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Before the Cross of Jesus: The Secret Disciple

22 Mar

looking at cross(a sermon for March 22, 2015, the 5th Sunday in Lent; fourth in a series, based on Mark 15:42-47)

Jesus was dead.

That’s the first thing we have to understand as we approach our text for this morning:  Jesus was dead; after six long, tortuous hours hanging on the cross, the life slowly ebbing out of him moment by excruciatingly painful moment, at the last he finally “gave a loud cry and breathed his last,” and with that, Jesus was dead.

And now he needed a burial.

I know that seems rather obvious when I say it aloud; of course, Jesus would need a burial. It’s just that we really don’t talk a lot about this part of the story; indeed, as we move closer to Holy Week our focus tends to be on the events of Maundy Thursday and most especially Good Friday and all the indelible moments that bring us to Jesus’ death on the cross.  But what about after… what about those first few hours just after Jesus dies?  It’s an important question, because then, just as now, there are things that need to happen after a death; things that are unpleasant and often gut-wrenching, and yet are necessary nonetheless.

In those days, you see, the Romans tended to leave the bodies of executed criminals (or revolutionaries, interestingly enough) hanging on the cross for an indefinite period of time, to be scavenged and torn apart by vultures, or else the bodies would be tossed into an open garbage pit; either way, the idea being that such a sight would serve as a warning to others.  The Jews, on the other hand, were concerned about getting the bodies of their dead in tombs or underground, since touching the dead could make one ritually unclean; so even in the case of an execution there were faith-based procedures that needed to be followed; and soon, since it was “the day of Preparation,” that is, just before the Sabbath when all such activity would need to stop.

Now, ordinarily it would be the family’s responsibility to care for the dead; and in absence of that, it fell to the friends of the deceased to take care of these matters.  The problem in this instance, however, is that those closest to Jesus were nowhere to be found!  By this time, his disciples were all scattered and hiding in grief, shame and in all honesty, fear for their own lives; so overwhelmed by the events of the past few hours and their own failures that the last thing on their minds is to do what true disciples would do to take care of their Master’s body!

I tell you all this so that you understand the situation as we enter into our reading today:  that Jesus is dead; that there’s only a couple of hours until sunset and the Sabbath; and there’s nobody to retrieve Jesus lifeless body from the cross (!); in short, what we’re looking at here is an agonizing, humiliating death followed by further degradation; defiled in faith and tradition, left to rot in an unmarked grave.

Which brings us to Joseph of Arimathea.

The fact is, biblically speaking, we don’t know that much about Joseph of Arimathea – he doesn’t show up in the Gospel story up until this point in the Passion narrative, and he’s never heard from again – but in fact he’s mentioned in all four of the Gospels, and that’s because he’s the one who comes forward to serve as the undertaker, so to speak; to retrieve and care for Jesus’ body.  Based on those accounts, we know that he was from Arimathea, a city of Judea but far off the beaten track (so far off the beaten track that some biblical scholars still debate where Arimathea actually was!); and we also know that he was a respected member of the Council of Sanhedrin, the body of religious elites in Jerusalem who had conspired to convict, and ultimately to rid themselves of Jesus; but who, as Luke’s gospel puts it, “had not agreed to their plan and action.” (23:51) Luke goes on to describe Joseph as “a good and righteous man,” (v. 50) Matthew makes a point of also calling him a rich man, while our Mark reading today says that he “was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”  But perhaps the most telling thing about Joseph comes in John’s version of the story; he says that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.” (19:38)

So in essence, then, Joseph is pretty much a “secret disciple,” a follower in the shadows, as it were; an admirer of Jesus who opposed his crucifixion, who actually had some opportunity to speak up about his opposition, but kept to the background rather than risk his own life and reputation to stop it.  And yet it’s Joseph – and Joseph alone – who at the moment of Jesus’ death, steps in and does what is right.  It’s Joseph who “went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (an act that in and of itself was dangerous to the point of possibly being considered treasonous);  it’s Joseph who, perhaps along with Nicodemus (another “secret disciple” who’d first “come to Jesus by night” (John 19:39) ), carried Jesus’ body down from the cross, and then, according to faith and tradition, wrapped the body in fresh linen cloth, and “laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock,” and where no one had ever been laid, a tomb that may very well have been intended to be his own.  And it’s Joseph who brings this part of the story to an end, as he then rolls a stone against the door of the tomb, thus saying to the world in a way that is unmistakable and undeniable, and as believers still proclaim as part of our faith and creed, that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate and was crucified dead and buried.”

saint-joseph-of-arimatheaIt was Joseph who did all this; it was Joseph, this secret disciple, who became the very caretaker of Christ when Jesus’ own public disciples had failed to do so.  And the question is, why?  You do have to wonder… was it an overwhelming feeling of guilt or remorse on Joseph’s part; the nagging feeling that if he’d just said something, if he’d simply spoken out, perhaps things would have gone differently; was it a piercing realization deep within his own heart that by virtue of his position he too was culpable for what had happened that day?   Was this an effort to pay some kind of penance for his sin of omission, or was it to “make up” for his mistake by doing something now, after the fact?

Or could it be that in those hours standing “before the cross of Jesus” watching this man die, did Joseph of Arimathea finally understand the truth; the truth of who Jesus really was; the truth of his teachings and of what the Kingdom of God was all about; the truth of what had just happened on that hill that was so aptly named Golgotha, “the place of the skull…”  There is a reason, you see, why a man like Joseph of Arimathea, came to this particular moment and was moved to act; to proclaim to the world by his very life his true allegiance.  It’s because ultimately, there is a great difference between merely being an admirer of Jesus and a follower of Jesus, and at the end of the day – literally, in this case (!) – Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus.

It’s something for us to consider, is it not, as you and I also stand “before the cross of Jesus?”

There’s a pastor and writer by the name of Kyle Idleman who has written a popular book entitled, “Not a Fan,” in which he says that if a fan is correctly defined as “an enthusiastic admirer,” then it can be easily asserted that Jesus Christ has a great many fans but not nearly enough followers; plenty of people out there – and also, by the way, in here in the church – who will easily claim to be enthusiastic about their faith in God in Christ, but not quite so many who will be a totally committed disciple; so many “disciples” who wish to live lives that are close enough to Christ to reap the benefits, but not so close as to require the sacrifice.

It sounds harsh, but in truth we can understand how that happens!  I mean, let’s be honest; most of the time and for most of us, being a Christian is a reasonably easy thing to do!  You get to come to church, you sing and you pray, you hang out with a whole lot of very nice people, you get some coffee and goodies at the end of it all, and again, most of the time, you pretty much leave every Sunday feeling a little better about yourself than when you came in; and it all comes about because of Jesus… Jesus and his peace, Jesus and his joy, Jesus and his love… so why wouldn’t we be fans of Jesus?  Isn’t the whole point of what we do here to “enthusiastically admire” Jesus and then, in a real and tangible way, go out into the world and live unto that admiration?

Well, yes… and no, because admiration, being “a fan” of Jesus will only take you so far; simply put, admiration is safe and requires no sacrifice; and sooner or later, you see, true discipleship will require some level of sacrifice!

What about when our faithful enthusiasm puts us into conflict with those around us who, more than simply not sharing that enthusiasm, seem to want to do their best to work against it?  What if our admiration of the teachings of Jesus comes up against the unjust, unethical and immoral principles that not only seem to run rampant in the world but have a way of touching our lives and living?  What if following Jesus means we end up standing on the outside, looking in: socially, culturally, and even financially?  What if standing by and standing for the truth and reality of our Christian faith costs us a paycheck, or a friendship, or worse?  What if, by following, Jesus you and I actually have to confront that teaching of Jesus that speaks of actually losing your life in order to save it?

Granted, you and I likely will never have to face the kind of risk, persecution, imprisonment or threat of death as what we’ve seen illustrated in recent weeks by Christians in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world.  As Emily Heath, a UCC pastor (serving the church in Exeter, New Hampshire, as a matter of fact!), has written in a wonderful online devotional published just this week, the bottom line is that “we modern American Christians are pretty darn comfortable.” Nonetheless, we live in a time and a culture in which, very often, true and vibrant faith ends up expressed in muted tones, for fear of somehow offending others in our effort to live out of a united and uniting truth.  But true discipleship, to quote Emily Heath once again, is “the messy and painful work of transforming the world.” It is doing the “right thing” despite our own fear and apprehension; and that requires from us more than the easy faith of “fandom,” if you will, but rather the more rugged and difficult conviction that knows and truly understands that the way of life will ever and always be the way of the cross.

That’s what Joseph of Arimathea came to understand, finally, there at the foot of the cross, there at the place where Jesus himself willingly went for the sake of all; and friends, and that’s the challenge that you and I still face today in our walk of faith.

You know, one of the great joys and privileges that comes with being a pastor is that you get to hear incredible stories of faith from so many people.  These are stories of fresh starts, pathways changed, the improbable becoming miracles in the making all because of the power of love, of hearts and lives changing from the inside out and always for the better.  So many stories, so many experiences; and they’re stories that continue to unfold in this place, and in you!  But the common thread through all these stories has always seemed to be that while one’s faith is uniquely personal, ultimately it’s never private; for it is meant to be lived fully and boldly out in the open, ever and always extending outward to the world and the people who Christ loves and for whom Christ has died; a faith that requires more from us than mere admiration; a faith that demands that we come out from the shadows of life and living, and to take a stand for his sake, no matter the cost.

So I ask you this, friends, and it’s an important question… what’s your story?  What’s your faith about, and who is this man Jesus to you?

Whatever your answer this day, beloved, I pray that you will live out your story… boldly.

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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