The New Creation: Joseph and Nicodemus

April 8th, 2018

The New Creation: Joseph and Nicodemus
John 19:38-42
April 8, 2018

Last week, we read the Gospel of Mark’s account of Easter morning. The women bravely go to the empty tomb, intending to do the work that women were always assigned—preparing a body for a proper burial. They were assigned this work because a dead body was considered “unclean” and women were already considered “unclean” by the dominant, patriarchal culture. The fact that they were doing this work for someone who had been crucified made them suspects. When they get to the tomb, the stone has been rolled away but they are simply given a message: the risen Christ will meet them and the disciples in Galilee. The women are amazed but mostly they are terrified. They say nothing to anyone.

Scholars agree that this was the end of Mark’s Gospel. Two other endings have been attached—a short one and a long one, but neither is original. The case I made last week was this: the reason Mark ends so abruptly is because he wants his readers to take everything that they have heard and experienced in his Gospel and have the truth emerge from within each reader’s own heart. Jesus is driven into the wilderness and tempted, run out of his hometown, overwhelmed with the needs of others, and misunderstood by just about everyone. However, none of that can stop him. None of that leads him to waver from his calling. He keeps rising…again and again. Ahead of his terrible final week, he warned the disciples and everyone else within earshot that he was going to suffer and be arrested and die. People denied that truth or just refused to hear it. Then all of those things happened and more, but he didn’t waver from his calling or his path. And on Easter morning, the truth that emerged was the truth that everyone already knew, that not even death could stop this man.

Jesus challenged everyone to live differently, to make different choices, to participate in the kingdom of God—the way the world would work if it worked as God intended. He wanted us to be a part of ushering in a whole new creation, of bringing God’s kingdom to life. This new creation would be marked not by violence but by turning the other cheek, not by vengeance but by forgiveness, not by self-interest but by self-sacrificing love. What made Jesus so dangerous was that he looked at all of the people whom the world overlooked and dismissed and told them that they mattered and that, in fact, they could change this world.

Of course, all of this would take time. In fact, the arc or this change is still unfolding around us, two thousand years later. People would continue to suffer. It would look for all the world like the worldly powers were going to win. Who would have imagined that within three hundred years, Christianity would become the official state religion of the Roman Empire? Who would have imagined that nearly 2000 years later the Ceasers and Herods of this world would be gone and all but forgotten but Jesus of Nazareth would still be inspiring the world with a vision of a life that is about something other than tribe and power and violence?

What I want to do in the next few weeks is spend some time on the very front end of that tidal wave of change and transformation. After three years of Jesus’ ministry, there was this brief interlude in which people’s experiences offer us clues to how we might experience God’s continuing presence. This morning, I want you to meet Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.

Now, I’ve said before to you that most of the folks who followed Jesus seemed to be people who had nothing to lose. There is a core truth about human beings at play here. People don’t wake up one day and just change. Generally, the pain of the present has to be pretty intense to convince us that change might be worth it. So, if you are blind or in terrible pain or an outcast in society and Jesus rolls into town with the promise of change, you’re open! If you’ve got much of anything going for you at all, you might find his words inspiring but probably not enough to actually do anything differently.

Now, don’t think for a moment that I’m dismissing those who did follow. The disciples had jobs and families and left those things behind which was a huge sacrifice. People must have told them that they should be ashamed of themselves for being so irresponsible. Even those whom Jesus healed still showed great courage in following him. In fact, it was these folks, not the disciples, who would make it all the way to the cross with Jesus. Maybe those non-disciples who had never really had any power were better prepared to powerlessly stand in Jesus’ presence and witness the end of his life. After all, they had seen and experienced more than their fair share of suffering, none of which seemed fair either.

So, even up to this point, you may be able to connect to Jesus’ followers. Some of us have paid a price like the disciples in the eyes of the people around us because we made a decision based on our faith that just felt irresponsible to them: “Why did you have to call someone out for telling a racist or sexist joke? Why did you have to step up on the soap box on behalf of some immigrant or someone who is gay? Why can’t you just be nice and get along?” Others of us may have felt like the only thing that we could do was be witnesses to everything that is wrong in this world and make sure that those who suffer do not suffer alone. Sometimes, standing our ground and making sure that someone knows we are here is all we can do, too.

However, even before Jesus’ death, transformation—the new creation—begins to germinate in other amazing ways. Just think for a moment with me about Joseph of Arimathea. He is a member of the Sanhedrin, one of 71 judges/rabbis who formed what was essentially the supreme court. As a member of this court, Jospeh would have been a very powerful man. In his day, though, the Sanhedrin was compromised by the Roman occupation. Rome did not generally wipe out the countries that it conquered. Instead, it entered agreements with those already in power that they could remain in power—if they kept the peace and if they delivered all the taxes and tributes that Rome demanded.

In this sense, the big problem with Jesus was that he was a potential rebel leader who might cause a disturbance big enough to get Rome’s attention. This could cause the Romans to take away the religious leaders’ authority. Even worse, this could cause a big enough disturbance to lead Rome to invade.

Jesus had to be stopped. If he wouldn’t compromise or respond to threats (and what kind of a man won’t compromise or respond to threats?) then he must die. The leaders, even if they believed that Jesus was innocent would justify his death the way that those with power always justify the abuse of power: this is for the good of the many; this is to keep the peace; this is to preserve the present order. “It’s an ugly business, but it’s worth it in the end…” they would think to themselves.

Crucifixion was a particularly ugly way to make one’s point. It was a long, painful way to die. It involved public humiliation—everyone was invited to come and see their “hero.” And, in case everyone missed the point, bodies were left hanging from crosses for weeks as food for the buzzards, not to mention “food for thought” for anyone who might have similar rebellious ideas.

Jesus is crucified and dies. Everything has gone as planned. Well, that’s true, until Jospeh of Arimathea speaks up. John tells us that Jospeh had been a disciple of Jesus but in secret because he was afraid of those in power. Again, I want to say to everyone here, haven’t we all, “Been there and done that” in some way. Haven’t we all been secret believers at some point in what matters most to us because we were afraid of what would happen if we “fessed up?”

Here’s the thing, though—that’s the old way. Here’s the new way. Having been too afraid to own his faith, having kept his silence through Jesus trial and death, having seen the full force of the powers that be, now, shockingly, Joseph speaks up! As someone who has a ton to lose, he puts all his chips on the table and says to Pilate, “Can I have Jesus’ body? Can we skip the weeks of desecration?” And Pilate, who wanted to make sure that everyone knew that he wasn’t the one responsible for Jesus’ death in the first place—agrees! If you are hearing what’s happening here, you should be blown away! People with power are putting their lives at risk because they each have a conscience that has come to life that is overpowering their thirst for power. Powerful men are turning into good men or perhaps are suddenly willing to be the good men that they’ve been all along—the men whom God created them to be.

Joseph takes the body and goes to a tomb that he owns and is joined by—of all people—Nicodemus. Now, this is the man who had visited Jesus by night to ask him questions. Jesus talked to him about being made new—about being born again—and Nicodemus left shaking his head. And, oh…by the way, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the group of lawyers who had hunted for a good reason to arrest Jesus. Now, Nicodemus is there bearing spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.

So, a member of the Sanhedrin, a Roman official and a Pharisee are all working together—to assure that Jesus is properly buried. And the Pharisee and the member of the Sanhedrin are taking on the work that is so unclean that only women were allowed to do it. Those in power are risking losing their power. Those who have lorded it over everyone are humbling themselves. And all of this was happening before Jesus’ body had even been laid to rest.

People were changing. The new way, the new creation, the Kingdom of God, was bursting to life before the risen Christ ever walked out of the tomb. Slowly, but sure, one person at a time, God the signs of the new creation were bursting forth. All things are being made new.

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