Scripture Luke 23:44-56
Luke 23:44-56 (New Revised Standard Version)
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things.
50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
*Hymn - When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
1. When I survey the wondrous cross
on which the Prince of Glory died;
my richest gain I count but loss,
and pour contempt on all my pride.
2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
save in the death of Christ, my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
3. See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown.
4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
I almost titled this sermon “Joseph of Arimathea: The Man, The Myth, The Legend” because all you need to do is Google his name and up pops dozens of results about this one individual, who is mentioned in all 4 gospels as the one who took responsibility for Jesus’ body following his crucifixion. They all vary slightly in describing who precisely he was, but putting the pieces together we know that he was probably a secret disciple of Jesus, he was a member of the religious council - a respected one - though he disagreed with their actions concerning Jesus. He is the one who - along with Nicodemus as recorded in the gospel of John - prepared and placed Jesus’ body in the tomb - most likely his own personal tomb. That’s pretty much all we know about him from scripture.
He crops up, however, in non-canonical texts and apocryphal writings, beginning in about the 2nd century, and is mentioned in the writings of some of the early church fathers and historians. Perhaps, though, what he is most well-known for on the legend spectrum of things is his association with the Holy Grail, which appeared in the Arthurian Cycle thanks a french poet who first surfaced the idea in a poem written about Joseph of Arimathea. Many of us probably think of that association - Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail - thanks to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - but there is a whole host of legends around him and his connection to Great Britain, where he may have been the first missionary, may have journeyed there to purchase tin and brought child Jesus along with him for the ride, all sorts of legends.
But - we’re going to leave all that legend stuff to the side and focus on what we do see present in this story.
The image that comes to mind for me is one that is well-depicted in the artwork created by Hannah Garrity - that of a man who is lovingly, tenderly, caring for the body of a friend. A man who carries Jesus when no one else would. A man who risks everything to show up for God’s kingdom.
Jesus had been executed as an enemy of the state - an enemy of the Roman Empire. Those on the council - who handed Jesus over to the secular authorities to be tried and punished - brought him to Pilate, the local representative of the Roman government - and accused Jesus of stirring up the people to be disobedient. The council finds itself in a difficult position - on the one hand, their survival as an ethnic and religious minority is predicated upon not doing anything that would upset their clearly more powerful overlords; on the other hand, they, too, aren’t exactly happy about living as an occupied people. Their decision to hand him over to Roman authorities - one that Joseph of Arimathea disagreed with - was most likely done out of self-preservation.
Crucifixion was also a method of execution reserved for slaves and for the worst criminals. It was a means used to terrorize others into subservience. In addition, those killed by the state in this way were often buried in mass graves or were in other ways denied burial rites from grieving family members, another way to oppress and ensure a compliant populace. Those who wished to tend to a loved one who had been crucified would have to beg the body from a government official so that proper rites could be administered - and it was no guarantee that such a request would be granted.
Yet in this story we have Joseph, a rich, respected, righteous and just man, a member of the council who asked Pilate for Jesus’s body - a move that would have highlighted Joseph of Arimathea’s relationship to this condemned criminal. He took it upon himself to give Jesus a dignified burial after a dehumanizing execution, an act that was courageous and personally risky - would this move jeopardize his place on the council? What about being ritually unclean the night before one of the most important holy days in the Jewish calendar? Or the risk of angering Pilate who had just crucified Jesus for treason? So much was at stake in this moment when the Romans were especially on the lookout for revolution (remember, that’s what the Passover story was all about, God’s liberation from oppression and slavery - and that’s what so many people were in Jerusalem to celebrate) and would be incredibly suspicious of anyone associated with Jesus. The instinct of many of the disciples was to hide away - watch from a distance - to not get involved - to grieve in private.
But Joseph steps into the silence. Joseph, a man who the text specifically notes was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, was ready to use his resources, his position, his privilege, his courage, to minister in this moment to Jesus. To give him a decent burial. To give him honor when the world wanted to take it away. To stand by Jesus and all that he stood for - even as all that Jesus stood for threatened the powers of this world. To love his rabbi publicly when everyone else chose a different path.
Hannah Garrity’s artist reflection is one filled with questions. She writes,
How heavy is the body of a dead man? Only with superhuman strength would this pose be possible. Yet, Joseph of Arimathea alone carries Jesus’ lifeless body. How did he do it? Why did he do it? Luke says, “He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). Is this act good enough?
He was on the council. He disagreed with the majority. Why could he not stop the crucifixion from happening in the first place? Why did he fail to convince his fellow council members? Is this good deed enough to make up for such a monumental failure?
Or is Joseph of Arimathea at the right place at the right time? Is he able to dignify Jesus’ body after death? Does he play the vital role of the dissenter, picking up the pieces of the wrongs of the group? Does Joseph forward God’s plan for Jesus’ death and resurrection?
How weighty a task. What superhuman strength must we each have to forward God’s plan. Yet, God prepares us. We are ready.
I confess that I am moved by this outward display of care performed by Joseph of Arimathea. To minister to the dead is a profoundly sacred task. The act of preparing a body for burial – even under hasty circumstances – is one that requires care and attention so as not to damage the fragile skin tissue. It is an act of devotion that most of us in our society are far removed from – it is a task that others do on our behalf – so it may be challenging for us to fully appreciate the meaning ascribed to this act. Add to this the complex political environment, and we see Joseph as someone who was willing to risk everything – his social standing, his political standing, his wealth and resources, and potentially his very own life – to show love and devotion to Jesus as he waited expectantly for the fulfillment of God’s plan. In the midst of what looked like the death of a dream – when the kingdom that seemed to be within reach appeared to slip through the fingers of the disciples – Joseph continued to do what he could and was ready to use whatever he could to live in a way that honored the vision of God’s world made new.
Are we that ready and willing? That’s the question Joseph of Arimathea’s witness begs us to answer. When moments like this present themselves to us, are we able to leverage our resources, our relationships, our time and energy, our very selves, for something bigger that we can’t even fully see because we love Jesus and what Jesus offers us and the world that much? Far too often we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to questions like this – our faith oftentimes resides too much in our head and we can rationalize our way out of doing potentially risky things or things that would cost us social capital among our peers or things that would put us too much at odds with our society because deep down we really value those things – what people think of us, the power and influence we wield among our peers or in our community, and we don’t want to upset the status quo for the sake of this subversive upside-down vision of life in God’s kingdom where the last are first, where there is more than enough for all, where resurrection and life made new happen if we but have eyes to see it.
In the face of a brutal reality - after all, Joseph of Arimathea knew the full might of what Rome could do - he still chose to show up and to expect God to show up too. And that’s what we as a church, we as God’s people, need to be ready to do. To show up, use whatever we have, and expect God to be there too. In a world that feels like it is unraveling by the minute - God’s people show up and they are ready to be the hands and arms and feet that carry each other through. And that’s where we see the kingdom unfolding. When we show up and use our selves - even in ways that are personally risky and irrational - God shows up too. And that’s where church is. Church is not just about four walls and a worship service. Church is about showing up in our community for folks whose lives have been devastated by substance abuse. Showing up in our community for folks who are struggling to make ends meet, struggling with overpacked schedules, struggling with the weight of uncertain futures. Showing up in our community for those wrestling with their mental health and well-being. Showing up in our community as we think about the impacts of climate devastation in our world and dealing with climate refugees. Showing up for those who wonder if their right to marry or seek adequate health care will be the next thing to topple. Showing up and being a part of the healing work that God is about in our world. Showing up and carrying others - and yes, even being willing to be carried ourselves, if that is the place we find ourselves in - because being able to admit to others that we need to be carried is a way of showing up to ourselves.
We know the world is hurting. We know people in our community are hurting. We know friends and neighbors are hurting. How are we showing up? How are we using our time and energy, resources, privilege, and courage, to stand up for healing in a world full of pain? How are we expecting God to show up with us?
May we find ways this week to live our faith courageously like Joseph of Arimathea - to live in the hope of God’s kingdom in the face of difficult times, to carry each other in the shelter of healing, and to show up in this world, guided by the Spirit, as God’s people who love Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.