20 April 2009

Claiming the Body of Christ

Nicodemus and Joseph take Christ down from the cross

Patrick Comerford

Acts 4: 23-31; Psalm 2: 1-9; John 3: 1-8

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our Gospel readings for the Eucharist in these days immediately after Easter, we have been reading from the Gospel according to Saint John, which, spiritually, provides a wonderful account of what it means to have faith in the Risen Christ.

And so, you may be surprised that this morning’s lectionary reading from Saint John’s Gospel goes back quite a bit in time, chronologically speaking, to an early stage in Christ’s ministry, and tells us the story of Nicodemus (Νικόδημος) and his first encounter with Christ.

Nicodemus is an interesting character in the Fourth Gospel, and appears in the Gospel story three times:

• at that early stage in Christ’s ministry recalled in this morning’s Gospel reading this morning, Nicodemus visits Christ at night to listen to his teachings (John 3: 1-21);

• the second time is when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7: 45-51);

• the third and the last appearance of Nicodemus comes after the Crucifixion, when he assists of Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Christ’s body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

Nicodemus and Joseph are two contrasting figures.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a rabbi and a member of the Sanhedrin. His discussion with Jesus in this morning’s reading is well-known, and may even be the most hijacked and misused passage in the Gospels.

An apocryphal work under his name – the Gospel of Nicodemus – was produced in the late Middle Ages, and is mostly a reworking of the earlier Acts of Pilate, which recounts the Harrowing of Hell.

Although there is no clear source of information about Nicodemus outside Saint John’s Gospel, the Jewish Encyclopaedia and some Biblical historians have speculated that he is identical to Nicodemus ben Gurion, who is named in the Talmud as a wealthy and popular holy man with miraculous powers.

According to popular Christian tradition, Nicodemus was martyred some time in the first century. The Orthodox Church also links him with the Easter story, celebrating him on the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers, the Third Sunday of Pascha (Easter). His relics were said to have been found along with those of the martyred Saint Stephen and Gamaliel, another member of the Sanhedrin who, according to some traditions, converted to Christianity.

On the other hand, Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, a member of the ruling class, a member of the Sanhedrin, and perhaps a Sadducee. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would already have believed in Paradise, in life after death. But Joseph, although he was waiting for the Kingdom of God, would not have accepted these post-exilic beliefs.

As soon as he knew that Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea went boldly into Pilate’s palace and asked for permission to bury the body. He hurriedly bought a linen shroud, and took the body down from where it was nailed on the cross.

Nicodemus had a hundred pound mixture of myrrh and aloes (John 19: 39), and together these two “took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews” (John 19: 40), and they buried him in a new tomb belonging to Joseph.

This was a risky thing for Joseph and Nicodemus to do. Apart from the political risks, they were taking social and religious risks. By touching a dead body, they were defiled and would have to delay his Passover Seder celebrations by a month (see Numbers 9: 6-11).

These two men, one a Pharisee the other perhaps a Sadducee, could have been theologically opposed in the past. Now, their hidden faith is turned into open, risk-taking action.

In this single act of faith, in claiming the Body of Christ, they are united. Their faith – however hidden or questioning in the past – brings them together at the cross, as they share in his death and burial. They are united by the body of Christ.

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are united in claiming the Body of Christ. In taking the risk of being excluded from the Passover meal, they became real partakers in the Body of Christ.

Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. In him we find new life. There can only be one Body of Christ. In your ministry, never allow the Body of Christ to be divided by petty theological opinions, and always test your faith in the Risen Christ against your willingness to act as true disciples and to be united around his body.

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This address was delivered at the end-of-term Eucharist organised by the Dearmer Society on 20 April 2009.

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