. But they chose safety over courage, as most of us would have, as I would have, as Simon would have. And so we would never know. Simon knew, but only because he was forced to know.”
The finger of a soldier pointed at Simon, an involuntary invitation to shoulder a cross, to bear the burden of Christ, to follow him, to suffer with him, to suffer on behalf of another. This is the truth of real Christian experience: the cross-bearing life sometimes chooses us before we choose it.
Oh, we’re not talking about the trivial ways in which people think about cross-bearing in our culture. “It’s just a cross I have to bear” is one of the great cliches of Western culture—a term that applies from everything to missing out on an up-front parking space at the mall to getting an ingrown toenail—“It’s just a cross I’ll have to bear.” When Christians talk about the cross-bearing life, we’re talking about taking up Jesus’ own suffering, which was borne for the sake of the world. To bear the cross is to walk in the footsteps of Jesus as he gives himself for others, even those who whipped him, mocked him, and nailed him to that cross beam. It is finding our lives by losing them, reordering our lives for Jesus’ sake and taking on all that implies. Simon would lay down his burden after a thousand paces, but Jesus goes the distance and calls us to follow him there in giving our lives for the world.
The truth is that in order to live the cross-bearing life you have to stop being a spectator and become a participant. You have to move from merely sharing opinions about the problems of this world and instead pick up the burdens of others and feel just how heavy they are. Jesus carried the weight of the world on his shoulders as he stumbled to the cross. Simon carried the weight of Jesus’ cross in such a way that it changed him and those around him. In his description of Simon of Cyrene, Mark adds the little detail that he was “the father of Alexander and Rufus”—a curious detail unless Alexander and Rufus were well-known in the community to whom Mark was writing. Paul refers to a “Rufus” in Romans 16:13 as being part of the church in Rome. Could it be that when Simon returned home, he spread the word about what he did, and about his newfound faith in the crucified Messiah?
After all, that’s the kind of thing that happens when you move from spectator to participant. Whether it’s because we chose the burden or because it was thrust upon us, when we pick up a cross and follow Jesus it will change us and move us closer to Christ himself. When we feel the weight of his cross, when we touch his broken body and taste his poured out blood, we experience a transformation that compels us to bear the burdens of others as he bore our own.
There are plenty of cross-shaped burdens that are being carried in this room today, and some that will be carried yet. A child is born with special needs that requires a complete alteration of the family’s lifestyle. A child is burdened with an abusive home life that dogs her into adulthood. A husband slowly slips away with Alzheimer’s disease. A spouse is caught up in an all-consuming addiction. A neighbor is making life miserable. These are just a few of the kinds of burdens that are thrust upon us, that we are compelled to pick up and walk around with for more than a mile—sometimes for years. Like Simon, we didn’t choose them, and yet the stumbling, broken, bleeding Jesus reveals to us that it is in this very suffering on behalf of others that we follow in his footsteps. When we care for those who are broken, when we love our enemies in spite of their abuse, when we choose forgiveness instead of revenge, when we change the diaper of an incontinent parent, or deal with that child’s outburst one more time, when we suffer ridicule because of our association with Jesus—it is then that we have moved from being spectators of the cross to participants in it. It is then that we begin to understand the unfiltered truth—that the cross-bearing life of Christian faith isn’t a theory about which we have opinions, it’s a way of life in which we learn by experience.
No one got closer to Jesus in his last hours of life than did Simon of Cyrene, the one who carried his cross. We are never closer to Jesus and his redemptive mission than when we pick up a cross and give ourselves for his sake. The more we try to save our lives by remaining distant from the world and its pain, the more likely we are to lose them in a fog of apathy and indifference. The more we lose our lives in his service and deny ourselves for the sake of Jesus, his mission, and his people, the more likely we will find the kind of life that experiences true joy.
On the Via Dolorossa in the Old City of Jerusalem there is a little chapel at the fifth station of the cross with a inscription in the stone above the door: SIMONI CYRENEO CRUX IMPONITUR — Simon the Cyrene – Cross Bearer.
Can you imagine a better title for one who follows Christ? Wherever you find yourself this week, a cross may be handed to you. You may have the opportunity to pick it up voluntarily or it may be thrust upon you. But either way, may you be a willing cross-bearer for the King!
Kolbell, Erik. Were You There? Westminster/John Knox, 2005. Pp. 79-86.