For Good Friday. On the salvation of rich, powerful men.
John 19:38-42: After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
When Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, many of his most loyal disciples hid. They were afraid that in accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow, to “come and see,” they had made the worst decision of their life. And now they would be next. But Jesus of Nazareth did not die alone; his mother, his aunt, and three disciples - Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the beloved disciple stayed with him until he had breathed his last. After he died, they left heart-broken, shocked, and confused.
Even after Jesus of Nazareth was executed, he was still not abandoned. Two unlikely men who had been on the periphery of Jesus’ community came to claim his body and prepare it for burial.
The first man is Joseph of Arimathea and, as we just heard in the reading, was a secret disciple of Jesus. Secret because he was afraid of the Jewish leadership. This is the only time we meet him in all four gospels - when he claims and buries Jesus’ body. Putting together the details from our gospels, we are introduced to a rich and powerful man. He was a member of the same council that had pushed for Jesus’ execution, but disapproved of their decisions. He was waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus had caused him to hope that it might be nearer than he had imagined.
The second man who comes to bury Jesus is a Pharisee named Nicodemus. We see Nicodemus a couple times before this moment. The first time, he comes to meet Jesus for himself, but at night because he doesn’t want his meeting to be noticed by his colleagues - Jesus’ adversaries. He and Jesus have a long conversation about what it means to gain new life in God. That conversation must have made an impression on Nicodemus because the next time we see him, he is defending Jesus from the chief priests and the other Pharisees who are already trying to get Jesus arrested and out of their hair. Here Nicodemus comes bearing 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, which was much, much more than people normally used and extremely expensive.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are two rich, powerful, and educated men who have both been on the periphery of Jesus’ followers. When everything falls apart and the movement by all appearances has been broken, by all rights should be broken - their leader has been killed, the followers have fled and hidden in despair and confusion, in this moment, Joseph and Nicodemus choose to risk everything. They risk everything for a shattered and failed hope that Jesus of Nazareth was going to be different, was going to change everything.
They were risking a lot. Joseph and Nicodemus worked with the same Jewish leaders who had orchestrated Jesus’ execution. They had probably worked together for years. They may even have been educated together or raised together. They were risking all those relationships and the safety that came along with those relationships. It would not go unnoticed that they had claimed the body of Jesus the heretic who had claimed to be the son of God. They were risking their credibility as religious and moral leaders. It would not go unnoticed that they had prepared a king’s burial for Jesus in a new tomb surrounded by a garden and treated with an abundance of myrrh and aloe. In touching Jesus’ dead body, they made themselves ritually unclean. It would not go unnoticed that they were unable to partake in the Passover feast.
We do not know why exactly these two men decided all of this was worth it. That it was worth it to risk their income, their status, their security for a man who was now dead and would likely stay dead. The story doesn’t tell us why.
Regardless, I think it is significant that it is two rich, powerful, educated men who bury Jesus. Who come face to face with a God who surrenders power, was wounded and dead, and, there, saw the coming of the kingdom. They received their salvation, their freedom, in Jesus’ failure. We do not know why or how, but Jesus’ death, before any inkling of the resurrection, set them free to join God’s reign and risk all the things they thought gave them freedom - money, prestige, influence, privilege, and power.
I think it is significant that at the same time that their families were bringing home their ritually slaughtered lambs and preparing them to be roasted in time to eat for Passover, at the same time, Joseph and Nicodemus labored over the wounded, defeated body of a poor man from loathsome Nazareth, applying a fortune’s worth of aloe and myrrh. This act would be their worship this year. This year, tending to their dead hope would be how they remembered that God made death pass over them on their way to freedom.
I think it is significant that Joseph and Nicodemus don't show up again after Jesus’ resurrection. They are not mentioned among Jesus’ ecstatic and dumbfounded disciples. I think it might be because Jesus’ resurrection didn’t change much for them. They had already received the vision of God that they needed as powerful men. They witnessed Jesus willingly give himself over to failure, to death, and in that they received their freedom.
Between now when we remember Jesus’ execution by people of power, and Sunday when we remember Jesus’ resurrection, when Jesus declares that brokenness and defeat is only the beginning for God, I want you to consider where God is offering you freedom this year. Will you find your freedom by sticking your finger in Jesus’ wounds and knowing that was not the end? Or like Nicodemus and Joseph, do you need to cover your hands in cool aloe and fragrant spices, touch Jesus’ wounds, and know that the surrendering of power is at the heart of God?