Here is a sermon one could preach on Passion Sunday, or adapt for Holy Thursday or Good Friday:
“I Am Available!”
A Sermon on Mark 15:21
All of a sudden, Simon of Cyrene found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time! We don’t know when or how Simon had traveled from Cyrene, Northern Africa, to Jerusalem. We don’t know whether he had just recently arrived as a pilgrim for the Passover Festival, or whether he was an immigrant, a resident alien. We do know that Simon was on foreign soil and there he found himself where he never, ever expected to be: in the middle of three criminals on their way to being crucified.
Simon happened to be heading into town just when the Roman execution detail was leading the criminals out of town to the Place of the Skull. Like all condemned to crucifixion, the prisoners carried the horizontal crossbeams on their shoulders. It was obvious that one of the prisoners, Jesus, wasn’t going to make it without help.
Impatient to get on with it, one of the soldiers singled Simon out of the crowd. Did Simon stick out as an outsider perhaps? “You there! Get over here and carry this man’s cross!” It was an order Simon couldn’t refuse. At any time and for any reason, Roman soldiers could compel anybody to carry their gear. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry a humiliating burden.
Where was Simon Peter? Where were the rest of Jesus’ disciples? Not available! And this was after Simon Peter had declared, “I will always be available. I will never deny you! I will always be there even if I have to die with you!” All the others had said the same thing. But what happened? As soon as Jesus was arrested, as soon as they were at risk, they all left him and ran away.
Simon Peter tried to follow at a safe distance, just to see what would happen. Three times people recognized him as one of Jesus’ followers, but every time he denied it. Where were the people who claimed to love Jesus, who claimed they would go “with him, with him all the way?” Sorry. Not available. Instead of denying themselves and taking up the cross, they denied Jesus and left him to carry the weight alone.
It was more than the literal weight of the crossbeam. It was the weight of everything that oppresses humanity. It was the weight of suffering, of sin, of every terror, of everything harmful. It was the weight of death. All this weight Jesus took on himself in order to heal us. This load was his call. It was his mission.
In Jesus Christ, God made himself totally available to humanity, available even unto death, so that we can live. This meant pain. This meant loneliness. Jesus needed his friends. He needed them to stay awake with him as he sorrowed in the garden. But they fell asleep on him. He needed his friends to travel the way of the cross with him. But they ran from it. He needed his friends to help him carry the load of the cross. But they weren’t available.
That first Good Friday, Jesus’ disciples were just plain afraid. They went into self-protective mode. But fear isn’t the only thing that prevents Jesus’ disciples from being fully available to him. Fear isn’t all that makes us shy from the cross. Sometimes our hands are just too full of other things to help Christ carry his load: “I see your need, Lord. I see where somebody needs to act on your mission. But my hands are full. Maybe I can help after I get all my own business taken care of. Call me again when I’m not so busy.”
This week I read a story that steps on a lot of toes. It was told by Greg Jones, a member of the faculty at Duke Divinity School. In the article, Jones reflects on how to encourage children to become true disciples of Jesus Christ, how to help them discover that walking with Jesus is an adventure, doing his work is an adventure.
Jones describes a visit with a man who is a leader in his church and in the wider community. The man complained about the lack of passion and vision in his church. Jones writes, “I said I thought that one of our problems is that too many of us unwittingly convey to our kids that it is more important and more challenging to learn how to play soccer than it is to learn how to follow Christ. He turned to me, incredulous, and started telling me about all the benefits of team sports. He added that he thought it was ‘unreasonable’ to expect parents to have as much time for confirmation—that is the process of getting young people ready to make their own commitment to Jesus and his church—it was ‘unreasonable’ for parents to have as much time for that—as they have for soccer or basketball.” (L. Gregory Jones, “The Games We Play” in Christian Century, vol. 121, No. 7, April 6, 2004, p. 32.)
Lord, I’ll give you some time when it fits my schedule.
And then there are times when we see the need, and we hear Christ calling, but we just don’t want to shoulder the burden of caring. “I don’t want to put my heart at risk of breaking, Lord. I don’t want to struggle. I don’t want to cry with you. Call me when the stakes are lower. Maybe then I can be available.”
He was there. He was able. So the soldiers gave Simon of Cyrene the job of carrying the execution equipment. He didn’t know it then, but Simon was carrying what in God’s hands would become the very equipment of life. He didn’t understand what was going on, but Simon was where everyone who claims to love Jesus Christ is called to be: available. Available to take up the cross and walk behind Jesus.
That’s where Luke says Simon was in relation to Jesus, walking behind him. But Matthew and Mark don’t specify. That leaves room for another possibility, the possibility that Mel Gibson used in his film. He envisions Simon and Jesus carrying the cross together, arm in arm, side by side. And as they go, Simon grows more determined to help Jesus all the way. What a challenge! What a call! Be available! Get in there and help Jesus!
For Jesus Christ made his life totally available to us on the cross. The sacrament of communion is the sign of it. He makes himself available as he offers us the bread and the cup. “I am available to you. My life is available to you. Take it. Be healed. Be saved. Live.”
In taking Christ’s life, we offer him our lives in return. When we take the bread and cup in hand, when we confess our faith, we declare, “I am available, Lord Jesus! I will help you carry the burden of sorrow. I will help you reach the least, the last, the lost. (Allusion to a line in “Ageless Messengers,” a song by Maire Brennan on her CD Whisper to the Wild Water.) I will help you carry the weight of pursuing peace and justice. I will help you in the hard work of healing. I will carry the cross of love. Lord Jesus, I am available.”
It turns out Simon of Cyrene was in the right place at the right time. Carrying the cross changed his life, and his family’s life. The first Christians who read the Gospel of Mark knew Simon’s sons Alexander and Rufus. They were followers of Jesus Christ. For those who make themselves available to him, for those who are willing to shoulder it, the weight of the cross leads to a strange, unexpected freedom.