Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Joseph's Missing Story

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, after laying Jesus' body in the tomb, was approached by an apparition of Jesus and given the Holy Grail for safekeeping. When imprisoned as a follower of Jesus, the Grail supposedly gave Joseph supernatural sustenance, keeping him alive as the keeper of the holy cup. In the years that followed, as Christianity spread across Europe, eastern Asia, and north Africa, Joseph was said to have travelled to Britain, where he established the earliest Christian oratory in Glastonbury. It is said that when he placed his walking stick upon the ground it spontaneously took root and began to blossom in what became known as the "Glastonbury Thorn," which pilgrims in Britain came to see until the oratory and legendary plant were destroyed by the Reformers, who weren't as comfortable with the cult of the supernatural.

Of course, none of those stories has any basis in the canon of scripture. In fact, most of them seem to have been invented no earlier than the 12th century, when the commerce associated with medieval pilgrims filled the coffers of the church. There are other earlier legends about Joseph, too. Some of the ancient church fathers like Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian expanded upon the record of scripture and told stories of Joseph's accomplishments. Some identify him among the seventy elders commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10. Others recall stories of Joseph being delivered from prison by the Holy Spirit. Some early writers claim that Joseph did make it to Britain, where he served as a bishop.[1]

In truth, all we know about Joseph of Arimathea is what all four canonical gospel accounts tell us: that he was a member of the Jewish council and a follower of Jesus who approached Pilate and asked for Jesus' body so that he could lay it in a nearby tomb. Think about that for a moment. Think about who Joseph was. Think about what it meant that he stepped out and approached the Roman prefect and asked if he could honor the criminal with a decent burial--something that crucifixion was by definition designed to prevent. Consider what it mean to his colleagues on the Jewish council that he would show this decency, this tenderness, to this messianic pretender. Consider what it meant to the disciples of Jesus--the men who had run to hide and the few women who stayed by the cross--that Joseph, a known leader in the community, would do the thing that no one else had the guts to do.

Does it surprise us, then, that in the retelling of Joseph's story he ends up entrusted by the ghost of Jesus with the Holy Grail? Does it surprise us that this holy man's walking stick took root and blossomed into a new flowering plant? Is there any pilgrimage, any bishopric, any legend too grand for this disciple of Jesus?

If only we had the real story. If only we knew what happened to Joseph. If only we had something other than an Arthurian legend to honor the life and witness of this humble, faithful, devoted servant of God. Then again, we do.

What does it mean to stand out for what is right? What does it mean to risk being ostracized because we stick up for the way of Jesus? What does it mean to cast our vote not against the presumed troublemaker of the day but for patience, forgiveness, and honesty? It is hard to be a part of society's council and stand up for those whom society has condemned. Just look at the current election campaign for the senate seat in Alabama. The candidates are not giving us their own ideas for the future of our state. They are simply competing to align themselves most closely with the president and his agenda and, thus, the popular vote in this state. It is not easy to go against the tide. It is not easy to stand up for justice and equality when the mob has a thirst for blood. It won't get you elected. In fact, it may ruin your life. But Joseph isn't remembered because he cast his vote along with his peers. He is remembered because the way of Jesus had so transformed his life that he could not remain silent any more. He had to do something. The kingdom of God had taken hold of his life, and he had to take a stand for Jesus.

His story is not over. I don't know if it leads to Glastonbury, but I know that it comes to us here. We may feel far removed from that first-century trial and execution, but I assure you that we are still there, standing at the foot of the cross, beholding a travesty of justice. We may not have the power to stop the crucifixion of God's beloved, but we do have the power to respond to it with our whole lives. We have the power to devote our hearts and minds and strengths and voices to the way of Jesus. We have the ability to be so transformed by the kingdom of God that we cannot stay silent anymore, that we cannot sit in the shadows any longer, that we cannot hesitate when the time comes to approach the emperors of this world and demand decency for the justice that they have sought to execute. Joseph's story isn't finished if the followers of Jesus are still willing to confront the powers of this world that seek to kill him all over again. The story of Joseph isn't finished if it lives on in us.

[1] For these and other legends about Joseph of Arimathea, see Wikipedia.

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