A hopeless faith?

As Christians, it would be nice if we always had hope, if we could always be confident that the future is in the hands of a gracious, just, and loving God. It would be nice if, in faith, we always lived in a way that embodied that hope.

But it can be hard to stay hopeful about tomorrow when today seems so hopeless.

Here’s some encouraging news: it’s still possible to live faithfully, even when hope seems uncertain. We just have to courageously keep doing what we know to be right.

***

Jesus hung lifeless on the cross, his legs unbroken, his side pierced by a Roman spear. Who would take care of the body? Certainly not Pontius Pilate. Who would make sure Jesus received a respectful burial before sundown and the beginning of Passover?

John answers the question for us:

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. (John 19:38-42, NRSV)

This is Joseph’s first appearance in John’s gospel. The other gospels tell us that he was a wealthy and respected member of the Sanhedrin (Matt 27:57; Mark 15:43) who had not agreed to the council’s plans regarding Jesus (Luke 23:51). Here, John tells us only that Joseph was a secret disciple. That’s understandable. Given his social position, he surely would have faced derision and persecution if his commitments became known.

In this, he was in a similar predicament as his compatriot, Nicodemus the Pharisee. This is Nick’s third appearance in the gospel. In the first (John 3), he came to Jesus under cover of darkness, presumably to keep the visit a secret from his fellow Pharisees. In the second (John 7), he stood up for Jesus (albeit in a roundabout fashion) and received an abruptly dismissive response from his peers. It’s not clear at this point whether he had already become a disciple. But somewhere along the line he threw in with Jesus. And in the politically and emotionally charged climate of Golgotha, it would have been extremely risky to declare his allegiance.

Put yourself in their sandals. Joseph and Nicodemus may have been newfound friends, forced to watch helplessly as the conspiracy against Jesus unfolded. They knew the same venom could be directed toward them if they let it be known that they were followers of this would-be messiah.

And suddenly, their leader was dead, a victim of their colleagues’ jealousy and malice. A sign above Jesus’ head declared him the “King of the Jews” — a claim neither Pilate nor the Jewish leaders believed. But Joseph and Nicodemus had believed. With Passover nearly upon them, could they trust that Jesus’ body would be treated with proper dignity, with the honor due a king?

And just as importantly: what would be the point? Jesus was dead, and much if not all of their hope of a renewed and righteous kingdom died with him. Why should the two men risk everything for a failed dream?

Why? Because the other disciples had fled, and there was no one else. Because even then, they couldn’t bear the thought of what else might happen if they didn’t take charge of the situation. Because they had the means.

And because it was the right thing to do.

***

Joseph was generous in making Jesus the first occupant of what was probably meant to be his own family tomb. Nicodemus was generous in bringing enough myrrh and aloes to give Jesus the royal burial he deserved.

But more than this, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus together exemplified the positive possibility of what we might call “hopeless faith.” By boldly asking Pilate to take possession of Jesus’ body — as a family member might — Joseph publicly announced his loyalty to Jesus. By lovingly preparing Jesus’ body for burial,  both men made their allegiance known. They faithfully stepped up and did what was right, even at great risk to themselves, even when there no longer seemed to be a reason to go on believing.

Imagine the advice of their friends: “Are you crazy? I appreciate what you’re trying to do. But what’s the point? You might end up dead like Jesus. It’s over. Let it go.”

Then imagine next how they must have responded to news of the resurrection.

Not, “Shoot, we wasted all those expensive spices.”

Not, “Maybe we should have just laid low for a few days. Then we wouldn’t have had to let our secret out.”

Not even, “Hah! I told you so.”

Just the joy of discovering, unexpectedly, that their faith had a reason, and that there was once again ample reason to hope.

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