Date: March 15, 1936
As they led Him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus. – Luke 23:26
Most gracious God: In obedience to Thy holy Word we are met to proclaim the wondrous mercies of Thy grace in Jesus Christ, the full and free pardon of all sins through faith in the atoning Savior and His cleansing blood. Grant that Thy penetrating Word, sharper than a twoedged sword, may find its way into hardened hearts and break down the ramparts of resisting unbelief. Remove the scales of blinding sin, so that many may find the hopebuilding, life-bestowing grace that radiates from Calvary over all the world and all its darkened ages. Teach us all to know and believe that without Christ we can do nothing, but that with Christ we have a world-conquering faith and can bear our crosses with patience, with love, with hope, with thanks to Thee, and with the blessed faith which assures us that through Christ even our sorrows may be turned to gladness. This we plead for our blessed Savior’s sake. Amen.
IN the entire tragedy of our Savior’s crucifixion one, and only one, of the many men who participated is mentioned by name. The soldiers who led Christ, the executioners who nailed the Son of God to the cross, the Roman legionaries who cast lots for His unseamed garment, the morbid spectators who sneered and jeered, the penitent thief on the one cross, who begged for remembrance in paradise, and the impenitent thief on the other, whose dying breath taunted Christ—all these witness this climax of world tragedy and remain unnamed. To focus our attention on the cross, to rivet our vision on the Savior and His sinatoning love, other names are passed over in silence. As the deep darkness of Good Friday falls upon Calvary and enshrouds that murder scene with the mantle of its blackness, the four evangelists draw only a drab and indefinable human background to the crucifixion. This record of unspeakable horror and deepest depravity runs its blood-marked course without the addition of human names.
Yet one name has been immortalized; and that does not commemorate the fearsome disciples who ventured to return, not the centurion who found in Christ the Son of God, not any of the titled and prominent in that darkened day of sin’s triumph. The one name deemed worthy to be preserved for all the centuries of history is that of Simon of Cyrene, the bearer of the Savior’s cross.
I cannot read the word of today’s text: “As they led Him away, they laid hold upon one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus,” without feeling that perhaps Simon’s name has been preserved to impress us with the powerful lessons that his bearing of the cross of Christ would teach the world today. For here, as we behold the Cyrenian lifting the heavy timber on which the Son of God was to be transfixed, a mighty appeal should pull at the heart-strings of every man or woman who has never confessed Christ; here, in this cross-bearing along all history’s bitterest pathway of pain, is help, courage, victory, for the sorrowing, the bruised, the impoverished, who bear their crosses and wonder how God can be merciful when the crushing weight of their unexplained burdens seems to increase with the dawn of every new day. Here, as we see Simon, the cross-bearer, follow where his Savior leads, even though it be to the place of public execution, is the ringing challenge to all American and Canadian Christians, in whatever church or denomination they may find themselves, to take the reproach of Christ’s cross upon their shoulders in this day of damning unbelief and of organized opposition to the Almighty, to follow in His footsteps amid taunt and hatred, disguised as it may be beneath chasubles and cassocks and clerical robes, supported, as unbelief always is, by ungodly minds and unholy money.
To assure you of these blessings, let me speak to you this afternoon on
BEARING THE CROSS WITH CHRIST
and by the help of the Spirit bring faith into unbelieving hearts, courage into desperate lives, and loyalty into wavering discipleship.
SIMON, THE CROSS-BEARER
It was about nine o’clock on that Black Friday, almost immediately after Pilate had pronounced His infamous sentence, that Jesus began the death march to Calvary. After the worst miscarriage of all justice comes this added monstrous cruelty that sends Jesus forth at once to the slaughter. We read predictions that at some time in the near future the countrymen of our Savior, appalled by the injustice of His death-sentence and the corruption at His judicial hearings, will institute a new trial and reverse the sentence which that blind and raging hatred hurled against Christ. But no trial no matter how brilliant, how lengthy, how exacting in its judgment, can undo that shrieking violation of justice, retract that perjury and conflict of lies, recall that self-imposed curse: “His blood be on us and on our children,” retrieve that arch-cruelty of the ages which in fiendish haste sent the Christ to His last agonies.
Today, when our tempered justice demands the full penalty of death, we seek to make the execution quick and humane. But the venom that marked Christ for death planned to prolong and to intensify His agony by forcing Jesus to bear the cross that would soon bear Him. The heavy timbers, the post and the beam, are laid upon His beaten, bleeding back, and He stumbles out on His last journey. But before the death procession reaches the city gate, the Savior begins to stagger under that crushing weight. Weakened by the horrible scourging, exhausted by a sleepless night, racked and tom by the ordeal of three trials, lacerated by the lash, and bruised by buffetings and blows, His physical strength is utterly broken. But below and above this exhaustion of His body is the sinking weakness of His soul crushed by the weight of a world of sorrows. Heavier by far than those two pieces of wood is the burden of men’s sins, the pressure of all iniquities, the load of all history’s vices and crimes. Oh, it were tragic enough if today the vilest criminal would receive this treatment in his last hours. Yet here, tottering under the coarse timbers, lashed by the furies of punished sin and the hatred of hell, half blinded by tears and blood, half dead in soul terror,—here is no criminal. His shrewdest enemies could not produce a single substantiated charge. Here, at the head of this death-march, is no mere martyr of heroic and unselfish mold suffering for His friends; for every page of Jesus’ life is unmistakably inscribed with His devotion to a far greater task. Here, my friends and fellow-sinners, above our puny powers of understanding; here,—I am not arguing this truth, I am not analyzing it, I am simply declaring it as the holy, inviolable, unchangeable truth of God, the everlasting, ever-valid, ever-glorious verity from heaven itself,—here in that driven Christ is the eternal Son of God, yes, God the Almighty incarnate, collapsing under the appalling load of human sin, the terrifying total of all earthly iniquity.
It must have been the impatience of the soldiers that sought a stronger back for the cross and a quicker pace to Calvary. Yet no one volunteered to perform this one last act of humane help. The self-respecting citizens of Jerusalem now had no concern or no compassion for Him whose every pathway in their midst had been marked with mercy upon mercy. No help for Him who had help for all! The cross which we exalt as the highest symbol in heaven and in earth on that death day was a repulsive and revolting instrument of death; and Jesus of Nazareth, cursed by the high priests and condemned by the Sanhedrin, was regarded as a seducer and blasphemer. Contact with Him and His cross made one unclean. I think that we can see lines of the curious spectators recede when the company with the cross stops near the gate and the irritated soldiers look about for some one who can be pressed into the defiling and despised service of carrying the cross.
Just at this moment, it seems, a stranger approaches, a man who never before was mentioned in the Bible—“one Simon” the text calls him. He was a stranger, having come from distant Cyrene, a flourishing Jewish colony on a remote shore, on the North African coast. He had traversed these eight hundred miles by sea (or more than 1,100 miles by land), so we may well believe, for the same purpose that annually brought thousands of his fellowcountrymen to Jerusalem almost from the ends of the civilized world—worship at the solemn Passover Festival. As he comes up from the country and is about to reach the goal of his pilgrimage,—how wonderfully the providence of God operates!—he happens to pass by the spot where the death-march to Calvary has paused. Had he come a half hour earlier or a half hour later; had he entered the city at some other gate, he would have missed Christ. But he came by Heaven’s own destiny and in God’s perfect time to the very spot of Christ’s collapse under the cross. Entirely ignorant of the deep tragedy enacted before his eyes, he draws close, too close, for he is rudely seized by the soldiers and forced to carry that heavy, unclean, and accursed cross. A moment before, Simon was unconscious of Jesus. A moment later he stares bewildered into the blanched face of the beaten, bleeding Christ. Unexpectedly the great crisis of His life has arrived.
Some of us are brought face to face with Christ by the same startling guidance of God. As these words are hurled across four thousand and more miles, they penetrate into homes where some strangers to Christ, some unfaithful disciples, some lukewarm Christians in name, may have turned to our broadcast, apparently by chance, but in truth by the loving providence of God. A thousand factors could have combined to keep them from their radios at this hour; another thousand could have led them to dial some other program; but here they are, separated from me in some cases by days of arduous journey through roads made impassable by snow-drift or flood or thaw, and the Word of Christ, the solemn warning that without Christ they are “dead in trespasses and sins,” lost in human helplessness, but that with Christ, with faith in His all-forgiving, all atoning, all-compassionate death on the cross, they are eternally alive in spirit, they have been found and brought into pardon and peace, hope and happiness,—this Heaven-sent appeal that asks all men, murderers of their own souls, as they are, destroyers of their own happiness, as they have proved themselves to be, to be reconciled with God through the atoning blood, to accept the sure, unquestioned, positive blessings of Heaven offered to us by the mercies of the cross,—that message speeds its way over thousands of miles; it leaps over barriers of mountains and rivers and lakes; it pushes its way through forests and the labyrinth of crowded city streets, cuts its course through walls of wood and brick and stone, and is now before your heart and soul. Twenty minutes ago you may have been thinking thoughts that were remote from religion and unconcerned about Christ; but now the Spirit of God has led you, as nineteen centuries ago it led Simon the Cyrenian, into the presence of Christ. Twenty minutes ago you may have turned the dials of your radio in search for amusement, entertainment, distraction, for the rhythm and swing of loud and clashing music; and yet when you were greeted by the strains of our hymns, there was some force that kept you from turning away, so that in the name of the crossbearing Savior I could ask you to make Christ, once despised and lowly, but now triumphant and ever-glorious, your Substitute and Savior, the Lord of lords and the King of kings, in your heart and soul.
Don’t think for a moment that your meeting Christ must be a formal ceremony within the walls of some sacred edifice and that, if you don’t go to church, you need make no decision either for or against Christ. Simon met his Savior at a time and a place that he least expected, near a busy city gate. Jesus came to another Simon while that Galilean fisherman was engrossed in his daily toil. He came to Matthew while that publican was gathering taxmoney. He came to avowed enemies of the Church as they sought to blast His Gospel from off the face of the earth. Blood-lusting Saul met Christ on the Damascus road. Sneering skeptics in the early Church who crowded the blood-stained arenas to scoff at the faith and the loyalty of the Christian martyrs remained to pray, to meet their Christ, and in astonishing heroism to offer themselves as living sacrifices to His holy name. Luther, who lashed his own back bloody in the attempt to earn heaven, who became a beggar, a pilgrim, a penitent, found the true Christ, the loving, self-sacrificing Christ and Savior of his soul, in a cloister cell as he feverishly pored over the great Magna Carta of our freedom through justifying faith, the Epistle to the Romans. Lew Wallace tells us that, when he started to write Ben Hur, he was an agnostic; yet as he read the Gospel-story of Christ, he met his Savior, and as he followed every footstep of that eternally blessed Redeemer, he heard the call of Christian discipleship and by the grace of God accepted it. Charlotte Elliott, who had lived with the world and for the world, came unexpectedly upon her Christ at a social gathering, where a minister asked her whether she was a Christian. Irritated by this pointed inquiry, she refused to discuss the matter; but her restless soul gave her no peace. Before two weeks elapsed, she came to that clergyman with the question: “How can I come to Jesus?” The answer which she received, “Come just as you are,” suggested the faith which she put into the lines of her hymn:—
Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Some of you, too, have today met Christ unexpectedly at your radios; for He comes to us in His Word, as His means of grace, every time we hear the story of His love. In His name I ask you to come just as you are. “Now is the accepted time”; and if this appeal by the Spirit of God has lighted even a spark of desire for the Christ in your souls, I beg you, Don’t delay! Don’t give the evil spirits that will attack your longing for Christ the opportunity of mustering their forces. But as Jesus in this moment asks you to believe Him, to confess Him, to glorify Him, to take up your cross and follow Him, may you like Simon, the cross-bearer on the way to Calvary, raise your hearts to God and pledge yourself to Him in undying loyalty.
This radio broadcast has no shrines to erect except the sanctuary of your hearts dedicated to Christ. It has no monetary program; it grants no room to political ambition; but it has the intense desire—and may God, in His power and by His promise, grant its rich fulfilment!—that by the plain message of the sinner perishing without Christ, but the sinner saved with Christ, men and women, young and old, may be cleansed by His sacrificial blood and saved for eternal life by His substitutional death.
My friends and fellow-redeemed, you who have now met Christ, you who have seen His arms extended to you, will you not come? If you have turned away from Christ, will you not turn back to Him? If you have been faithless, will you not from this day on, God helping you, be faithful? Will you not write us today, so that we can give you counsel for your new Christian life and commit you to the care of true Christian pastors?
From the experiences of Simon, unexpectedly drafted into the Savior’s service, comes a wealth of comfort for all cross-bearers who know Christ. The evangelists do not record the feelings of the stranger from Cyrene as he braced the timbers for the cross. We may well believe that a mighty protest welled up within him. His pride was assailed. His plans were shattered. Instead of joining the holiday throng in the Holy City, he had become a public spectacle. Yet we have every reason to believe that almost boundless blessings were heaped upon our suffering Savior’s cross-bearer. Strong indications point to his conversion. The picture of the faltering Savior, the imprint of the crucifixion, the quaking earth, the darkened heavens, the echo of the agonizing cry “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” but above all the recollection of that plea of pardon, “Father, forgive them!”—all this seems mightily to have touched his heart and molded his life. Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus, two men who are mentioned as Christians with whom the original readers of his gospel would be acquainted and who were doubtless brought to Christ by their father’s faith. Some of the earliest congregations in the Church were established in distant Cyrene, and it is doubtless more than tradition that ascribes this planting of the Gospel to Simon, the cross-bearer.
There may be some doubt as to the further life of Simon and his final exchange of the cross for the crown, but in your life and in mine, once Christ is the beginning and the end of our faith, there can be no doubt that our cross-bearing is the expression of His love, a strengthening of our weak and wavering faith. How many of you within range of my voice this afternoon are not discouraged and distracted by some apparently cruel and unexpected change and shattering of your plans? You walked through life with confidence; sorrow and sadness seemed distant from your door; head and hopes high, you scanned the future with calm security. And then a cross loomed up with sobering suddenness, and then another, and still another, until some of you wonder now whether your battered, broken hearts will survive, and you ask yourselves where you can find strength to carry the burdens which seem to increase from day to day.
In broken health, in protracted sickness, in all the misery that age, ache, pain, and deformity can lay upon life; in the severe losses that this unfortunate age has brought into millions of homes, where investments have proved stark disappointments and the opportunities for industry and honest labor have been woefully restricted; in all the heart-breaking tragedies that may come upon you in your life through sorrow, unfaithfulness, or even death,—when your affairs come to the breaking point and above and below and on all sides you can see yourselves surrounded, overwhelmed, by miseries and new and unfathomed afflictions, remember that “whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” Hark back to the Savior’s own word “He that taketh not his cross and followeth after Me is not worthy of Me.” Believe with all your hearts that the chastenings of God are for the strengthening of your faith, the purifying of your life, the refining of your hopes,—just as Simon first followed Christ’s footsteps to shame and death and then to glory and life. And if you cannot understand the guiding love of God, you can trust it, you can believe it, you can follow it with the joyful confidence that at one time, when tears are dried forever and sorrows have eternally passed away and partings are no more, you will sing this hymn of thanksgiving: “Thou hast done all things well.”
Come, then, you millions throughout the broad sweeps of this continent and, Christ in you and you in Christ, accept this blessed privilege of serving as cross-bearers with the Savior. With skies bright or overcast; with “fightings within and fears without”; with the joy of life increased or decreased, day after day, as you walk in firmer faith in those blessed, blood-marked footsteps of the Savior, tell your soul, tell your world, tell your Christ:—
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee;
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my All shalt be!
God make us all cross-bearers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.