Presented at Sudbury Clergy Association’s Ecumenical Good Friday Service at the Martha Mary Chapel at the Historic Wayside Inn, Friday, March 29, 2013.
Scripture reading: John 19:31-42
Seeing this Cross laid out here behind me, I am reminded of my visit last year to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in our reading from the Gospel of John, and the site of the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service and on Easter: the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
As you enter that Church, above and to your right, up a flight of stairs, is Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion. To the left, what would be behind me and deeper into the church, is the tomb. So, on one side is the place where our sin cost the life of our Savior; and on the other, the spot where he was resurrected by the Grace of God. Man’s Sin sent him to his death, and God’s grace brought him back, but what ties the two together? How do we bridge the gulf between man’s sin and God’s grace?
That answer is visible when you stand in the entrance of that ancient Church, because there, right in front of you, unavoidable as you enter the church, and unavoidable as you pass from Calvary to the Tomb, is the Stone of Unction.
It is a humble stone, unadorned, and just long and wide enough to lie down on. It is surrounded by a few lamps. On the wall behind it is a mural that depicts the event that took place at this spot, where Joseph of Arimathea and the Pharisee named Nicodemus laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross.
“Unction” means “anointing,” and It is here on this stone that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.
Why is Stone of Anointing important? Why did the designers of that building orient it such that this spot is right in front of you as you enter the church? Why is the building laid out such that you must pass by the Stone of Unction a second time as you go from Calvary to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?
Let’s start by imagining what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross.
Our reading from Luke tells us the “Jews” – meaning representatives of the High Council – told the Romans they did not want the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves to be left hanging there. To leave them in plain view 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. Instead, the Council asked the Romans to take care of the problem.
To the High Council, this troublesome dead prophet was not worth the effort of a decent burial. As far as they were concerned, he was not one of them, there was no kinship, no ties linking them together.
Now, the Romans were not known for their sentimentality. In Roman eyes, Jesus was simply another dead Jew. I’m guessing they might have cremated the remains, as was normal practice back then for non-Jews; but more likely the soldiers would have taken the body and – literally – thrown it on a dung heap somewhere in the Kidron Valley nearby.
If the wishes of the High Council 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 was 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.
They must have felt the pain of loss and grief of failure, just like Peter and the disciples. They probably wished they could have stopped his death, and may have tried, but they failed. They had let fear for their own safety and positions, and perhaps the safety of their families, overwhelm them in that moment of 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. But remember, 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, 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 that their deeds will be clearly seen to have been done in God. Joseph and Nicodemus both witnessed the hurried late night 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.
So, 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 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 chapel this afternoon, as we gather to observe Good Friday, as we finish mourning his death and our sin at the foot of the Cross, and then turn our steps towards the Empty Tomb and the promise of Easter, we are confronted by the Stone of Unction.
Those who built that Church 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 by God is not salvation accepted by man, 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 have been forever unclaimed. The witness of the empty tomb would never have come to pass.
But I believe God knows that his tremendous faith in us will 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 his beaten, bloody body as they took him down from the Cross as the sun set that evening, gently laying 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?
On Good Friday 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, and will raise him from the dead. In so doing, God has saved the world through Him, just as Jesus told Nicodemus so long ago. Jesus became 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 never 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) 2013, 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/or provides a link back to this site).