Day 39/Good Friday—From the Gospel reading for Good Friday:
“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.”
This story of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in the 19th chapter of John is, in my opinion one of the most under appreciated footnotes of the Gospel.
In John’s Gospel, Joseph is noted to be a “secret” disciple of Jesus. Matthew notes Joseph to be a disciple but does not denote “secret.” Mark and Luke, note that he is an upright, righteous, and respected member of the Sanhedrin, a judicial council of the Temple. Joseph of Arimathea’s credentials are impeccable. The most important notation in John is that he is a “secret” follower. Joseph apparently had a messianic expectation and believed Jesus to be the Messiah. Yet, he carried his belief regarding Jesus secretly*. Remarkably, this successful, respected elder of the community, member of the Sanhedrin, and apparently a successful person outs himself after Jesus is completely discredited and executed. With Jesus hanging on the cross dead and his messianic claim ended, Joseph publicly requests permission to remove the body from the cross. Upon receiving permission, he removes the body and buries it in his own tomb. When all other disciples appear to be abandoning Jesus and disappearing from the scene, Joseph steps from behind the veil of secrecy and reveals himself to be a follower of Jesus all along. His action is forever challenging; when all appears lost, Joseph steps from the shadows and, unlike Peter, confesses Jesus. Truly, a disciple.
As to Nicodemus in this story, this is the same respected leader among the Pharisees who visits Jesus under the cover of darkness in chapter 3 of John. This Nicodemus engages in probing questions about Jesus’s identity. He leaves Jesus puzzled, “How can these things be?” Again, like Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus does not appear again in the narrative until after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. He goes with Joseph to the cross and aids in removing the body. Nicodemus brings all the necessary materials to properly prepare the body for burial. Like Joseph, Nicodemus reveals his true allegiance to Jesus when any sensible person, recognizing the end of Jesus’s story, would walk away.
On this most holy day, let the witness of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee remind us of our call to discipleship. We are called to be disciples even when all evidence suggests it is time to abandon the calling. Joseph and Nicodemus stepped forward and proclaimed their discipleship when all seemed lost. Their actions, hazardous and foolish in the eyes of others, are a powerful declaration of belief and commitment to the revelation of God in Jesus. They were not willing to abandon him, though at great cost to themselves, even in death. That is our call to discipleship.
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
*Legend suggests that Joseph of Arimathea might be Mary’s uncle and, consequently, Jesus’s great-uncle. For this reflection, that connection will remain legend.