Summary: Reflecting on Joseph of Arimathaea’s courage in stepping forward to bury Jesus, the sermon encourages Christians to be bold and courageous today.
In the Episcopal Church, today is the feast day of Joseph of Arimathaea, one of the more obscure New Testament characters. All that is known for certain about Joseph comes from the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ burial. Though John speaks of Joseph as a secret disciple of our Lord, and associates him with Nicodemus, another member of the Jewish Sanhedrin who was drawn to Jesus, we know nothing of any further activity of these men in the early Christian community. Later, however, legends developed about the leadership they offered the Church. One of the more attractive is the story of Joseph’s coming to the ancient Church of Glastonbury in Britain and bringing with him the Holy Grail (the cup used at the Last Supper). This tradition, though, can’t be dated earlier than the thirteenth century AD. Although this and other stories were given wide credence in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they are not based on historical facts.
Joseph’s fame and the rightness of our reverence and remembrance do not depend upon such legends, however beautiful and romantic they may be. When our Lord’s intimate disciples were hiding for fear of the authorities, Joseph came forward boldly and courageously, not only to do what was demanded by Jewish piety, but to act generously and humanely by providing his own tomb for the decent and proper burial of our Lord Jesus’ body, thus saving it from further desecration.
We must not let that pass unnoticed, for that is no small feat, and it carried with it no small amount of personal risk. Joseph of Arimathaea could easily have remained safely anonymous and securely on the sideline, but he found within himself the courage to do what the Twelve could not.
It’s not easy to step up against the authorities. Let me illustrate: During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Once, as he reproached Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. "You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?"
"Who said that?" roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, "Now you know why."
Joseph of Arimathaea’s actions spoke for him. By his merciful deed, he risked be painted with Jesus’ heresy, as one who also deserved crucifixion for betrayal . . . or so the leaders of the Sanhedrin might have seen it.
But Joseph had courage—the courage to step out and be counted for Christ when Jesus’ twelve most intimate friends were still too confused and dazed and frightened to leave the dubious safety of the locked, upper room.
Courage, sometimes so rare a commodity, is always a need, and never more so than when carrying out the mission of the Church. In Joseph’s time, it was dangerous—out and out dangerous!—to be associated with Jesus. Just recall the story of Deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and you know the kind of trouble in which Christians could find themselves. How is it that so many flocked to Jesus, to the Church, to the Gospel? How is it that so many braved the possible for the sake of that lonely, crucified man from Galilee? Yes, those were frightening times, times to make one’s courage shrink away with its tail between its legs. But many did not. Many found the courage to stand for Jesus, and we are here today as part of their legacy.
Were these without fear, gifted with some supernatural ability to be resolute and fearless in the face of persecution and adversity? I doubt it. Fear is a human trait and a personal reality for all people since time immemorial. They simply rose above their fears. As Eddie Rickenbacker once said, “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” I’ll bet they were scared. I’ll bet St. Peter was afraid when they crucified him upside-down. I imagine St. James was afraid when Herod Agrippa ordered him die at the point of the sword. And I cannot help but believe those Christians who went to their deaths in the Coliseum were frightened, as well.
And I cannot help but believe the Christians of our day, who suffer for their faith as did the martyrs of old, are also afraid, but they are also courageous. If they overcome their fear and stay the course, then Rickenbacker is right. Courage is present only where fear precedes.
Have you ever heard of the "Dependent Order of Really Meek and Timid Souls"? When you make an acrostic of the first letters of its name, you have the word "Doormats." The Doormats have an official insignia—a yellow caution light. Their official motto is: "The meek shall inherit the earth, if that’s OK with everybody!" Upton Diskson founded the society after he wrote a pamphlet called “Cower Power.”