Thursday, August 1, 2013

Joseph of Arimathea

Merciful God, whose servant Joseph of Arimathaea with reverence and godly fear prepared the body of our Lord and Savior for burial, and laid it in his own tomb: Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today we pause to remember Joseph of Arimathaea. While definitely a minor character in the story of our Lord's Passion, I have always felt that he was an important one. Like Nicodemus, the tradition reports that even though he was a member of the Sanhedrin, he was a "secret disciple" of Jesus. When Jesus' closest friends were hiding for fear of the political and religious authorities, it was Joseph who came forward boldly and courageously to do what was demanded by Jewish piety. Acting generously and humanely, he provided his own tomb so that this "criminal" could have a proper burial, saving his body from further desecration.

The collect for today (and reprinted above) captures well, I think, something of the Light that Joseph allowed to shine through him. By acting in this way, Joseph allows us to see in an iconic way how grace and courage can be held together. Grace and courage seem to be in short supply, but when they come together they are a powerful witness to the Gospel.

Grace without courage can leave us sitting on the sidelines and never acting or speaking up for what is right; without courage we confuse graciousness with "being nice." We would rather not rock the boat. As has been noted, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is that good people do nothing. Grace without courage allows injustice to flourish.

On the other hand, courage without grace, can turn us into what William Sloan Coffin, Jr. used to call "good haters." It can make us bitter, certain, and angry. Instead of choosing our battles we see every day as a battleground and everywhere a ditch to die in. I read this week a lovely tribute to Will Campbell - clearly a prophet, yet one with incredible grace. The writer recounts writing to Campbell at a time when he was "taking on" his congregation for the right and just cause of social equality.  He expected Campbell to encourage him to keep "fighting the enemy." Instead, Campbell encouraged him to "love his enemies" as the path toward ultimately discovering that "they are my neighbors, my sisters and brothers whom Christ has reconciled."

When held together, grace and courage allow us to act out of our convictions without demonizing the other. We become more generous and more humble. Grace and courage allowed Joseph to do the right thing, the one thing he was in a unique position to do. Grace and courage open the path for us to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life.

When The Passion is read aloud  each year on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday, it is a helpful reminder to church people that Peter and the others fall short of their own stated ideals - as we all do.Those closest to Jesus betray and deny him. Each of us must come to grips with that part of ourselves and with our own denials and betrayals of Christ. Still others in authority, like Pilate, try to wash our hands of responsibility, rather than exerting gracious and courageous leadership.

But we must never forget that there are models of discipleship who show us other ways to enter into our Lord's Passion: there are the women do not run away, and who then find the grace and courage to come to the tomb when the Sabbath has ended, in order to do the work that God had given them to do. There is that centurion who, even in the midst of the barbarity of crucifixion is able to recognize Jesus for who he is, the Son of God. And there is Joseph, quietly acting with grace and courage - loving and serving Christ with sincere devotion. May we find ways to go and do likewise.

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