The Burial of Christ

burial_of_jesus_largeI read through the account of Jesus’ burial in Mark’s gospel this morning (15:42-47):

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead.And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

I have not given this story much thought before, but today it occurred to me that to honor Jesus’ body in this way was a real act of courage. After all, all the other disciples had all fled and abandoned Jesus. To associate yourself with a known criminal was risky – you could get crucified, too! (That must be why it says that Joseph “took courage” before he went to Pilate.) Also, I recall reading somewhere that wealthy, educated men like Joseph (and Nicodemus, cf. John’s account) generally did not do the burying. This was menial labor, done by servants, not respected members of the Sanhedrin. This is like the senior pastor of a mega-church coming in to clean the toilets of the church in his free time. This was a humble act of service – and a pretty gross, one, too. Cleaning and dealing with the body – after all that body had been through that day – must have been a messy, smelly, nasty ordeal.

So this act was a courageous act of service and loyalty. They were stepping out and putting themselves in harm’s way in order to do something they didn’t need to do – something they could easily have thought was beneath them. But not only all of that, John’s account tells us that Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39), which was an incredible sum of money. Nicodemus probably took all of his wealth and spent it on the burial of Jesus. Wow. So this was not only an act of courage and humility. It was an act of incredible sacrifice and love, as well.

Two thoughts:

1) Nicodemus and Joseph were both highly-ranked Pharisees. This means that not all the Pharisees opposed Christ. He had followers among them, even if they were secretive about it and, seemingly, a bit slow to demonstrate it. I am not fully sure why I appreciate that so much. Maybe its because it reminds me that there is hope for all kinds of people – not only the worst of sinners, but the worst of religious sinners.

2) I wonder what the gospel narrative – specifically, the resurrection – would have looked like apart from the courage of Joseph and Nicodemus. Obviously God could have raised Jesus’ body from any location. He could have reconstituted it if it had been cremated, or pieced it back together if it had been chopped into pieces. And yet, God’s purpose was for Jesus’ body to be laid in a tomb, and raised from there. What would have happened if Jesus’ body had been left on the cross? It seems difficult to imagine what the resurrection would have looked like in that scenario, with his dead hands and feet still nailed to the wood. God honored the courage, the humility, and the sacrifice of Joseph and Nicodemus by allowing it to serve a role in the gospel narrative. Of course, Joseph and Nicodemus didn’t know that. They probably had no idea what was going to happen to the body that they were burying. In fact, if they expected anything to come out of this act, it was probably poverty (at least for Nicodemus), loss of reputation and status (because they just associated themselves with the losing party amongst their social circle), and maybe even their own persecution or death. And yet God took what seemed like loss and turned it into gain. He transformed what must have felt like a sad ending into a glorious new beginning.

This story inspires me to trust that obedience – even when risky, humbling, and sacrificial – is always worth it. We never know what God is going to do with obedience. We cannot anticipate how he is at work in and through our lives, above our level of awareness. On that long, anticlimactic, quiet, sad, dark Saturday, it would have been easy for Nicodemus and Joseph to think that their life was over. They were now without money and without status. They’d spent them both. But through that very act, God prepared the conditions for Sunday morning. He used that sorrowful ending to bring about the best of new beginnings. Lord, give us the faith to see that this is how you work, at all times, in our lives as well. In those difficult struggles toward obedience, help us to believe that your resurrection power can redeem all things.

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