Sermon preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay
Villas, New Jersey
on August 2, 2007
Transferred Feast of Joseph of Arimathea (August 1)

There are relatively few things on which all four gospel writers agree. So, it is, in my opinion, a very remarkable feat that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each write of the Arimathean man named Joseph who goes to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea is only mentioned in Scripture in this one incident we read about today. He is mentioned in no other context in the gospels nor is he ever referred to be Paul or the other epistle writers. Despite the limited time he is allotted, however, Joseph of Arimathea has been given a Feast Day to be celebrated in the Episcopal Church on or near the first of August.

What is it exactly that makes Joseph of Arimathea so remarkable – so worthy of a day set apart – so worthy of our attention? To be sure, it is very generous of him to provide a tomb in which to lay the body of Jesus and this is, in fact, the detail that all four gospels agree on. But you and I both know that Jesus’ time spent in that tomb is relatively short and we might even conjecture that without such a tomb, the resurrection and ascension would well have happened anyhow. So, I don’t think the provision of a tomb for Jesus’ body is the point of this feast day.

We also know that Joseph knew something about who Jesus was. In the first place, we are told “he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” The gospels of Matthew and John actually refer to Joseph of Arimathea as “a disciple of Jesus.” Joseph is, like the other followers of Jesus, a Jew and, according to Jewish custom, he wraps Jesus’ body in cloth made of linen – a fabric of honor reserved typically for those of a royal or priestly class. Throughout the Old Testament references are made to the linen garments worn by priests and kings and to the many linen curtains inside the temple, and other places that are set apart for the Holy. And while we are perhaps not surprised that it is a follower of Jesus who tends so carefully to the body of Jesus, again, I do not think this is the primary reason for this feast day.

In fact, I think the primary reason for our celebration of Joseph of Arimathea has to do with another aspect of his person. For, in addition to being a man who is “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God,” he is also “a member of the council.” Just who is this council? A portion of the gospel reading for Palm Sunday can provide us with some insight – this reading also comes from Luke’s gospel, just one chapter prior to the reading for today:

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, "If you are the Messiah, tell us." He replied, "If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." All of them asked, "Are you, then, the Son of God?" He said to them, "You say that I am." Then they said, "What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!" Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.[i]
Joseph of Arimathea is a member of this council – the council that brought Jesus before Pilate to be tried. But what we learn from today’s reading – and what I believe is the reason for which Joseph is remembered by all four gospel writers and continues to be honored with a feast day even today – is that Joseph, “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action.” Joseph was there on the day when the council brought Jesus before Pilate, but Joseph did not agree with their actions. And so, Joseph dared now to go before Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus so that he might take it down, wrap it in a linen cloth, and lay it in a tomb where no one had ever been laid. This is a bold action – a bold action for the Gospel of Christ. And it is the very type of bold action to which you and I are invited to entertain as we live our lives as Christians.

Wherever we live – whether that is right here in the Villas, in Rio Grande, or Cape May, Court House, or Wildwood – wherever we are, we are called to take bold action in the face of injustice, to look for opportunities to live out our faith in action even if that means we will be “unpopular” in our circle of friends or colleagues. Certainly Joseph’s actions were not looked upon with favor by the other members of the council. Nonetheless, because he “was a good and righteous man,” there was only one action he could take and he dared to take it.

As you and I begin our journey in ministry together, what opportunities for ministry will we encounter in our congregation, in our community, in the world? How will we respond to those opportunities? As we celebrate the Feast of Joseph of Arimathea this morning, I pray that God will grant each of us the courage of Joseph “to love and serve Jesus” in all that we encounter.

[i] Luke 22:66-23:1.