Presented at a joint Ecumenical Service at Christ Lutheran Church, West Boylston, MA; April 6, 2012 (Good Friday).
Gospel Reading: John 19:31-42.
Seeing this beautiful Cross laid out here before us this evening, I am reminded of my recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in this evening’s reading from the Gospel of John, the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service, as well as on Easter, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
What made the biggest impression on me in that place was not the elaborate shrines of Calvary and the Tomb. It was a humbler shrine near the main entrance to the Church, “The Stone of Unction.”
This stone marks where Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the High Council in Jerusalem, and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews; laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross. It was there that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.
Why is the Stone of Unction important? Why did the builders of that Church orient the building such that this spot is so close to the main entrance? Why is the building laid out such that you must pass by the Stone of Unction as you go from the Cross to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?
Let’s start by thinking about what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross.
This evening’s Gospel reading tells us the “Jews” – meaning representatives of the High Council – told the Romans that they did not want the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves to be left hanging there. To leave them there would detract from the solemnity and holiness of the Sabbath. The bodies would be unsightly, inconvenient, troubling. In other words, the High Council wanted nothing to do with Jesus any more. They were not going to claim him after his death, as we still do in the modern world, when the next of kin are called to identify and claim the body of their deceased loved one. So, the Council asked the Romans to take care of the problem. To the High Council, this troublesome dead prophet was not even worth the effort of a decent burial. As far as they were concerned, he was not one of their people.
The Romans were not known for their sentimentality. In Roman eyes, Jesus was just another dead Jew. I’m guessing that they would have either cremated the remains, as was normal practice back then for non-Jews; or else the soldiers might have taken the body and – literally – thrown it on a dung heap somewhere. If the wishes of the High Council and Caiaphas had been followed, no one would have come forth to claim Jesus as their own. They wanted his body to disappear from the public eye and be forgotten. Salvation would have been rejected even before God made it manifest in the resurrection.
But then there were Joseph and Nicodemus. Both were believers in secret, not daring to reveal their faith because doing so would cost them dearly, starting with their positions on the High Council. They had been unable, or at least felt like they were unable, to prevent Jesus’ conviction in the trial before Caiaphas and the Council.
They must have felt the pain of loss and grief of failure, just like Peter and the disciples. They probably felt they could have stopped his death, but failed, that they had let fear for their own safety and positions, and perhaps the safety of their families, overwhelm them in the moment of the crisis.
In other words, they were just like us. For any of us, taking a stand on controversial issues is hard, because the cost of doing so is often very high. Yet, in John chapter 3, on that night when Nicodemus first came to him in secret, Jesus said “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already … For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Nicodemus must have thought a great deal about that conversation in the months since then, and perhaps talked about it with Joseph. “Those who believe in him are not condemned” – well, at least not condemned by God, but how about condemnation from their peers? But then again, Jesus said that those who do what is true will come to the light and so that their deeds will be clearly seen to have been done in God. Joseph and Nicodemus had taken part in the late night hurried sham of a trial that convicted Jesus, which was not done in the light; and now they knew it was time to stand for what is true.
These two men were compelled to do something extraordinary. They were the first to do something that every one of Jesus’ followers, including us, are called to do. Yes, they temporarily gave in to fear, tried to hide or deny the reality of that terrible event, and their own role in it. They felt tremendous guilt and shame for their failure. But, when it was over, once they realized who they really were and what mattered to them, they stopped running, and they stopped hiding. They turned back and stood up for what was true in the face of their fear. They went before Pilate and asked for the body. They claimed Jesus as one of their own, as any who shares kinship with Jesus, which we all share with him, is called upon to do.
And so, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and even here in this sanctuary this evening as we gather to observe Good Friday, as we finish mourning his death and our sin at the foot of the Cross and turn our steps towards the Empty Tomb and the promise of Easter, we are confronted by the Stone of Unction.
Those who built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher want us to confront that Stone, because it poses an important question. Yes, because of Easter we know that we have been forgiven and our salvation is at hand, but salvation offered is not salvation accepted, hence the Stone of Unction and the question it forces us to ask of ourselves: “What are we going to do?”
What are you going to do?
Jesus was truly dead, his fate and his legacy, all that he had worked and stood for, lay entirely in the hands of others. He could no longer do anything for himself. He had laid down his ministry here on earth, and the only way he could move forward, the only way that God’s plan could be fulfilled, was if those he left behind, including us, stood for what was true. We have to act on our belief in Him, show we are not willing to let him go, we have to claim him as one of our own.
It was God’s tremendous gamble. If those who believed and loved Jesus had not taken him down from the cross, if we had not reclaimed Him as one of our own, the Resurrection would not have been ours. Salvation had been offered, but would not have been claimed.
But I believe God knew that his tremendous faith in us would not be fruitless. God knows we can reach past the brokenness of our existence to embrace Him, just as Joseph and Nicodemus must have physically embraced the bloody body of Jesus as they took him down from the Cross to lay him on that stone. We know what we have to do, yet the question is not what we know to do, but whether we’ll actually do it.
So, what are you going to do?
Tonight we mourn the body of Christ, lying cold and dead. But on Easter, we hear the rest of the story, where God shows that he too will not relinquish his claim on Jesus, raising him from the dead. In so doing, God has made Jesus the living link that binds us together as members of the Body of Christ and children of God. The resurrection is a living reality. But, unless we come to know Christ in the depths of our hearts, unless we take the risk of claiming him for our own, the resurrection will not be a living reality for us.
The Cross lays here. Looking at it, I imagine the body of Christ laid out on that stone, waiting for us. He is dead, but will live again. All we have to do is to claim him as our own, no longer hide our kinship with him from others, no longer deny or hide what is true. The challenge has been made. Salvation has been offered; but, will it be claimed?
What are you going to do?
Copyright (c) 2012, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that gives my full name and provides a link back to this site).