Joseph and Nicodemus
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Often in approaching the holy days in our church calendar, I try to look for new insights within the old familiar stories and scriptures. To consider the stories of other characters whom we may not often think of as major players in these much-heralded stories of our faith. And I find it fascinating when throughout the gospels we find some of the smallest little details preserved so carefully. Little points in a story, or mentions of minor characters, who upon closer inspection may in fact have had far more significant roles than we thought.
Of course, in the telling of any story there are always differences that occur from one recounting to another. And, whenever I try and bring more light to these old stories I often rely on my imagination…wondering what it is that makes a particular instance, or this small detail in the scriptures worthy of remembering. It is also with that same joyful imagination that I seek to give more color and detail to the telling…never claiming that my imagination is in fact the ‘truth’, but feeling that, since I believe imagination is itself a gift, it is somehow worthy of being used in this way.
And in our story of the events leading up to and including the resurrection this week there are a number of little points mentioned and preserved in this way…as though the gospel story tellers wanted to be sure not to forget even the smallest of details regarding this amazing series of events.
And I say all this because there are two men in particular who are mentioned a number of times in the gospels, who I feel are often overlooked for their actual roles in the Easter story. And it is these two men I would like to consider today. For theirs is a story of power and authority…of faith and of politics, of the Supreme Council or Sanhedrin in which they were respected members, and finally, of fledgling belief that takes root in the most difficult of circumstances.
Theirs is a story of two who refused to go along with the maddening crowd, of two who saw through fear and the stranglehold of traditional authority, and dreamed of a new and better day beyond…
…these two men were Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.
And in preparing to tell their story I first looked through all of the little mentions of them and of their acts in the gospel accounts. Unfortunately those details are fascinating, but few to draw upon, so I turned as well to other ancient sources. Sources which at the time of their writing were mostly deemed not ‘holy’ or credible enough to make it into the 66 books chosen for inclusion in the bible. These included the Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Nicodemus, The Narrative of Joseph, as well as various mentions in writings of early church historians such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Eusebius.
With their help, alongside of the gospels and a vivid imagination, I hope to share a most amazing story…a story which in its day would have definitely been considered a ‘minority report’. So here goes…Joseph and Nicodemus…
He almost could not bring himself to get out of bed. The events of the past week had been so exhausting, both mentally and emotionally that, were it not for the persistent knocking on the front door, Nicodemus would probably have spent the better part of the day lying there, feeling dejected and miserable.
But the knocking at the door just would not stop, and finally he arose and made his way over to the door. Opening it just a crack he was greeted by a slight, boyish figure whom he did not recognize at all. On his guard due to his great fear, Nicodemus asked, ‘what is it you want?’ The young man held out his hand in which there was a scroll rolled up and fastened with a wax seal. ‘I believe that this is for you sir’, he replied. ‘Who is it from’, Nicodemus asked, unsure if it might perhaps be a trick somehow devised to reveal his loyalties to the recent movement surrounding a young prophet from Galilee.
‘I do not know sir’, the young man replied, ‘I was just told by my supervisor to bring it to a man named Nicodemus who supposedly resides at this address’. Taking the scroll from the young man, Nicodemus said curtly, ‘I will see that he gets it!’, before closing the door once more and bolting it shut securely. Then turning back towards his room he laid the scroll down unopened on the table, wondering if indeed it was a trap being set for him by members of the Temple Guard. Then making his way up the inner stairway and out onto the rooftop he sat down, looking out across the city of Jerusalem, wondering how so much of what he thought he knew and understood just a few days before could so quickly unravel completely, leaving him feeling unmoored and completely off-balance.
He just could not believe that his close friend Joseph was even now languishing all alone in prison, having been thrown there by the High Priest. After all, the only thing that Joseph had done was to be kind and caring towards a man they both had come to admire and respect…one who now lay stone cold in a tomb, after what both of them considered was an unjust and even unholy crucifixion.
And so, Nicodemus sat there on the roof, the mid-morning sun starting to warm the air as the city below slowly began to stir and reflected back on all that had happened…
Both he and Joseph were respected members of the Council or Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Presided over by the High Priest Caiaphas, the Council met daily to decide matters of the faith and to take up cases brought before them in order to adjudicate fairly and govern life in the city in keeping with Temple Law and Roman rule.
And it was just last week that the matter of the Prophet Jesus from Galilee had come to the Council’s attention. Both Nicodemus and Joseph knew of the work and teachings of the young Rabbi, however it was Joseph who had first decided to secretly follow after him. Early on he became convinced that this man Jesus truly had the power of Almighty God resting upon him, and he tried several times to get his roommate Nicodemus to go and see for himself, telling him that Jesus was definitely one to watch, and also that perhaps this particular Rabbi was much more than anyone thought he was.
And so it was that Nicodemus himself went out one night after dark, seeking out the teacher in the house where he was staying with his disciples. He never would have found it were it not for Joseph’s careful instructions, as Jesus was truly only known by those decidedly unlike any others in the Sanhedrin.
Sitting down across from him and talking with Jesus long into the night, Nicodemus was both challenged and intrigued by the words of Jesus as he spoke of being ‘born again of the Spirit’ and of the Spirit of God being ‘like the wind that blows wherever it wishes’. And as Nicodemus left the house very much later that night, he knew he had been in the presence of something far greater than himself, but was not as sure as his friend Joseph that indeed Jesus was the long awaited Messiah.
So when the Sanhedrin gathered earlier in the week and the topic of Jesus came up, it was not Nicodemus who spoke up, but rather Joseph who directly challenged Caiaphas, saying that he felt the direction they seemed to be heading towards in condemning this man was not something he could agree to at all, in fact on a trial vote against Jesus he announced that he just could not give his assent. Caiaphas however had the last word before they all departed saying, ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation!’
After a week or so however of Jesus teaching throughout Jerusalem, the voices for and against his ministry grew into a much louder chorus, forcing the Sanhedrin to bring up the topic of silencing the radical upstart one more time. This time however, it was Nicodemus who felt compelled to speak up in Jesus’ defense. All during the meeting the Chief Priest had brought in witnesses to speak against Jesus but their stories just did not align or make sense. Desperately Caiaphas and his cohorts sought to find a rationale to condemn the teachings and works of the young Rabbi, putting together a litany of false and trumped up charges.
And it was at that point that Nicodemus reminded them that according to the Law, a person must be heard before the Council before he could be judged. ‘What if’, he asked, ‘what if this man actually is the Messiah?’ At that, Nicodemus was roundly ridiculed by the other members of the Sanhedrin who mockingly told him that ‘no prophet would ever come out of Galilee’.
Angry at being challenged this way by Nicodemus, the High Priest disclosed that a plan was already in place to seek out and arrest Jesus in order to put him on trial. Noting that a ‘close follower’ of the teacher had agreed to betray him, Caiaphas told the Council that a regimen of the Temple Guard was consigned to carry out the plan that very night. Beginning to protest once more, Nicodemus was told to be quiet for the matter was settled.
Looking sadly over at his friend Joseph, Nicodemus gathered his things and filed out along with the rest. And then, just as at the last meeting on the matter, Caiaphas felt compelled to have the last word. Clearly and carefully so as not to be misunderstood by anyone he stated, ‘It is not enough that he blasphemes the faith! For the Romans will not intervene in matters of Jewish Law and we are not permitted to put anyone to death! We must make the case, and convincingly so, that this man Jesus is proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. Everyone knows that by this, Jesus is indicating that the return to Davidic kingship will take place by his hand. This is an act of sedition against Rome and for that they will have to find him guilty and execute him’. The mood was somber as the Sanhedrin quietly filed out, all but two convinced that Jesus had to be stopped, and stopped very soon.
And then, just as Caiaphas had foretold, Jesus was arrested later that evening and taken over to the house of the High Priest. Both Joseph and Nicodemus went to hear what charges and more importantly what evidence was being brought against Jesus. They left before it was all over however, for they knew the charges to be false and the actions of the Sanhedrin to be unjust. Going back home they were dismayed to learn that it had gone even worse for Jesus after they left and that early the next day the High Priest had somehow convinced the Roman Prelate Pilate to condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion.
Knowing it was wrong and knowing that their defense of Jesus over the previous weeks would lead the High Priest to think poorly of them, the two devised a plan to at least give their friend the dignity they felt he deserved in death. Joseph said he would go and ask Pilate for the body of Jesus after he had died, and promised to go and purchase a fine linen shroud in which to wrap the body. He asked Nicodemus to buy some 70 pounds of the customary embalming spices in order to help him prepare the body of Jesus for the tomb. Even if he were to die as a criminal, at least he could receive a royal burial!
Later on that afternoon after Jesus had been crucified alongside of two others, the skies suddenly turned dark and the ground throughout the city began to shake as menacing thunder clouds and torrential rain beat down upon the city unmercifully. Both Nicodemus and Joseph knew that these signs could only mean one thing…that their friend Jesus had indeed died. And so, after securing the necessary permission from Pilate, Joseph brought the shroud and met Nicodemus at the cross.
There, with the help of a Roman ladder left lying nearby, they were able to remove the broken and lifeless body of Jesus from the cross. After placing his body on the grave cloth they hurriedly applied the spices which Nicodemus had brought, and wrapped the body of Jesus securely in the shroud. Then together they carried the body back to the grave in the garden. Joseph had the grave made for himself originally, but he could think of no finer gift at this point than to give it up for his beloved friend.
After placing the body inside on a small ledge the two rolled a large stone across the entrance so as to thwart would-be grave robbers or other troublemakers. Then they hurried back to their house to finish their own preparations as Passover was about to begin.
In fact they had just begun to make the necessary preparations when there was a loud knock on the door. Opening the door they were greeted by four members of the Temple Guard. ‘Joseph’, the Guard Commander snarled, ‘I have orders to deliver you to Caiaphas immediately!’ Protesting Joseph stammered, ‘What is this about? Don’t you know that Passover is fast approaching and we are not at all ready?’ ‘That is too bad, come with us’, blurted out the guard as he roughly grabbed Joseph by the nape of his cloak and pulled him out into the street. Taking a quick backwards glance towards Nicodemus, Joseph said all he needed to say without uttering a single word. ‘Be careful, lie low’, his eyes seemed to shout out, and Nicodemus understood completely.
But ‘lying low’ meant something quite different to Nicodemus as he quickly threw on a cloak with a hood and quietly and carefully slipped out the back door of the house and secretly followed the Guards who were holding his friend as they made their way over to the High Priest’s house. And it was there that he heard the High Priest scream at Joseph and threaten to have him jailed or worse. He was upset that Joseph had taken the body of Jesus and buried it in his own tomb. For this act very clearly aligned with a prophecy in Isaiah that claimed that the Messiah ‘was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in his mouth’.
Responding boldly, Joseph addressed the High Priest saying, ‘Why are you angry with me because I asked Pilate for the body of Jesus? Look, I have put him in my own new tomb, wrapped in clean linens, and I have rolled a large stone across the entrance. And you Caiaphas, have acted not well against a just man, because you have not repented of crucifying him. And to make matters worse, you have also pierced him with a spear!’
Livid that Joseph had the audacity to address him in this fashion, and already furious with him for siding with Jesus all along, Caiaphas immediately threw him into prison, set a seal on the cell door and posted a guard so that he might not escape. Still angered at the behavior of the High Priest, Joseph retorted once more saying, ‘The Son of God whom you had hung on the cross is able to deliver me out of your hands. All your wickedness will return upon you’. Then, willingly and somewhat meekly Joseph went and sat down in the rear of the cell, considering it an honor to have suffered for the sake of his friend Jesus.
Nicodemus however was beside himself. He could not believe his friend had been treated so harshly and unjustly. However, afraid himself of a similar fate for his own sympathies he quietly returned home and, without even celebrating the Passover meal went off to bed, where he remained until that persistent knocking on the door finally prompted him to carefully open the door and accept the scroll before bolting the door once again.
And now, sitting up there alone on the rooftop he found he had no idea what to do next. Everything he used to do, his routine, his daily life and work had all been stripped away, leaving him listless and unsure of what to possibly do next. And then, just as he felt like he was finally at the end of his rope, he remembered the curious delivery he had received earlier that morning…the scroll from an unknown person.
Rising to his feet he hurried down to the lower room and grabbed the scroll, returning to the roof where the light was better for reading. And then unrolling the scroll, he began to read a most amazing story. The letter began…
‘My Dearest Nicodemus, I am writing to you from my ancestral home in Arimathea. I do not know how to explain it, other than to try and tell you exactly what has happened to me over the past few hours. As you may know by now, I was imprisoned by Caiaphas late on the same day we buried Jesus. They posted a guard outside of my door and I stayed there all alone all through Passover the next day.
And later on that night, at about midnight on Saturday night I believe, as I was standing and praying, the prison cell in which I was confined seemed as though it was suddenly hung up by the four corners, and there was a flashing of light in my eyes. And I fell to the ground trembling. Then someone lifted me up from the place where I had fallen, and poured over me an abundance of water from my head to my feet. And suddenly there seemed present all around me an incredibly wonderful scent, the aroma of some wondrous ointment. Then the person rubbed my face with the water itself, as if washing me, and kissed me, and said to me, Joseph, do not be afraid; but open your eyes, and see who it is that is speaking to you.
And looking up, I saw Jesus; and being terrified, I thought it was a ghost or a spirit. And with prayer and the commandments I spoke to him, and he spoke with me. And I said to him, ‘are you Elijah? And he said to me, ‘I am not Elijah’. And I said, ‘Who are you my Lord’? And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus, whose body you did ask of Pilate, and who you wrapped in clean linen; and upon whom you placed a clean cloth upon my face. And then you placed me in your own new tomb and rolled a large stone across the entrance’. Then I said to him, ‘Show me, Lord the place where I placed you’. And he led me to the empty tomb in the garden, and showed me the cloths and the shroud I used to wrap him in; and I knew that it was Jesus. And he took hold of me with his hand, and somehow set me down in my home here in Arimathea, even though the gates were shut. And after putting me in my bed, he said to me, ‘Peace be with you’! And he kissed me, and said to me, ‘For forty days go not out of your house; for, I must go to my brothers and sisters in Galilee’.
Nicodemus, I know this seems hard to believe, but if you check with the Temple Guards they will tell you that they went to check on me early on Sunday morning and found the cell door still closed and sealed even though I was no longer within. Please, please believe that Jesus has risen just as he said he would. And listen as well for guidance and direction from the Spirit, for surely we both have a part to play in spreading this most wondrous message!
I remain your sincerest friend, Joseph.
By the time he had finished reading the letter, Nicodemus was in tears. He could not believe his friend’s good fortune, and yet he knew in his heart that it was all true. And as he sat there gazing out across the city which only moments before had seemed threatening and foreboding, he knew that the darkness in his soul and the deep sadness in which he had felt mired was gone forever. Surely this Jesus truly was the Son of God!
And then, once again he heard a soft knocking on the door in the house below. Quickly going downstairs he threw open the door and was greatly surprised to see a young girl standing there. He recognized her as one of those closest to Jesus on the night he had gone to see him, and he welcomed her warmly into the house. ‘Hello Mary, and welcome’, he said. ‘Nicodemus’, she exclaimed, ‘I have the most wonderful news!’ But as she looked at him she noticed a gleam in his eyes that made her hesitate. ‘I already know’, Nicodemus began. ‘I know that Jesus has risen from the grave and that he is alive!’ Surprised, Mary asked, ‘how did you know? I have just now returned from telling the disciples after finding the tomb empty this morning!’
And then patiently and carefully so as not to forget a single thing, Nicodemus told her of his own recollections of the past several days, sharing with her the amazing letter from Joseph at the end. With tears in her own eyes, Mary looked deeply into Nicodemus’s and thanked him from the bottom of her heart.
And then turning and leaving as fast as she had come she ran out to share the news with the disciples. Watching her leave Nicodemus smiled…he knew he had to get ready…for surely there was much work that remained to be done…amen
And so, as we consider these two men who formerly may have seemed insignificant in our gospel story, we should be reminded that our Lord uses everyone who is willing in bringing about the fulfillment of His will. Joseph and Nicodemus heard the testimony of Jesus and saw the works of his hands, and came to believe, even though it flew in the face of all they knew and expected, and even though it ended up costing them both pretty dearly.
These two were not original disciples, not of the twelve who traveled with and heard Jesus every day for three years. Rather they were to a degree ‘outsiders’, hearing something, having the courage to look into it, having the greater courage to venture into belief…and in the end being regarded as holy for their willingness to step out in faith, and away from all they thought they knew. They were willing to risk their position, their authority, and their social standing in order to consider that the Messiah whom they thought they needed…a conquering warrior, one who was stronger than Rome, who would deliver them and restore the power and glory of ancient Israel…was in fact just an ordinary man, one who spoke of love for one another and of service above self on behalf of a God of mercy and forgiveness, a God of justice and peace.
And though the 12 disciples do seem pretty human at times…for indeed they were…two thousand plus years of veneration by the church has put them quite far out of reach for most people. Most feel they could never approach the level of piety or holiness credited to Simon Peter or the Apostle Paul. However Joseph and Nicodemus…these are two we can relate to…these are two who ‘came to the table late’, but found a place set for them none the less. These are two men we can all seek to emulate, standing up for what is right in the face of injustice or false allegation, risking reputation, honor, and career to follow after one so different from the usual social norms of success or accomplishment…giving all for one another in the service of this one they came to truly know, as the ‘Risen One’.
And so, on this Easter, let us all embrace the possibility that we each can do more…that we too can be a part of the ‘minority report’…
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.