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A Tale Of Two Crosses

Living Vertically
Gospel Sermons For Lent/Easter Cycle C
There are two crosses juxtaposed in the Gospels. It is not the crosses that stand in such marked contrast as the responses to them. The first is a concept, a doctrine -- the cross of Christian discipleship which Jesus mentions to the crowds in Luke 9:23-24: "Then he said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.' " This teaching comes sandwiched between two of the more familiar scenes in the Gospels: Peter's confession that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and Jesus' transfiguration six days later in which Peter, James, and John saw him with Moses and Elijah in a foreshadowing of his resurrection glory.

Framed by such awesome events, as it was, one would think that Jesus' teaching about taking up the cross would have special significance for the disciples and really sink in -- at least for the closest three who were privileged to witness the transfiguration. But the Gospels remind us that it was not so simple.

As the small band continued its travels after the transfiguration, it was time for Jesus to reinforce the teaching about taking up the cross, and the Gospel says: "Let these words sink into your ears: 'The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.' But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying" (Luke 9:44-45).

The reason they were afraid to ask becomes painfully apparent when they arrive in Capernaum and Jesus asks the twelve what they had been arguing about as they walked along. Like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, they were silent. Jesus knew the topic of their altercation: who among them was greatest.

As the group then traveled to Jerusalem for the fateful events of the last week of Jesus' earthly ministry, he again instructed them about the meaning of the cross and the cost of discipleship: "Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.' " (Luke 18:31-33). Almost inexplicably, James and John immediately approached Jesus asking for a favor: that one sit on his right hand in glory and the other on his left!

What the Gospels are telling us is that there were two agendas at work: Jesus' agenda of absolute obedience to God's will, obedience even unto death; and the disciples agenda of self-seeking and greatness, an agenda that might have made some sense had Jesus been the kind of military-political messiah so many were seeking, a victor who would ride into Judea like King David, throwing the Romans out. But their agenda made utterly no sense given the fact that Jesus was, on the contrary, the messiah who, like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah's prophecy, would vicariously bear the sins of the people. Following such a messiah would not bring glory and power! But in spite of the urgency and clarity of Jesus' words instructing them on the nature of discipleship, they did not want to hear; they were afraid to ask because they didn't want to understand.

What is perhaps most pointed about these stories is the fact that the disciples thought they had the luxury of ignoring or at least reinterpreting Jesus' words to suit their own purposes. They seemed to feel that there was some distance from the words, that these pointed teachings somehow didn't really apply to them. This, of course, is the problem with any abstract teachings -- even important ideas like the "cross of discipleship" -- they seem to be removed from us; they are concepts that we can control rather than the other way around.

There was nothing abstract or controllable about the wooden cross that had to be carried to Golgotha that Friday morning. It was crude and rough and heavy. None of the disciples, of course, were around that morning. They had managed the situation by running from it. No Peter; no James; no John. But there was that passerby. "As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus" (Luke 23:26).

Any Roman soldier, of course, had the legal right to require a local to carry his gear one mile for him, something to which Jesus referred in the Sermon on the Mount. It would be analogous to a police officer commandeering your car like they do in those chase movies; you might or might not like the idea; you might agree or disagree with the police tactics; but you really would have no choice -- you, like Simon of Cyrene, would be made to do it.

This scene is, of course, the very antithesis of the twelve being told that they needed to take up the cross of discipleship and then arguing about greatness. Here is the classic innocent bystander who suddenly finds himself with a cross on his shoulder. One of the hazards of being bright and of being in an academic environment is that we may begin to imagine that we can handle everything with our wits -- that we are somehow immune to the trials and tribulations that affect others. We can reason or argue or talk our way out of anything -- even the necessity of taking up the cross and following Christ. Not so for Simon -- he was compelled.

We, of course, are sometimes made to do things too. We may be compelled by illness or circumstance, or just being in the wrong place at the right time. I trust that none of us have any delusions that we are better people or stronger Christians than those believers who continue to be persecuted for their faith in the Peoples Republic of China; or that it is because of our merit that we were not on that airliner that crashed in Peru a few years ago, as was a Southern Baptist missionary who died leaving a missionary husband and two children.

It would be nice to say that Simon of Cyrene volunteered to help with Christ's cross because he was part of the larger multitude that had followed Jesus -- that's how he is portrayed in many movies and paintings. But that's not what the Scripture says. All it says is that he was "made" to carry it. It would also be nice to think that as a result of shouldering the cross Simon became a believer. But we don't know that either: it remains conjecture. But there is a fascinating clue. Readers often notice that of the three Gospels that mention Simon of Cyrene, only Mark identifies him as the "father of Alexander and Rufus." Why?

It is universally agreed that Mark's Gospel was written for the Christians in Rome facing the first great persecution under Nero. Well, at the end of his letter to these same Roman Christians, the apostle Paul includes this line: "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother -- a mother to me also" (Romans 16:13). So here, it seems clear to me, is an indication that this same Rufus and his mother -- Simon's wife -- had become significant enough members of the worshiping community in Rome to be singled out by Paul. This explains Mark's description of Simon as Rufus' father. I would like to think that as a result of their father and husband being drawn inextricably into the events of the Passion, this family, if not Simon himself, came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, and to follow him.

So here are these two crosses, reminding us that there are some things in life that we control and manipulate, and others to which we must simply respond. Problems arise when we confuse the two and begin to think that we can control what we really cannot. Jesus' teaching about the need of the twelve to take up the cross and follow him was not a trial balloon, sent up by a politician to see how it would do in the polls. It is a simple statement of fact -- something the disciples did not immediately grasp. They thought they could handle it.

God has chosen to give us free will, and does not coerce us into following his son, unlike the Roman soldiers who compelled Simon. But the story of Simon reminds us that the cross of discipleship is real, not just some nice idea; it requires real effort, real sacrifice, and the adoption of a really distinct lifestyle. The cross of discipleship is every bit as real as the rough hewn cross of Calvary. If we don't realize that, we are likely to look as foolish as James and John asking for special favors on the brink of the crucifixion.
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