Disciples in the Darkness: Joseph of Arimathea, Loss of Meaning, and the Last Words of Jesus (A Good Friday Homily)

Disciples in the Darkness: Joseph of Arimathea, Loss of Meaning, and the Last Words of Jesus (A Good Friday Homily) April 17, 2014

Good Friday — John 18:1-19:42 — Psalm 22 — Isaiah 52:13-53:12

It is finished.

How do you hear these final words of Jesus tonight? Is his voice exhausted and trembling as he walks through the dark doorway of death? Is there relief in his words as he realizes the long ordeal of his arrest, torture, and execution on the brutal cross are finally over? Is there defiance in his words, a man who even while being executed is so in control of his fate that it is he, not the cross or his crucifiers, that chooses when it is finished and when he will give up his spirit?

There is so much in those last three words.

It is finished.

But, I wonder, how those words must have sounded to Jesus’ disciples? What must they have thought when they heard Jesus declare it was all over?

Because nothing could have prepared them for what happened that day — the crucifixion, the torture. Nothing could have prepared them for the despair and sorrow they must have felt in watching a man they had followed and loved for three years be crucified so unceremoniously by the Roman government.

Now, all of us, we’ve read the last pages of the story. We know how it turns out. We know that resurrection is just around the corner and the power of death is not long for this world. We are cheaters, in a way, whistling through the darkness of the crucifixion knowing that an Easter sunrise is not far away.

But the disciples don’t know the end of the story. Rather they are right in the middle of it, in the middle of a crisis, the loss of all hope and meaning, the darkest night of the soul. For them, in that moment, the cross was not exceptional. It was all too ordinary. Rome had crucified scores of people just like Jesus, people convicted as criminals. For the disciples, this was all a tragic miscarriage of justice about which they were helpless to do anything.

The cross, for the disciples, wasn’t about salvation or forgiveness like it is for us today. Instead, the cross, on that dark Friday, represented a brutal and profound failure.All they knew was that Jesus — the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord — was dead.

They had given up so much for this man and his mission: friends, family, jobs, respectability in their communities. They had assumed Jesus had come to establish an eternal kingdom that would liberate them from their Roman oppressors and the tyranny of the religious authorities. They had seen Jesus do amazing things that testified to this coming reign of God. He had fed the multitudes a feast out a meager meal. He had restored sight to the blind. He had even raised the dead man Lazarus.

But what good were these miraculous moments when confronted with the cross and the rupture of everything they had believed in and trusted.

And there on the cross, with his last breath, Jesus declared it finished, done, over, completed. Mission accomplished.

It is finished?

What did he mean, “It is finished”? Of course it wasn’t finished! Look around! The world was a wreck, a mess of violence, hate, oppression and despair. It is finished? How in the world can you, who preached the coming of God’s kingdom, look down from the cross and say that. It is finished, but the king is dead!

Maybe tonight we look around at our own world and we see so much tragedy: the death of so many refugees in Syria, at the thousands dying from hunger, at the hate that fueled a murderer targeting Jewish people last week, at our own questions, doubt, or loss of faith. What do we do, when in our own lives what we do when we hear the phrase, “It is finished” from the lips of Jesus even as we look around and see so much unfinished, so much fractured?

That’s the question that, to me, haunts Good Friday.

What do we do when things fall apart and we’ve lost all meaning for whatever comes next? Because this is exactly where the disciples find themselves when Jesus is crucified.

And, as Christians, we, too, will find ourselves at the foot of the cross at one point staring up at a our Lord who is dead and wondering what in God’s name we are to do next?

What do we do when the Lord dies and darkness covers the land?

Is it really finished?

Maybe like Judas, tormented and pained, we simply betray our Lord. Maybe like Peter, we deny our allegiance, afraid of identifying ourselves with a powerless king who got himself killed. Maybe we are the crowds, who when faced with the scandal and horror of the cross shout not, “Hosanna” but “We have no king but Caesar!”, retreating to the safety and security of violent nationalism. Maybe we simply grieve, like Mary Magdalene and the other women at the cross, taking comfort in a new family birthed by shared sorrow.

I’ve been them all, at different times in my life. I’ve betrayed like Judas. I’ve denied like Peter. I’ve taken comfort in my nation rather than my God. I’ve wept like Mary. And they are all responses of the faithful, the disciples of Jesus.They are part of the holy story and the holy pilgrimage we are on.

But by the time Jesus’ lifeless body is taken down from the cross, none of the disciples can be found. They, who have openly followed Jesus around the Judean countryside and into Jerusalem, now shrink, crushed and defeated, into the shadows of grief and despair. They cannot handle or comprehend, it seems, the rupture of the crucifixion and the quiet trauma of burial.

Instead of the 12 disciples, it is two almost unknown disciples — Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus — who show up at the foot of the cross after Jesus dies.  These men had been disciples of Jesus from the shadows. Afraid their allegiance to him would be discovered by the religious and political authorities of the day, they kept their hope in Christ a secret. Both were wealthy and important men, and they knew coming out publicly as Jesus’ followers would have endangered their status, power and quite possibly their lives.

And yet they chose this moment to come into the light, when all hope seems lost, when they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose. They stand with Jesus when all other disciples had abandoned him. They stand when Jesus in his death. They speak up for him — and literally claim him — not when he was identified as Lord, or Teacher, or Messiah. Rather they claim him when his is known as a common criminal, the Crucified One.

Where Judas betrayed Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea claims Jesus’ body. Where Peter denied Jesus, Nicodmeus gathers burial spices and heads to the tomb.

They alone of Jesus’ followers gather his limp corpse off the cross — his mouth agape, his chest still — and bury him in the tomb. No other disciple can claim such courage and faithfulness, to embrace the cold, bloodied body of a man who had promised them all eternal life. They alone hold the tragedy of Good Friday in their arms.Without them, the body of Jesus would have been left for the wild animals to pick apart and scavenge. Instead, they carry Jesus’ body to a place of total darkness, the tomb, which also just happens to be the place of resurrection.

But what faith it takes to embrace the Lord when he has died. What faith it must take to stand when all others have sat down. What beauty there is in people who finally find their faith in the dark.

Because without these people like Joseph of Arimathea there would be no tomb to be emptied in resurrection.

What do we do, as followers of Jesus, when everything falls apart and it feels like we’re simply forsaken and finished?

We can run from the hopelessness of the death of Jesus. We can weep. And we can embrace it. That is the journey of the disciples on Good Friday — from denial, to mourning, to acceptance.

Maybe if Joseph of Arimathea heard Jesus’ final words on the cross, he heard something in them differently than the rest of his disciples. Maybe when he heard Jesus say, “It is finished,” he also heard what Jesus did not say.

Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.”

Or, “We are finished.”

Maybe Joseph of Arimathea knew somehow that endings are also very often beginnings. Maybe he trusted that because it was finished, something else was only just beginning.

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