Joseph of Arimathea: rich and righteous, devout and a disciple of Jesus.

In the Uniting Church’s resource provided for worship leaders, Uniting in Worship, there is a Calendar of Commemorations, based on the cycle of annual feast days for saints in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches—but broadened out to be much wider than this. Many days of the year are designated to remember specific people. Today (19 March) is the day to remember Joseph of Arimathea—a figure best known for the scene, reported by all four Gospels, when he takes the body of Jesus from the cross and places it in a tomb.

Joseph was a common biblical name—son of Isaac, father of Jesus, amongst others. This Joseph is distinguished by his home town, Arimathea. All we know is that it was a town in Judea (Luke 23:51). It is thought it may be Ramathaim Sophim, the birthplace of Samuel (1 Sam 1:1, 19), which appears in the LXX as Greek Armathaim Sipha.

In the earliest Gospel, this Joseph is described as being both “a respected member of the council” and as one who was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). The kingdom of God is what Jesus was preaching, according to Mark (1:15; 4:11) and that is what the crowd lining the streets into Jerusalem understood him to be bringing (11:10). Mark’s report indicates that Joseph, who shares this expectation with Jesus, “bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; he then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).

Matthew reworks this description; he is “a rich man” (rather than a member of the council) who was “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57). By contrast, Luke introduces Joseph as “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50), echoing the much earlier descriptions of Elizabeth and Zechariah (1:6) and Simeon (2:25).

Luke explains that Joseph, “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action” (Luke 23:50–51). Differentiating Joseph from the others in the council seems important for Luke; after all, in Luke’s account, the council had brought Jesus to Pilate, saying that “we found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (23:2).

When Pilate demurs, council members press the point: “he stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5). After sending Jesus to Herod (a curiously unhistorical action, given the actual governance arrangements at the time), Pilate states his belief, for a second time, that Jesus is innocent (23:4, 14), before the “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” together agitate for the release of Barabbas (23:13, 18). Luke’s more detailed description of Joseph places him at odds with this whole sequence of events; “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action” (23:50–51).

Luke further indicates that Joseph “was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (23:51), picking up on Mark’s description. In the context of Luke’s two volumes, however, this description aligns Joseph very closely with the enterprise that Jesus was engaged in; “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”, Jesus declares (4:43); “he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (8:1).

Jesus sends out both the twelve, and then the seventy, to proclaim the kingdom of God (9:1–2; 10:1, 9–11); he instructs his followers to pray, “your kingdom come” (11:2) and to “strive for [God’s] kingdom” (12:31); he tells. parables of the kingdom (8:10; 13:18, 20); and teaches that “the kingdom of God is among you” (17:20–21).

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, those travelling with him “supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (19:11); indeed, as he enters the city, people acclaim him as “the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (19:38). At the last meal he shares with his disciples, Jesus looks to the fulfilment of the kingdom (22:14–18, 28–30), and one crucified alongside Jesus shares this hope, saying to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (23:42).

Jesus continues this after his death and resurrection, “appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3); subsequently, key followers of Jesus proclaim the kingdom in key locations— Phillip in Samaria (8:12), Paul and Barnabas in Antioch (14:22), and Paul in Ephesus, (19:8). This was Paul’s common activity everywhere (20:25); the final picture of Paul is that he lived under house arrest in a Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).

So Joseph, “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51), is firmly aligned with Jesus and with his followers in Luke’s Gospel. He is clearly, as Matthew reports, “a disciple of Jesus” (Matt 27:57).

In the fourth Gospel, Joseph performs the same task, requesting the body of Jesus from Pilate, and securing a safe place as the resting place for the body. He does this in conjunction with Nicodemus, “who had at first come to Jesus by night” (John 19:39). We first meet Nicodemus earlier in John’s narrative (3:1–21); at this time, he engages in what might be characterised as an appreciative enquiry with Jesus, under the cover of night (3:2), presumably so that he didn’t “out” his interest in what Jesus was teaching. It’s perhaps worth noting that Jesus spoke about “the kingdom of God” in his conversation with Nicodemus (3:3, 5)—the very same phrase that is key to the preaching of Jesus in Mark and Luke.

Some chapters later in John’s narrative, as Jesus experiences intensified opposition whilst in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (7:1–13), and the Pharisees and temple authorities join forces to send the temple police to arrest him (7:32), Nicodemus appears once more. The temple police return the temple, saying that they will not arrest him (7:45–46).

Nicodemus steps in; he is introduced as the one who “had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them”—that is to say, one of the disciples (7:50). He speaks boldly: “our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). The dismissive reply of the Pharisees further aligns him with Jesus; “surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” is their rejoinder (7:52). His allegiance is clear, at least in the minds of the Pharisees, if not also the narrator of the Gospel.

Nicodemus returns a third time, after the death of Jesus, when the body of Jesus is requested by Joseph of Arimathaea, who is here,clearly identified as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (19:38).

Joseph of Arimathea is here described as being “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Judean authorities” (19:38). The fear of the Judean authorities has been a recurrent motif in John’s narrative (5:1; 7:13; 9:22; here, and 20:19). (The term I translate as “Judean authorities” is most commonly rendered as “Jews”, but this translation is too wide and does not accurately reflect the way the term is used in John’s Gospel.)

Once again, Joseph is identified as a disciple of Jesus (John 19:38; so also Matt 27:57, and, as we have argued above, that is the implication in both Mark 15 and Luke 23). Both Joseph and Nicodemus, we might presume, were numbered among the “many, even of the authorities, [who] believed in him”, but who, “because of the Pharisees, did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (12:42).

The manner in which the body of Jesus is removed from the cross into the grave, anointed with an extravagantly large amount of spices, myrrh and aloes and wrapped in linen cloths “according to the burial custom of the Jews”, and placed in a previously unused tomb (19:38–40), reflects the tender, respectful approach of these two of Jesus’s disciples.

The body of a crucified person would normally be thrown into a communal grave outside the city; all four Gospels take pains to report that this as not the fate of Jesus. The historicity of this claim must surely, however, be significantly doubted. The point of the narrative is not historical verification. The intention is to continue to attest to the significance of Jesus, acknowledged as king, given exactly the kind of extravagant funerary rites that were befitting for a king.

And that is the gift that Joseph of Arimathea offers to followers of a Jesus, even to this day: a compassionate, respectful treatment of the body of Jesus. It’s good to remember him for this, today.

Mission, Evangelism, Bearing Witness, and Dialogue: some theological reflections

What are we doing when we engage in ”mission planning”? What do we mean when we talk about “mission”?

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church is exploring such questions this year. Our previous Strategic Plan, with its Five Key Pillars, came to a conclusion last year. This year, in conjunction with the Mission Enablement Team from Synod, the Presbytery is developing a new mission plan, to serve as the guiding document for the Presbytery for the next few years. We are taking time in each meeting of Presbytery to focus on this process, drawing on wisdom from right across the Presbytery (country, coast, and capital).

This is my contribution to the initial conversation that is taking place.

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In approaching these questions, it may be helpful to explore a series of related ideas, and distinguish them from one another. Often, when people refer to mission, they mean one of these related ideas : evangelism, testifying (or bearing witness), converting (or proselytising), or perhaps engaging in dialogue. Mission is related to each of these words, but mission is not simply one or more of these words alone.

Mission is what God is doing in the world. It began long ago with the people of Israel, when God sent (missionised) messengers, prophets to speak guidance to the people. In Christian understanding, this mission came to a head when God sent (missionised) Jesus into the world. (The word mission comes from the Latin word missio, which simply means “to send”). We are called to join with this missional initiative, to find where God is already at work in the world.

Evangelism is work that is related to the good news (the evangel, originally a Greek word) … work that is carried out through words, through actions, through being a presence. We are called to undertake this work in the ways that are most appropriate and most fruitful in each particular circumstance. The aim is to make that good news known as a reality for other people. That can be by words, by actions, in personal relationships, in working groups, in communal undertakings.

Testifying or Bearing Witness is offering our words to explain how we have experienced God, how we have been swept up in the mission that God is undertaking in the world, how we have experienced the good news (evangel) in our lives. We are called to communicate our personal experience of this good news carefully, in contextually relevant ways, and in respectful relationship with others. The story is ours to tell!

Conversion is an effort made to change someone’s mind, to turn someone FROM something and TOWARDS something else, to turn them so that they join WITH you in your understanding of things. It necessarily involves persuasion, a focus on convincing, an intention to arrive at a clearly-defined goal. It can all-too-easily teeter over the edge of respectful relationships into unhealthy pressurising behaviour. It needs to be undertaken (if it is seen as important) in a very careful, measured way.

Proselytism is a term that has gained a hard edge over time. It appears in scripture, when new converts to the Jesus movement are called proselytes in Acts. It literally means “coming towards”. But in modern usage it has a harsh edge, often indicating the following of a prescribed formula, involving the use of pressure tactics, sometimes with verbal force that goes beyond mere conversation. It’s not something that I personally see as important—or even valid—in undertaking mission.

Dialogue is another word that needs to be considered when we think about mission. Dialogue means to “speak across”; to speak another person and appreciate them in their own right, valuing who they are and what they have to offer, engaging them in conversation that seeks mutual growth and deepened understanding of each other. Inevitably, in my experience, such conversations, when they facilitate genuine mutual encounters, can lead to new understandings, renewed commitments, and revitalised faith. And that is at the heart of mission!

So there is a cluster of activities that need to be considered when considering mission:

evangelism and witnessing to your faith (telling and showing the good news from your personal perspective)

developing respectful relationships with other people (building respectful relationships that enable deep sharing)

community engagement with local groups (working in practical ways on a common cause, and in so doing, deepening relationships)

the ministry of presence in the community (simply “being there”, indicating that you are open to engagement and conversation with others)

developing faithful disciples (working intentionally to deepen understanding, enliven passion, broaden commitment, strengthen capacity)

growing your church (working with others to develop the worship, witness, service, and fellowship of the local community of faith)

advocating for the least (taking a stand on issues of justice, seeking the common good for all)

Each of these aspects has a place when we think about “doing mission”. For when we focus on mission, we start with a very simple premise: God is present and active in the world. From that premise, we can begin to see that people around us are engaged in activities that God has inspired. There are stories from people all around us, about how God is at work—in our congregations, in our families, in our communities, in any part of the world.

We join in the mission that God is already carrying out when the spirit leads us to find these people and join with them in partnership. The gospel then becomes declaring what God is already doing in our midst, in our time; interpreting the actions that we undertake together as expressions of God’s loving care for the world.

In the midst of all of this, we will know that the church is formed in its fullness through this process of partnering with others. The community is the place where being disciples and being church is lived out. The mission that God is already undertaking in the world through these assorted people is the enterprise in which we participate, enthusiastically, hopefully, energetically.