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Faces of Our Faith: Joseph of Arimathea

The Rev. Bart Smith
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (October 21, 2018)
Luke 23:44-56

It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Then the curtain in the sanctuary tore down the middle. Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” After he said this, he breathed for the last time.

When the centurion saw what happened, he praised God, saying, “It’s really true: this man was righteous.” All the crowds who had come together to see this event returned to their homes beating their chests after seeing what had happened. And everyone who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance observing these things.

Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. It was the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was quickly approaching. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment.

We’ve been exploring this Faces of Our Faith Series for the last ten weeks which covers various often-overlooked Biblical characters. The editors of the series, the folks at A Sanctified Art, point us to 16 stories (24 people total) but there are only 15 Sundays between mid-August and the beginning of Advent, so we had to skip someone. If you’ve been following along in the journals, we skipped the Penitent Thief on the Cross and landed right on Joseph of Arimathea.

In some ways it’s felt like we’ve been calling up players from the minor leagues of the Bible and finally giving them their due. Reading these stories a little more closely, I can’t help but wonder, “Why haven’t I noticed person before, or at least stopped to consider them? They’re pretty good!”

Joseph of Arimathea is one of those. Never in a lifetime of attending church or several years of studying the Bible have I given much thought to him, which is probably because we only hear about this Joseph on Holy Week. He’s pretty much a footnote in the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And, honestly, I’d rather be preaching on another story on Jazz Sunday—something, well… “jazzier” than one about a supporting actor in the Good Friday drama—but this is the one in front of us.

Yet, if there is any connection between Jazz and Joseph of Arimathea, it is this: dig a little deeper and you’ll find something subversive in them both.

Take Jazz. Jazz was born in the African-American community of New Orleans in the Jim Crow South. As it grew in popularity it pushed boundaries—not just the boundaries of musical genres by fusing different styles, but also of race. There’s a book by Charles Hirsch called Subversive Sounds that makes a convincing case that early Jazz undermined dominant notions of racial purity at the turn of the 20th Century because, like the creole culture in which it was born, it dared to blur the boundaries between cultures.

We’ve become accustomed to equating Jazz with easy-listening, but it’s had a political edge to it, historically. Louis Armstrong, one of the most influential figures in early Jazz, was not only one of the first black entertainers white Americans were exposed to on a wide scale, but he also “lay his career on the line” during the civil rights movement. In 1957 he criticized President Eisenhower for his initial refusal to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.” Nearly two decades before that, Billie Holiday sang her version of the poem “Strange Fruit,” which was originally written by a Jewish communist teacher in the Bronx. Columbia records refused to record it. Holiday’s producer refused to record it. This was controversial stuff! But someone finally agreed to record it and Holiday’s song raised public consciousness about lynching in America in the 1930s. Jazz and Jazz musicians crossed lines.

Joseph of Arimathea crossed lines. What he did was boundary-breaking in his culture and time.

The little we know about Joseph we know from the gospels. All four make it a point to include him in the narrative because Joseph solved the vexing problem of how Jesus got from the cross to the tomb, how he managed to be buried instead of abandoned, as was common for those who were crucified. Mark makes it a point to mention that Joseph was “a respected member of the council.” Note that this was the very same council that had Jesus “unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition.” Luke, who we heard from today, wrote that Joseph was a member of the council but also that “He was a good and righteous man. He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council.” Matthew adds the detail that Joseph “was also a disciple of Jesus.” John, in his gospel, goes a few steps further and in the burial scene pairs him up with Nicodemus as “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because of fear…”

Yet they four are clear that Joseph:

1) was wealthy and well-connected,
2) went to Pilate to ask for the body, and
3) laid Jesus in his own tomb.

Which is highly unusual and begs questions like:

1) what was an elite urbanite doing following a peasant rabbi in the first place, whose other disciples were rural fishermen; and
2) who would be brave (or foolish) enough to ask the Roman governor for the corpse of an an enemy of the state, an executed criminal; and
3) who in their right mind would give up a tomb of their own family, an influential family, for the burial of a social pariah from the lower classes?

There’s another question: could Joseph have done more? The writer of the journal entry for today points to the complexity in all of this:

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?”

Asking these questions helps us put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes. And I’m sympathetic because I see him in a position many of us find ourselves in: caught between a desire to do the right thing and the needs of self-preservation.

In the end he crosses these lines—lines of power and status and wealth—and sticks his neck out to give this crucified revolutionary a dignified burial. Maybe Joseph was on the fence before about who this man was and what he stood for, but in claiming the corpse of Jesus he is publicly associating himself with Jesus. All the way to the grave.

I asked the folks at the early service to think of people who risked their position to do what is right. Someone mentioned David Hackworth, a decorated veteran and army colonel who, on the brink of promotion to general, admitted in an interview on national television in 1971 that the Vietnam War couldn’t be won and the US should withdraw. He had to retire and was almost court-martialed. Apparently Vietnam was on the brain because I thought of that movie last year with Tom Hank and Meryl Streep, The Post, which portrayed how the Washington Post dared to publish the Pentagon Papers. Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major paper, and a wealthy socialite (friends with Kennedy, McNamara, and other elites), struggles with whether or not to publish the story. She does, and later finds herself in front of the Supreme Court. The publication of the papers later led to Watergate. Both Hackworth and Graham later said they were both doing their jobs, but I think that on some level, like Joseph of Arimathea, the felt the weight of the bodies.

Why did Joseph do what he did? We don’t know his motives, of course, and all of this is speculation. But Mark and Luke tell us that Joseph “was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

That line jumps off the page. I think it points us to the answer. He was waiting for the kingdom. He was expecting the kingdom. He was waiting and expecting God’s rule to manifest. Maybe it was that posture of hope that gave him courage to cross those lines and do the right thing, in the end.

The same is true for us as people of faith. We are somehow willing to take risks when we know that what we are doing aligns with God’s will. Isn’t that what we pray for Sunday after Sunday, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? When we live in hope and expectation for God’s reign, the Spirit gives us courage to do what is right, even when that means crossing lines.