Friday, April 22, 2011

The Death, BURIAL, & Resurrection


Today is Good Friday. It is when Jesus died on the cross. The next big thing we celebrate is his resurrection on Easter, right?

I'm sorry to say that I've missed–or at least glossed-over–something really important.

Stan Giles is a friend who is a Chaplain for the Air Force. He and his wife attend Providence. He has been the pastor of several churches. I've found him to be witty, wise, and humble. As we approached Easter, he let us know that he had some thoughts on Christ's BURIAL. After hearing some of his thoughts, I wanted to have him share with us all on a Sunday morning but the schedule wouldn't allow. So I asked him to write a blog post. Graciously, he did. You will be glad if you read on...


Eternities’ Dirtiest Job
John 19:38-42

Many Americans enjoy the television show “World’s Dirtiest Jobs” by Mike Roe. He has made a career out of engaging with the many Americans who perform dirty, nasty albeit necessary jobs every day. I confess to enjoying it perhaps because it makes heroes out of ordinary people. This passage could be entitled “Eternities’ Dirtiest Job”.

First Corinthians 15:3 says that the gospel is the fact that Christ died, was buried, and rose again. In the context of this passage we see that the prior passage, 28-37, summarizes the death of our Lord. The following passage concerns resurrection, and so it is fitting that this one in the middle relates to the burial. We certainly teach and preach the crucifixion and resurrection, but what about the burial? It seems to get shorted in our preaching calendar and I confess I have done the same.

I suppose the story eludes our attention because it seems like an afterthought, an unnecessary encore as it were. However, this incident is mentioned by all four gospel writers!

It likely eludes us because of our squeamish relationship to death - it details the disposing of our Lord’s body. A distasteful duty. Yet our avoidance of this scene might be rather recent. I’ve noticed how many Renaissance paintings are devoted to this very scene.

We’re all intimately familiar with the context. The scene of death unfolds in a context of confusion and chaos. Understandably fearful of their lives, the disciples have fled; their world has unraveled and they have left the scene of the crime. The text leaves not question but that a crime has occurred – a crime against Divinity. Yet a very practical, pressing problem arises – there is this dead body. But there is no yellow tape, no CSI Jerusalem, no modern day bureaucracy that would delay the disposal of the corpse. If someone doesn’t take it, it doesn’t end up in a hospital morgue or the local funeral home; rather it ends up in the garbage dump to be burned.

Thinking quickly, and likely not completely sure of their course of action- two people step forward to take care of this dirty and distasteful job. One of them is Joseph of Arimathea. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a position of power and it is safe to assume that he was a person of wealth. Luke 23:50 states that in his position of power he disagreed with the decision to execute Jesus but alas, we know how the story ends.

However, because of his influential position he had access to power and so doing what most others couldn’t do, he approached Pilate with a request – can I take the body? I’ve wondered just how this conversation took place. My guess is that with all the confusion and chaos it was likely one of those quick sidebar conversations as they were walking out of the room. “Hey Mr. Pilate, you know I voted against this conviction and I’m not happy with the decision, but can I at least recover the body? Do you mind?” Pilate, giving it no thought likely just grunted and shrugged his shoulders and likely said, “Sure” with a degree of incredulousness as to why anyone would want it.

Joseph, who is obviously thinking on his feet, begins working through the logistical matters at play. According to the gospels he was the one who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial and thus solved one serious logistical problem. Somewhere in the process he connected with his partner in this benevolent effort, Nicodemus. Verse 39 says that he provided the necessary embalming supplies.

I think it is fair to assume his next step was to get to the scene, and make sure that the soldiers didn’t inadvertently haul Jesus off along with the other two corpses to the dump. I’m sure the soldiers, upon hearing the news, were glad as that meant there was less work for them.

This is a plausible scenario of just what took place but to say the least, it was a dirty job! Our church history has presented us with antiseptic pictures of Jesus hanging on the cross, privately parts discreetly covered, looking like he needs little more than a large Band-Aid. But the body of our Lord was a literal, bloody mess. And what I find impressive is who steps forward to do the dirty work, God’s work I might add – Joseph. Joseph became the go-to guy when God needed a volunteer for a dirty job.

As a chaplain the Air Force I deployed twice and found myself traveling all over Iraq and engaging in some fruitful and, I might add, rather exciting ministry. It was the height of the insurgency and IEDs were going off routinely. Part of what I did was to serve in one of the two main hospitals. Now when I say ‘hospital’ imagine a series of tents, set up on concrete slabs and connected to one another by smaller tents. Primitive by most standards but serving in them were some incredibly devoted and skilled medical personnel.

Patients would show up by helicopter and be rolled into the emergency tent where a team of 7 or 8 specialists of some sort would descend upon them. No one had to tell you they were coming, you could hear it. Many of the patients were those critically injured soldiers, mostly by the now infamous IEDs which cause catastrophic damage to the body. As you can well imagine, it is a chaotic environment that is emotionally charged. And what doesn’t get into the news is how literally bloody the whole situation is. These explosions cause bleeding from all orifices and the blood cakes on the body and pools on the floor.

Late one night a badly injured soldier arrived and after a period of time, the lead physician paused and spoke the words no one wanted to hear. “This isn’t going to have a positive outcome.” That’s code for this “patient is going to die.” He was from a small town in Texas. I know people from his town.

At that I knelt down and held his hand, and whispered his name into his ear. I talked of our love, of God’s love, of his family’s love. Slowly they started to detach him from all the connectors and finally, moments later the physician pronounced him dead. At that point, as is customary, you gather the grieving and often upset medical personnel, hold hands, affirm them in what they did and offer a prayer for the soldier and his family.

By the time I was ready to leave it was the wee hours of the morning and I walked by a tent where two medical technicians had the body of this deceased soldier on a gurney and they were cleaning the body of this brave soldier - just like Joseph and Nicodemus did. With somber faces and a serious mood they were gently washing the body. They were using, not some large, rough wet washcloth, like we’d use on a 6-year-old after a church picnic. Rather they were using small, 4x inch pads of gauze soaked in alcohol. I remember their faces vividly. They worked as though they were artists cleaning a masterpiece. They handled this body with such care, and tenderness. I was touched and, as I paused for those few seconds I was, as I rarely am, speechless. I took a few more steps toward the exit and then it came to me in epiphany - like fashion and this passage creased my brain. I backed up and said to them, “You know of course, that you are doing the work of God!”

I don’t think I am stretching it too much when I use Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are some of the heroes of the church. He did the job that people naturally shied away from – he cleaned up the body of Jesus. Not with latex gloves and gauze and alcohol, but with strips of linen and spices. It was still a dirty, messy, distasteful job. I might be stretching it a bit, but he sort of reminds me of the many people I have know in the church who have been willing to do whatever was necessary. In my mind Joseph is a model of service to our Lord. In some traditions, Joseph is venerated as a saint.

There are a lot of people in our churches doing the Joseph-like jobs -- jobs that demand sacrifice, the giving up of evenings and weekends. Jobs that get little or no appreciation. Furthermore I’ve discovered that ministering to Christ’s Body, the church, can sometimes itself be bloody and messy. Yet we do it because our Lord calls us to faithfulness.

Yet, at the risk of bursting Joseph’s balloon, I should point our verse 38. Apparently, Saint Joseph had feet of clay because he feared the Jews and kept his confession under wraps, as it were. Thus in some sense Joseph was a failure; he messed up. That denial was perhaps his skeleton in his closet, that moment of regret. Yet he is listed here as serving the literal body of Christ.

That should come as some comfort to you and me because it reminds us that we don’t have to be saints to serve in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to be perfect to do the will of God. God uses people, ordinary people, flawed people to minister to His body, to further his kingdom.

Pastors wish our churches were full of the near perfect servants but in practice we get a real mixture. Some people come into our midst with high skill levels but low commitment levels. Sometimes it is the other way around. Yet they, we all have a place in the kingdom. And when we do those, so to speak, ‘dirty’ jobs in the church; those jobs that folks just won’t volunteer for; the jobs that go begging because they involve children, sometimes diapers even, and commitment, those Joseph-like jobs, we are doing the Lord’s work!

Like Joseph you likely are a flawed person perhaps with some not so invisible skeletons in your closet. But don’t let that keep you from your service to our Lord. Dorothy Day made this observation. She said, “If we forbid hypocrites from serving in our churches, we won’t have anyone to serve!” Then she wirily added, “and we won’t have anyone to do the forbidding!”

In some sense none of us are qualified to do the work of the Lord, but like Joseph, we can still minister to the broken, bleeding, busted and bruised body of Christ – the church.

For all the talk about the church being the body of Christ and how we’re all important, many pastors don’t really believe that – they believe, we believe that we are more important. Part of that stems from our CEO approach to leadership that has dominated our churches for many decades. But with some seasoning I’ve come to believe the opposite because I’ve been blessed to be around many Josephs and I am convinced that some of the most important saints of God are doing the dirty work, the sometimes distasteful work, the work that few people notice, work like those two fine medical people were doing.

All of us have flaws. You have flaws, but don’t let that keep you from doing God’s work at wherever you were called.

Looking back over my years of ministry I can cringe with embarrassment over some things I did, and certainly some things I said. But as I’ve often said in my later years, if you can’t look back on your life and identify some sinful and/or stupid things you’ve said or done – then you likely haven’t grown much. By that definition, I have grown a lot.

When I want inspiration for my life I revisit imagines of Jerry Deuy, a faithful servant of God who loved and worked with high school kids even though his were long gone. I think of my friend Beth Lousse in an Awana uniform on Wednesday nights working with children. I remember Ruth McGinty visiting some shut-ins.

The burial of Jesus, so easily overlooked, should remind us that our bodies are very important and deserve to be cherished. At the social level it should remind us that someone has to do the dirty work! Perhaps it should be us? Perhaps we ought not to assume that “someone else will do it!” Finally, at the spiritual level, this story should remind us that one doesn’t have to be perfect to be used in God’s kingdom. Joseph and Nicodemus were not perfect saints, but they were faithful.

May God use us to be of service in His kingdom.


I told you that you would be glad you read on! Please comment below, or if you want, you can reach Stan at stanley.giles@ang.af.mil.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You were right Chad! This was absolutely wonderful reading and quite educational. I have to say honestly Mr. Giles that I am one of the ones that never gave the burial a second thought. I sure appreciate you sharing this with us and with your permission I'd love to pass it on to everyone I can get to read it excellent job!

Dave

Phil said...

Great post! I too hadn't given Joseph & Nicodemus' work much thought, but comparing it to Mike Rowe makes a lot of sense.

Melissa said...

Brothers Chad and Stan: Thank you for giving us this glorious blessing! I would also like to share the beautiful message with others!

Anonymous said...

This really encourages me.
Danny Shoup

RB said...

I really hope that this post will encourage those who perhaps never did any volunteer work at the church try it. There are many opportunities to serve in and outside of the church.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post - insightful and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing. I don't know where my place to serve is, but I am looking.
sda