"Simon the Cyrene and the Kahn Brothers"
Khurram and his brother, Farrukh, grew up as Christians in Pakistan. They were raised in a comfortable Christian home, and taught to be good business men. They both wanted to be engineers, and got a good education. They were in the minority as Christians in a majority Muslim country, but there was peace and harmony between Christians and Muslims.
But, when fundamentalist Muslims took over Pakistan in the seventies, after the Russian invasion of the Middle East, and the majority Muslim rule turned from peaceful and harmonious to militant and extreme. Farrukh and Khurram fled to Saudi Arabia to work for an American oil company. They were allowed to live openly as Christians in Saudi Arabia as long as they did not do one thing. What was that one thing? They couldn’t share their beliefs with anyone. What would you do if you were put in a situation in where sharing your faith in Christ was against the law?
This Lent we are taking a journey through many foreign lands by listening to stories of people from all nations. We have heard gripping stories of harrowing voyages across oceans and will hear other stories about refugees fleeing for their lives. Those stories may start in Pakistan, Germany, Japan or Mexico, but they end in places like Detroit , St Louis, Bakersfield (California) and Queens (New York). Each of these stories points us to people from all nations who live in our very own neighborhoods, who go to school with our kids, and who are our coworkers.
People like Farrukh and Khurram have moved into the communities all around us, and the question is, “what will we as Christians do about it?” In this message series, we’re turning our attention to the New Testament which has a lot to say to us about people from all nations and what the gospel means for them and for us. By looking at people of all nations in the New Testament, we’re better equipped to live with and love our neighbors from all nations. Jesus once said to his disciples:
But what exactly does it mean to pick up our cross? Because Jesus put this expectation on us, during Lent, some have decide to give up chocolate or coffee or alcohol or dessert. Others decide to fast from meat or even all food for one day a week during Lent. These kinds of “fasting” are fine things to do, but bearing our cross as followers of Jesus goes far deeper than that.
Sometimes carrying our cross means putting up with the challenges that come from being a spouse or a parent or an employee. Rather than complaining or quitting or getting out of that relationship, so we can “just be happy,” our Lord’s call is to bear that cross. In other words, He calls us to endure suffering and the challenges that come with our places in life.
Carrying our cross is about Jesus’s call not only to live as Christians but also to share Jesus love with others. If your classmate, boss or neighbor doesn’t like or have a jaded view of Christians, they may make your life challenging. Maybe because you’re a follower of Jesus you get made fun of or you don’t get that promotion or you get shunned from the neighborhood block party.
Hopefully during this message series, you’ve begun to realize that you have a responsibility to your neighbor of another ethnicity or nationality. Maybe it would be countercultural for you to reach out to the immigrant family next door. What do you do in situations like these? What do we as Christians do?
In Matthew, we see Jesus’s disciples are a lot like us. They also needed repeated calls to pick up their cross. There are lots of times where Jesus’s disciples completely lost sight of what it means to follow Jesus. The call to carry our cross is connected to sharing the message of the coming of the kingdom of God. In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus calls his disciples to go to the lost sheep of Israel telling them that the kingdom of God is near. As he is teaching them about this calling, He says:
But, when the Pharisees are offended by Jesus’s words the disciples forget all about carrying their cross. They forgot that Jesus had predicted that crosses would come for those who share the good news of the kingdom of God with other people. A few chapters later in Matthew 16, Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Still, Peter forgot Jesus’s words about carrying his cross. When Jesus reiterated that He was going to Jerusalem and would be killed and raised, Peter says “no way! This will never happen!” And so, Jesus scolds him, and then again lovingly instructs him and the other disciples what following him meant. That they would have to take up their cross and follow Him.
Like Peter and the other disciples, we easily forget that being a Christian and following Jesus means denying ourselves and picking up our cross. We can probably all think of numerous times when we were called to share our faith with a friend, classmate, neighbor, co-worker or family member and we didn’t. We chose the easier way, the cross-free way, and weaseled out of sharing our faith.
Reading Matthew’s depiction of the actual crucifixion, we hear about the most unlikely person to carry Jesus’s cross. After Jesus had been tried and tortured, it was time for Jesus to carry his cross to Golgotha. That would have been a perfect time for Jesus’s disciples to rally around him, and to demand to be crucified along with their Lord and Teacher. And yet, the disciples are nowhere to be found.
We know what happened to Judas the betrayer. He certainly had refused Jesus’s cross. By this point, Peter had betrayed Jesus, and the other disciples had fled.
When the time came, only a little-known man from Cyrene, a coastal town of North Africa, carried Jesus’s cross and disappears from the scene. Jesus was crucified with no disciples along side Him. What Jesus said was true, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Although Jesus welcomed His disciples to carry their cross and follow him, He alone died for his people.
The King of God’s kingdom carried His own cross for all, so He could welcome them to be His people. And, you are some of those people. Though time and time again you have forgotten or failed to carry your cross, your Lord took up his cross and was crucified for you. He died so that you will live.
Time and time again His Spirit has called you by His gospel to return to this good news. And, He calls us to return once again today. Return to Him because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and full of love. Return to carrying Jesus’s cross.
I want us to think a little more deeply about the man named Simon who was from Cyrene. He was possibly the least likely person to carry Jesus’s cross, and yet when it mattered most, Simon was the only person who did what Jesus said to do. Matthew specifically wants us to know that this Simon who carried Jesus’s cross was not just any Simon. Cyrene was Simon’s hometown, but more than that it represents the people that he belonged to. The interesting thing about Cyrene is that it seems to be a mashup of Jewish, Greek, and Roman influence. Simon seems to be the kind of person Jesus has in mind when at the end of Matthew’s Gospel He says
Simon was an all nations’ man. Maybe he was a Jew, maybe he was a Greek or maybe a Roman. That national diversity would have been troubling to the Pharisees, who would have considered carrying the cross an unclean act. But, Simon depicts well the model disciple who carries Jesus’s cross and follows Him.
And that’s exactly what Farrukh and Khurram did. They took up their crosses and became missionaries. But how they became missionaries is the most interesting part.While they were living in Saudi Arabia, it was Lutherans who brought them the clearest good news of the gospel, of salvation by grace through faith alone. One coworker, even smuggled a Small Catechism into Saudi Arabia to teach them about Jesus.
That act of taking a catechism and crossing cultural boundaries so that the Khans could hear about Jesus was carrying the cross. Because of tha bold act and many others, those Pakistani brothers were strengthened in their faith and decided to devote their lives to being missionaries. They moved to Canada and then to the United States where they could start “People of the Book Lutheran Outreach” (PABLO). And today many, many Muslims have become Christians because of Farrukh and Khurram Khan.
The gospel calls people of all nations, even the most unlikely people like Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, to pick up their crosses and share the gospel with all nations.
During this Lenten season, we will continue to hear more stories of missionaries who have come from all over the world, some with the most unlikely of stories, to share Jesus with us and who help us daily to bear our crosses, even as we fix our eyes on Jesus who died on his cross so we can live forever with Him.
And, may that peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.