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.—Luke 23:26
Easter is a challenging time of year for pastors. First of all, it’s just so busy. So many good things going on in the church all at once. Then there’s the fact that it’s so important. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the central events of all human history, and the Easter service is such a unique opportunity to proclaim the Gospel to people who don’t normally attend. If you’re going to get one sermon right, it had better be this one!
At the same time, Easter is challenging because it’s so familiar. Churchgoers have heard Easter sermons their whole lives. Everyone knows the story. What can I say that hasn’t been said a million times before, or that I didn’t say last year? (What did I say last year…?). It’s a funny position to be in, trying to figure out how to avoid boring people with the greatest news ever told.
At the moment, though, I’m finding Easter to be challenging because it’s so big. The events of the last week of Christ’s life take up a big chunk of the Gospels, and there are only a few opportunities in this season to preach about them. There’s Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Four chances to preach about Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the washing of His disciples’ feet, the last supper, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the arrest, the trial before the Jewish leaders, the trial before Pilate, the trial before Herod, then Pilate again, the crowd calling out for His death, then the beating and mocking by the soldiers, the robe and the crown of thorns, the march through the city, and the crucifixion itself. Suffering, scorn, suffocation, thirst. Death and burial. Then the Sabbath, a day of grieving and waiting. And finally, the Resurrection.
Sometimes it all feels like too much. What will we talk about this year? What will we leave out? Is it really okay to leave something out? Of course, we’re not limited to Easter week. We can and should proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection all year long. But in the attempt to do justice to this season, it’s inevitable that we will put the spotlight on some things and neglect others.
Because of all that, there’s an Easter week detail that I’ve never preached on, despite the fact that it’s one of my favorite parts of the story. Someday I might find a way to include it in a sermon, but in the meantime, here are my thoughts on Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross:
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention this man who was forced by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross for Him after He was apparently too weak to do it Himself. Victims of crucifixion usually had to carry a beam of their own cross, which would weigh around 30-40 pounds. John tells us that Jesus did this, but it seems that at some point He couldn’t go on. This means two things:
First, Jesus had already suffered terribly. The Roman soldiers had beat him on the head with a stick repeatedly. That alone would make it hard to do anything physical from that point on. They had flogged him, so his back was torn open and he was bleeding. They had pressed the crown of thorns into his head. It’s also very possible that he had spent the night before in the dungeon at Caiaphas’ house chained in a standing position. (I have visited this place, and it brought tears to my eyes). Prisoners didn’t get beds, and they probably didn’t get much food either.
So Jesus was weakened, beaten, suffering, and losing blood. He was coming up against the limits of his human body, and neither He nor His Father were going to do anything supernatural to prevent things from taking their course. Jesus’ body was like your body or my body: it could only take so much. It only had so much strength, only so much blood. And so the moment came when He could not carry His own cross anymore. It’s not that he was unwilling, it’s that he was unable. That is the measure of how completely He had become one of us.
But the fact that someone else had to carry the cross also means something else: It means that as a part of His master plan, God saw nothing wrong with His Son receiving a little help. This is the very reason this story bothered me so much when I was younger, and the reason I love it so much now. When I was a kid, this little episode didn’t sit well with me because it seemed like Jesus had failed to do the job on His own. In my mind, Jesus was sort of like a superhero, and I wanted him to be strong enough to face anything. I didn’t like the idea of someone else having to rescue Him, because I didn’t want Him to be that weak.
And of course, that is exactly the point. Jesus was weak, because people are weak. He was and is the Son of God, but He is also the Son of Man. It was a human body that was born to Mary and laid in a manger. It was a human body that experienced hunger and thirst and temptation and rejection for all those years. When the whip tore open his flesh of his back, what He felt is exactly what I would have felt if it had been me. It’s not just that he was divine and human at the same time. It’s that He was completely divine, and completely human. Right down to the fact that at one point his muscles weren’t receiving enough oxygen from his blood to carry a big piece of wood anymore, and even the soldiers knew there was no point trying to force Him.
So Jesus received help. From one of His fellow humans. Help, so He could make the journey to the place where He would suffer even more, and die for the sins of His fellow humans. Only He could do it, because He is the perfect, sinless, eternal Son of God. And He could only do it this way, as a man who was weak and broken by the sin of this world. When God included Simon of Cyrene in the story that day, He was showing us all that our Savior is someone we can relate to. In moments when I am reminded that I am a man who needs help (and they are frequent), I’m grateful that Jesus has gone before me, through weakness and death to glory and eternal life.