September 19, 2018

Palm/Passion Sunday 2018: Naked and Ashamed

The Taking of Christ. Caravaggio

Sermon: Palm/Passion Sunday 2018
Naked and Ashamed

Mark 14: 43-52

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’ All of them deserted him and fled.

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

• • •

The Lord be with you.

This Sunday is traditionally celebrated in one of two ways: either remembering the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week, or in remembering his suffering and crucifixion, the climactic events of the week. Often a long passage is read, either by the pastor or by readers from the congregation, telling the entire story of how Jesus came to be arrested, tried, and condemned to die on the cross.

Today I would like us to think about one small part of that passion story, because I think it summarizes well what we have been considering throughout Lent.

During this Lenten season, I have been following the traditional view — that John Mark, the author of this Gospel — was associated closely with the Apostle Peter, and that his Gospel reflects Peter’s point of view. Peter, of course, was identified with the church in Rome, and it is said that Peter died in Rome as a martyr under the Emperor Nero during a particularly intense period of persecution. Commenters think that the Gospel of Mark may have been written as a pastoral Gospel, designed to strengthen and sustain the Christians in Rome who were going through that persecution.

In our first Lenten sermon, we noted that Mark often adds small details that reflect that pastoral purpose, that would have been comforting and strengthening to the Roman believers. For example, in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Mark includes the detail that Jesus was among the wild beasts and that God’s angels ministered to him. For Christians who may well have thought they might have to face the lions in the Roman Coliseum, this small detail would have reminded them that they were following their Savior and that God would take care of them in their severe test as well.

Today, we will see another detail in the story of the Garden of Gethsemane. Let me introduce it this way. The famous film director Alfred Hitchcock used to do something rather fun in each of his films. In almost every one of them, Hitchcock did a cameo appearance. He would often show up in a scene as a member of a crowd, or as someone in the background. Sometimes he was just passing by, but his brief appearances often brought a bit of humor to the film.

For example, in the 1969 movie Topaz, Hitchcock appears in a scene at LaGuardia International Airport in New York. He is shown seated in a wheelchair, being pushed by a nurse under a sign showing the way to the gates. Then, as if a miracle happened, he stands up from the wheelchair, greets another man and then walks off to the right. It has nothing to do with the film’s story, but it’s an intriguing and entertaining little detail that brings a bit of whimsy to it.

Many commentators have thought that John Mark, the author of this Gospel, inserted himself into the story that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested. In the text we read this morning, we saw how Judas led the soldiers to Jesus and betrayed him with a kiss. We then read of his disciple who drew his sword and swung it at the soldiers, cutting off his ear. Then it says that all the disciples fled into the night, abandoning Jesus.

This is another example of the theme of discipleship failure in the Gospel of Mark. They are continually portrayed throughout the story as struggling with understanding Jesus, with living out the message of the cross he was teaching them, and with remaining steadfast in times of stress and tension. Now, at Jesus’ greatest moment of need, they run away and leave him.

Then Mark adds this detail: “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Tradition has it that this young man was John Mark himself, the author of the Gospel of Mark. This is his cameo. But there is nothing funny or whimsical about it. He includes himself among those who abandoned Jesus that night.

John Mark lived in Jerusalem, and many think the Last Supper was held in his home. If this young man in the garden was him, he was a person of means, for it says he was dressed in linen garments, which were fine clothes. But it also says he was dressed only in linen garments, which indicates that he had dressed hastily and ran out to Gethsemane to see what was going on. When he realized the danger of the moment, Mark got in a tussle with some soldiers, who ripped off his garments, but were unable to capture him.

This description reminds us of Adam and Eve, who became ashamed of their nakedness and had to exit another garden long ago. The way Mark words this anecdote is also reminiscent of a verse from the prophet Amos, who said that at a time of great trouble in Israel, “…those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day…”

Unlike Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his movies, in which he often tried to get his audience to smile and be entertained, Mark’s cameo here in the Gospel is anything but humorous. Rather, it’s a confession. It’s an admission. It’s a self-incriminating detail in which he includes himself among all those who fled and abandoned Jesus that night. In fact, it’s worse, for Mark not only fled, but did so naked and ashamed.

It’s as though Mark is saying here, “Look, all through this story of Jesus I’ve been telling you about his disciples and their struggles. I have shown you how they’ve failed and fallen short many, many times. And on this night, they did it again. When Jesus was arrested, they vanished into the night, running for their lives. But,” Mark says, “I want to tell you something else. I was there too. And I didn’t do any better. I blew it too. I ran away too. I failed as Jesus’ disciple that night in Gethsemane just like everyone else.”

Because Mark did this, because he included himself in this story, perhaps that gives us encouragement to do the same. Let’s imagine ourselves there. What would we have done in Gethsemane? Would we have proclaimed our loyalty to Jesus as loudly and confidently as the disciples did? Would we have fallen asleep as Jesus prayed? Would we have panicked and pulled out our swords? Would we have run off into the darkness? Would we have fled, naked and ashamed like the young man in the linen garments?

Many of Mark’s readers, who were facing the fierce persecution of Rome, likely asked those same questions of themselves too as they read this story. What if they should fail Jesus?

At this point in the story, it all looks pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? Tell you what. Let’s walk through Holy Week together and see what happens, okay?

Comments

  1. Susan Dumbrell says:

    linen cloths hide us
    Edens leaves protected us
    empty tomb, cloths lie

  2. Ronald Avra says:

    Good insights and exposition. Thanks.

  3. Christiane says:

    “Let’s imagine ourselves there. What would we have done in Gethsemane? Would we have proclaimed our loyalty to Jesus as loudly and confidently as the disciples did?
    Would we have fallen asleep as Jesus prayed?”

    I’ve wondered if praying ‘The Hours’ are not an ‘I’m sorry’ to Our Lord for His having been left ‘alone’ while the disciples slept at Gethsemane ?
    To pray Compline at night at the appointed times IS to ‘spend time WITH Him’ when people pray ‘the Hours’, when you think about it. To pray the appointed night time hours, it’s like we are ‘making up’ for the disciples’ neglect of being awake ‘spending time to be with Him’ on the eve of mankind’s deliverance from satan. (?)

    • Dana Ames says:

      Christiane,

      in the Orthodox Church, we give the Lord “a Christian burial” on Friday – we do some of the same things that are done at the funeral of a Priest.

      For anyone who dies, the tradition is for the parish members to take turns chanting the Psalms over the body from as close to the moment of death as possible until the funeral service. Many parishes don’t do this, but ours tries to, if possible. We especially try to do it through the night from after the service on Holy Friday evening until the Holy Saturday liturgy in the afternoon; the “body” is a large icon of the dead Christ being lamented at his burial by the women and Joseph & Nicodemus, which lies flat in front of the large Crucifixion scene which is moved from the front wall to the center of the church. In Russian this icon is called the plaschenitsa. (In Greek parishes, they put this icon, or an actual 3-D figure of the body, in a special flower-covered “tomb” that stands by itself on legs, and can be carried in procession by 4 men, one at each corner, holding a horizontal pole-like assembly. I’ve seen a photo of Tom Hanks as one of these men – he converted to EO when he married his wife.) It’s easier for working people to take part, since it’s on a weekend. Most years the sign-up sheet is filled in through at least most of the hours of the night.

      It’s quite a sweet and somber thing to be chanting alone in a cold, dark church with only candles for light, late into the night and early morning hours. Quite a few people stay a while after the Friday service is over, and sit in silence as if at a wake. I often think exactly that we are making up for the disciples’ neglect; some of the text on Friday insinuates this.

      Dana

  4. all morning long
    flurries swirled down
    no room in the sky