February 26: Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday

February 25, 2017

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him. 

And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him. –Mark 15:16-32  

In the passage last week, we saw a name, Barabbas, who might appear at first to be a foil in the story. Upon a little more investigation, we find that Barabbas may not have been such an important individual, but symbolically he represented Israel’s true love, and it wasn’t Jesus or Jesus’ way of bringing the Kingdom. The passage above also names some people: Simon of Cyrene, who was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Who are these people?

Cyrene was the oldest and most important of the 5 Greek cities in north Africa. The ruins are located in the modern country of Libya. As with Barabbas, it would be easy to think of Simon of Cyrene as incidental to the story, but as it turns out, Mark was communicating something with which his original audience was familiar. Some 20 years after the crucifixion, Christianity had spread with great success, and important and honorable people had emerged. Yes, the Romans were able to compel Simon of Cyrene, because of their sheer power, to carry the horizontal beam of the cross, but this may well have been the beginning of something very big.

Early Christianity indicates from its beginning to have links with Cyrene. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention Simon of Cyrene. In Acts, people from Cyrene are said to be in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (2:10), and men from Cyrene were preaching the Lord Jesus to the Greeks (11:20). Lucius of Cyrene is named as one of several to whom the Holy Spirit spoke, instructing them to appoint Barnabas and Saul (AKA Paul) for missionary service (13:1). Even more amazingly, according to the tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church, its founder, Mark (the gospel writer), was a native of Cyrene and ordained the first bishop of Cyrene! Perhaps this is the second time Mark has inserted something about his own life into the story—the first being the young man who was disrobed in the garden of Gethsemane.

And then he mentions that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Mark certainly doesn’t waste space in his relatively short gospel account, but offers no reason for including their names. Did this mean something special to the early Christians? It is highly likely when Paul sends greetings to a Rufus in the Roman church (Romans 16:13), that this is the same fellow. Some early traditions state that both Rufus and Alexander became missionaries. No doubt first-century Christianity was a family affair. Memories of the dramatic events surrounding Jesus’ death would have been told and retold in houses and churches. We get a splendid glimpse into this in Mark’s mention of Simon, our brother, and a hero in the faith.

That’s all very interesting, but we might ask if there is a bigger point to it all. What we are witnessing in the crucifixion story are seemingly unrelated actions brought about by people who are at best confused and at worst evil. Yet when we see these at a distance and through the lens of knowing the end of the story, we are witnessing God’s grace, God’s sovereign and saving presence. This is the love of God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. This is how the Kingdom comes at last. That’s the gospel! Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

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