To many Jesus is just a stranger and the story of Easter is opaque. In the gospel accounts, there were three strangers who encountered Christ at his crucifixion: three seeming strangers who were profoundly transformed by their encounter with Him.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of Simon of Cyrene, a worshipper of God from Libya, Africa who was visiting Jerusalem with his two sons Alexander and Rufus. As the Roman soldiers led Jesus away, they seized Simon of Cyrene and forced him to carry Jesus’ cross. We’re not given the reason why Simon was picked out, perhaps it was because he was an outsider, a foreigner, perhaps he was a Jesus sympathiser, but as the crowds shouted and jeered, he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.
The cross is the ultimate symbol of suffering and pain. By bearing the cross, Christ identifies with the suffering and pain of humanity. But by carrying Jesus’ cross we identify ourselves with the one who carried our sorrows and was acquainted with grief. For every mother who has lost a son to youth violence; for every family who has lost a loved one through the pandemic; for every person traumatised police violence, Jesus whispers, “I bore your pain.” I don’t believe pain in and of itself is redemptive, but it’s simply fact of life. The story of Simon of Cyrene reminds us that in His humanity, even Jesus needed someone to carry His cross. He calls us to help carry the burdens of others, even those we may meet for the first time, in the community, in the soup kitchen at church, wherever. In supporting others, He calls us to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him.
Jesus is nailed to the cross between two criminals. “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. “Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43).
It doesn’t matter how we have messed up, what we have done or failed to do in our lives, we are never too far gone to be saved by Jesus. I grew up listening to people share testimonies of how their lives were transformed by the gospel. I remember as a young teenager being transfixed as I listened to how former criminals and gang members found Jesus as Saviour. I don’t care what has gone wrong, what badness has gone down, there is life for a look at the crucified one!
Finally, there’s the centurion, overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus, seeing all that had happened, who “praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23.47 NIV). There is something counterintuitive about a senior Roman officer, who is supervising the crucifixion of Jesus, acknowledging who Jesus is. We often think there is no hope for the oppressor. We think they’ll never change and are undeserving of mercy and redemption. The book of Jonah tells the story of how the prophet ran away from God because he didn’t think Nineveh was deserving of being given one last chance. Bob Marley sang “is there a place for the hopeless sinner, who has hurt all mankind just to save his own”.
As we confront systemic injustice in society, issues like educational failure, child poverty and racial injustice our instinct is to write those off who are part of those systemic structures as being beyond hope. And yet God can impact their lives. Is it possible that those of us who are engaged in mercy ministries, that support the last and the least are catching the attention of those in power, who could do more to change the status quo?
I was at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2022 along with Sajid Javid the then Health and Social Care Secretary, when he was so challenged by the sermon spoken by Rev Les Isaac (founder of Street Pastors) that he left his that breakfast in Westminster Hall and went to his office and wrote his resignation letter to the then PM Boris Johnson. People refer to it as the sermon that brought down the government. I prefer to think of it as the sermon that brought a politician to his senses and called for integrity in politics across the board. As God touched the heart of the centurion, the heart of a senior British politician in 21st century Britain, God can still shake the hearts of those in positions of power and influence.
In one way or another we were all strangers before we encountered Jesus. Ephesians 2.13 reminds us “but now you who were once far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ”. Whatever our background, life experience or position in society, God wants to draw us near. This Easter, may the words of that great Fanny Crosby hymn be our heart’s cry: “Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord, to the cross where thou hast died, draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord to thy precious bleeding side”.