Rufus – of Cyrene
My father had changed when he came back from his journey. He had been a hard man; a strict disciplinarian. Although we were young, my brothers and I, we understood that there would be no option for us but to follow him into the family business. So he raised us with that intent. My younger brother, Alexander, was too young to have any feelings one way or another about this at the time. My older brother, Benjamin, thrived on the idea. He was a determined boy, with a fine intelligence. Figures and profits were fuel to his fire. He would do well and so was the favourite son.
But I, I favoured my gentle, softly-spoken mother. My greatest joy was to wander the hills and spend time away from the bustle of the town. I was afraid for my future. I knew that I would not thrive in the cut throat world of business – but that I would not be permitted to do anything else. And anyway, what else could I do? Everyone knew me here as Simon’s son and it was expected that I would obey my father in all things – and probably marry Judith, Zebedee’s daughter. My father had picked her out for me as soon as she was born.
But my father had changed when he came back from his journey. He had an amazing tale to tell – and although it is his story and not mine, I will share a little of it with you so that you understand my own story.
He had travelled the long, dusty, dangerous road to Jerusalem and admitted that he was both excited and relieved to see the walls of the city ahead of him. He had journeyed for a month to get there in time for the Passover feast to worship God in the Holy City. He had been twice before, once as a boy with his own father, and once as a young man. The next time, he promised us, we would travel with him. But for now we were still too young to undertake the perils of the road.
He said he had heard the shouting and wailing before he reached the gate of the city. As he approached, he could see the beginnings of a crowd. Unwilling to get caught up in the commotion, he hesitated. He was tired, and entering the city through another gate would take him out of his way, for he was staying with friends who lived just inside the wall to the left of the gate ahead of him. So he went forward into the crowd and was surrounded by the crush of people in the street. He was a tall man; striking in appearance, and he stood out in the crowd. He was the only one not shouting or wailing. The people were in a frenzy of emotion about something. The focus seemed to be just ahead of where he stood. He was unable to make any progress along the street against the crowd. As the man who was the centre of attention came up to him, bowed under the weight of a heavy wooden cross, he glanced up and looked straight at my father. Abba said that his heart recoiled at the sight of such a brutally disfigured human being. We live in a hard world, but this was cruelty beyond bearing.
He felt compassion for the man, but it was only for a moment; for suddenly he was grasped by the arm and roughly thrust forward. A Roman soldier commanded him to take the cross from the back of the man who was struggling to carry it. Anger surged through him. Why should he do this degrading thing? He managed to hold back his emotion. He wanted to lash out – but he knew that any evasive action would not go well for him. The Romans had the right to ask any Jew to carry a burden for them for the distance of one mile and no Jew was permitted to refuse. The punishment was not worth it. Filled with resentment, he stepped forward, through the crowd.
Once again the man looked at him and, even in his pain, it was as if he smiled briefly at my father. Abba told us in words of wonder and compassion that his anger disappeared – melted away as if draining out of him through his feet. He took care not to inflict more pain as he lifted the cross from the man’s shoulders, and took the load upon himself. I always found this so difficult to understand. My father was not a compassionate man. There was nothing gentle about him. But perhaps this was the moment when he was changed. When he took the blood soaked cross onto his own shoulders, when he lifted the burden off the beaten back of the man standing before him, when he showed compassion – perhaps that was when his flinty heart softened in love. He was to be a man of love and compassion for the rest of his life.
Whether that was it or not, I do not know. He never spoke of that moment without wonder in his voice. He never spoke of the man without the essence of love drifting through his words. And my own heart yearned to have seen him, this man, standing bloody and beaten in the street, and yet, Abba said, with a dignity that few men possess.
Abba carried the cross to the top of a hill – Golgotha, they call it – and watched dismayed and heart-broken as they nailed the man to it, raised it and left him to die. My father watched to the end. He said he could not leave. But then any idea he had of business connections, of celebrations with friends, of worshipping in the Temple, all turned to sawdust for my father. He turned from the hill, and walked away from the city – home to us, so far away.
And so it was that we only heard the end of the story in which my father had played a part several weeks later. Or was it perhaps, the beginning of the story? The rumours started drifting in with the first travellers to return from the Passover celebrations. The man had been seen in the city! He was walking through Galilee! Of course it was all rumour and conjecture then. But as more travellers returned so the stories became more convincing. Then we heard that he had gone; disappeared into the clouds. My father mourned again. What was it about this man that had affected him so?
A few weeks later – more travellers came through the town with another strange story. A wind, blowing through the room where the man’s friends had gathered; a flame settling on their heads; and a sudden burst of courage from all who had been cowering there, afraid of the Romans and the Jewish authorities, so that they erupted into the street proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Living Son of God!
It was difficult to understand when we were so far away. We heard other stories as we grew up, my brothers and I. Benjamin went into the business, but somehow Alexander and I could never forget the story that my father told us. The business held nothing for us – and, for some reason – my father did not force us to go into it.
Alexander was just as passionate to find out more about the man my father had helped as I was. The two of us went to Abba one day and told him we wanted to go to Antioch to discover what we could about him. We thought our request would be refused and so we were astounded when he agreed to our going; and even more shocked when he told us that he and our mother would go with us to find out more about the man for themselves. Benjamin would stay behind in Cyrene to run the business.
So we went; and there we discovered a small group of men and women who were calling themselves Christians. The term was new to us, but we understood it to mean followers of Christ, the Living Son of God. As we met with them, talked to them and heard their stories, each of the four of us also began to follow Jesus Christ. It seemed to be the natural thing to do – the only thing to do.
Many people came to the church at Antioch. Paul stayed for over a year. How privileged we were to sit at the feet of this great teacher and learn all we could about Jesus from him. And how blessed we were to have him stay in our home. He was never a burden to us, making his tents when he was not preaching or praying. My mother became very fond of him – and I think he began to love her as if she were his own mother. Life was not the same when he left, although by this time both Alexander and I were busy preaching the Gospel ourselves to all who would listen – and to some who would not.
Life happened, as life does, and Abba went home to his Saviour. I know the family sat Shiva for him back in Cyrene for Benjamin’s letters told us so. But in Antioch we celebrated his life and rejoiced that, at last, he had joined the man whose cross he had carried and whom he would again see face to face.
I felt the need, the call, I suppose, to go to Rome to continue to spread the Gospel there. There were plenty of people in Antioch to carry on the work, but Rome was a different story. My mother, always devoted to both her Lord and to me, decided to come with me; and we were delighted when Alexander agreed to join us.
So here we are. My story perhaps is not as dramatic as that of my father’s, but together my family have told many people about Jesus and His sacrifice for us. I believe that nothing we do for Jesus is wasted and we have worked for the expansion of the Kingdom for many years.
My mother is old now. Paul still remembers her and sends us greetings when he writes letters to the church here in Rome. I pray that she will be kept safe and be able to die in peace for times are hard and Christians are persecuted for their faith. Alexander has his own work to do in Rome but we meet often in various homes around the city.
As for me – my future is in Jesus’ hands. I love him more than I can say and I often think of that time when all our lives changed. A time when a strong, healthy man lifted a wooden cross off the shoulders of that beaten man to help him fulfil his destiny on a hill called Golgotha and, by doing so, opened the door for his own family to fulfil their destiny.
Thank you, Abba, for your obedience. Your act of compassion brought us news of Jesus Christ that changed our lives.