Jesus was dead.
That’s the first thing we have to understand as we encounter our scriptural text for this morning.
Following six long hours of agonizing torture and humiliation on the cross, he let out one last, loud cry and breathed his last breath. Jesus was dead and it all happened too fast. There was no time to make pre-arrangements. Then, just like now, there are things that have to happen after a death; things that are unpleasant, distressing, and at the same time – totally necessary and unavoidable.
When someone dies the first question asked is always, “What shall we do with the body?” Before we can even really sit with the gut-wrenching totality of what has been lost, someone has to go about making burial arrangements.
We don’t usually focus on this part of the story, especially today. On Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem; carried away by the enthusiasm of a crowd anticipating a royal parade, and we are right there – waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna”.
As we slide into Holy week we are more accustomed to focusing on all the indelible moments that bring us to the events that lead up to Easter morning:
- The moment Jesus and his 12 disciples come into Jerusalem from Bethany to share a Passover meal.
- The moment right after the meal when Jesus walks with his disciples toward the Mount of Olives, where he is betrayed by Judas, and arrested.
- The moment he is handed over to Pilate and sentenced to death through mob mentality.
- And of course, that glorious moment when Jesus arises from the tomb, fulfilling prophecy, authenticating himself as the Messiah, for which, the world is forever changed!
But, today I am asking you to linger in a different moment. The moment right after Jesus dies. I am asking you to stay in this particular moment because this is where we meet the surprising saint, Joseph of Arimathea.
Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels in connection with the burial of Jesus, but nowhere else in the New Testament. That, in and of itself tells us he is a significant player in this particular story. From these combined accounts, we know that Joseph was from Arimathea (a tiny remote village in Judea) and that he was a respected member of the Sanhedrin council, a judicial body that constituted something like our supreme court. It was by this very Sanhedrin that Jesus is condemned for various accusations, including violating the Sabbath law by performing acts of healing and claiming to be the Son of God. The Gospel of Luke says, Joseph was a “good and upright man, who “had not consented to their decision and action” to try Jesus. The Gospel of Mark reveals something about his beliefs, that he “was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God”. And the Gospel of John comes right out and calls him, “a disciple of Jesus – but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders”.
People in power at that time were always threatened by Jesus. His followers were being watched carefully and some had been thrown out of the synagogue, so Joseph of Arimathea had kept his discipleship a secret. Some people say he was a coward. Maybe he was. But, I’m uncomfortable thinking of Joseph as a coward, because if I do – then I have to think of myself as a coward, too.
Let me tell you a story about cowardice. I am a creature of habit when it comes to where I choose to dine out. I have a group of friends that gather for lunch, often at the same restaurant. We have been going there for so long and so regularly that our waitress – the same one every week, knows our drink orders and meal preferences by heart. Maybe it’s the comfort of being known by name, or feeling like an extra-special customer, whatever it is – I like it, and I like it enough that when something kind of awful happened recently, I was stunned into awkward silence.
This is not a fancy place, just home-cooked style food, in a family kitchen like setting. On this particular day, we were the only customers in the restaurant. We were all sitting around the table talking, laughing, and enjoying our meals when another customer entered the room. He walked all the way to the back of the restaurant but, before he found a table or sat down our typically cheerful and hospitable waitress came into the room, and with an intensity and energy I did not recognize she said, “Excuse me. Can I help you?” Her facial expression had gone from happy-go-lucky to sort of stern and accusatory. I was so startled by the shift in her demeanor that I questioned what I was witnessing. I thought to myself, “wait. Are we supposed to ask to be seated”? Then, I looked back toward the gentleman, trying to discover some sort of clue that would explain her behavior. I wondered… did this guy just walk in here in his underwear? Was he being rude? What was going on?? Actually, it was pretty obvious; I just didn’t want to see it. This man was the only black customer in the room and our server was painfully uncomfortable with it. Even after 3 more people joined him for what was clearly a business lunch, the server continued to act “put out”. She would approach our table with a sweet smile to see if we needed anything, then – on the pivot away from our table she put her sour face back as she approached theirs. I was confounded. I was angry and devastated! Partly, because this gentleman seemed so un-phased by this treatment. I thought later, of course he was! This was not the first time he had experienced this kind of treatment.
I was so frustrated, I felt like dragging her outside by the ear to have a “talk” with her. But, I didn’t. I was caught in this space of confusion, anger, disappointment. I was afraid of making a scene that would bring more attention to this man, and, if I’m honest, I was afraid that our server wouldn’t take it well. So, I just paid my bill and left. I felt like such a coward. I still do! It’s been months since that occurred. And, yes. I’ve been back to dine at this restaurant. I have been carrying this failure to act around with me ever since, including when I met Joseph of Arimathea again – through this scripture.
We don’t know why Joseph of Arimathea made the choices he did. We do know he was a good and righteous man, seeking the Kingdom of God and we do know he opposed the actions of the Sanhedrin. He probably did have more than a few opportunities to speak up, but he didn’t. He kept to the background rather than risk his reputation and maybe his own life. Joseph was a coward – until he wasn’t. We don’t know why, but something compelled him to circle back and step up, in a big way!
It was Joseph, and Joseph alone – the 12 disciples are nowhere in sight. It was Joseph who stepped in at the moment of Jesus’ death and did what was right. It was Joseph who “went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus”. It was Joseph who took Jesus down from the cross, to then care for his body according to his faith and traditions, before placing Jesus in his own family’s tomb. Joseph was a coward before he was brave. But, when he had the chance to make it right he bravely risked EVERYTHING for Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea was a coward before he was brave. We all are until we find our voice.
I didn’t tell you my story of feeling like a coward so you could decide whether or not I was. I told you my story because I suspect we all have moments in our lives that we are not proud of. And if we don’t take the opportunity to learn and recognize that fact – we will not be prepared to act the next time a clear, courageous choice is required. Joseph of Arimathea tells us it is never too late to circle back and make things right.
What are you carrying around? What incident or memory do you need to circle back to? It’s not too late. It can’t be too late – because Joseph of Arimathea was named in all 4 Gospels. This story is just too important. We know his name, because he did something extraordinary. He circled back and made a different choice and we can too.