Mark 14:43-52, NRSV
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.
Preached Sunday, April 29, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
It’s not every day that you hear me discuss my Southern accent. That’s because, mostly, I don’t have one that’s all that noticeable—at least not until I’m angry or poking fun of someone which we all know never happens. But today, you’re going to hear it a bit, so I’m going to go ahead and address the elephant in the..sanctuary…as it were and tell you that where I grew up the state of being undressed, nude as the fancier among us might say, wasn’t naked as you’ve heard this morning already, but nekkid.
Lewis Grizzard, longtime Atlanta columnist and humorist once wrote that “There’s a big difference between the words, ‘naked’ and ‘nekkid.’ ‘Naked’ means you don’t have any clothes on. ‘Nekkid’ means you don’t have any clothes on – and you’re up to something.”
Now, that’s important today because our passage ends with a man running off…you guessed it…nekkid. This nekkid man is one of Mark’s great mysteries. None of the other gospels report him. He’s part of the 3% of Mark’s gospel that is not replicated or improved upon in any other gospel. That is, he’s unique to Mark. And as such, he’s a character that we tend to forget—one we tend to trim out of the universal gospel story we write in our head—the one that combines Matthew and Mark and Luke and John into one entire story. That unified gospel tells us of Judas and his kiss—the one who, in Mark at least, is never referred to by his name again, but instead is called “the Betrayer.” And that unified story presents, albeit with slightly different details, the servant’s ear being sliced off by follower of Jesus. And we hear jJesus putting the religious authorities on the sport: “I’ve taught in the Temple countless times. Why didn’t you arrest me then?” He asks. But this little detail of the nekkid man running off is, somehow, omitted.
Among my Bible Study folks who meet every Tuesday, this man was the nearly singular focus on their biblical inquiry this week—and not just because he was nekkid. I told them everything I just told you, and one of them replied, “Yes. But what does it mean?” Well, that is the question, isn’t it?
While I don’t know exactly what it means, I do think it’s safe to say that this nekkid man is rife with symbolism. At the start of our scriptures, of course, we find the story of Adam and Eve discovering their own nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit, and we remember that they were ashamed. So we’re already primed to think of this man’s exposure as a bad thing.
Let’s be clear, I doing think being naked is bad. If that’s your jam, go for it. Just make sure the curtains are drawn. But I do think it’s interesting Mark tells us that a linen cloth is left behind. The greek used for linen here is found one of there place in the New Testament. It’s the same word for the linen cloth found in tomb after the resurrection. Now, that’s interesting—that, at these two key moments, we find the same word. But why? What could that linen cloth symbolize?
Some have asserted that the man was someone raised from the dead by Jesus—why else would he have a burial linen on him. But, you see, I’ve never really been a biblical literalist. That is, I’m not one to take scripture literally which certainly makes our job of being faithful interpreters of scripture a little more work because we can’t just take things at face value. So if we pass over this literalist interpretation that the once-clothed-in-linen-now-nekkid-man isn’t a newly resuscitated corpse, then what?
Well, I think it comes down to what the linen cloth means for us as faithful Christians today, and in order for us to know what it means to be faithful Christians today, we can look back on the earliest followers of Jesus and uncover what it means to not be.
Foe a while now, Jesus has been telling the disciples what’s to come. He’s made it plain to them that something big is happening—remember chapter 13 of Mark? Don’t get distracted? And ever since the Last Supper, he’s dropped the metaphors and symbolism and parable. He tells them around the table that he “will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when [he] drink[s] it new in the kingdom of God.” They head out to the Mount of Olives, and Jesus tells it like it is. “You will all become deserters.” Peter denies the accusation vehemently: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” All the rest joined in.
Then he asked them to pray with him in the garden. But the disciples, full off the meal and not fully comprehending the significance of the moment fall asleep. How often we miss the big stuff because we don’t realize it’s the big stuff. And then, it’s too late. Judas arrives with his entourage at the ready complete with weapons. You see, the people who believed in the Messianic prophecies expected the Messiah to be a victorious war hero. And so, it stood to reason, that this exchange would turn violent. But Jesus wasn’t what any of them were expecting. He came as a baby not as a general. He entered Jerusalem on a colt, not a steed. And when they expected him to fight back (a fact supported by his follower’s quick, violent action), he silenced such violence.
And when he was taken into custody, verse fifty sums up what Mark has spent entire chapters preparing us for. “All of them deserted him and fled.” It’s that singular verse that informs our nekkid man, for it was in that moment that the only shroud keeping Jesus’ followers from being exposed as being frauds was ripped away.
You see, we think of Judas as the betrayer. But here’s the thing: he wasn’t the only one to turn his back on Jesus. The truth is, we all do. It might not be in the garden of gethsemane or with quite the same outcome. But it shouldn’t be surprising that each of us has been known to put any number of things or people before Jesus and our dedication to following him. I’m just as guilty. There are days when I want to do anything but follow Jesus. It’s hard work. But it’s also holy work. And some days, we’re exposed for what we are.
And some days, it’s all wee can do to hold onto that linen shroud. Here’s the thing about that linen cloth—it’s not really about fabric. It’s about faith. When his disciples deserted him, they lost their faith and ran off exposed. And early in the morning, when the women made their way to the tomb only to find it empty, it’s the thing Jesus’ devastated and bewildered followers found.
Really, that’s the good news: that no matter how we’re exposed in our human failings, we serve a God who offers us what we need even when we don’t realize it’s just that. Here’s the truth: faith sometimes leads us to tough places, places we never intended to be. And in those moments, when you instinct is to desert the one we claim as the Christ, remember this simple fact: we’ve come this far by faith—and God will take us farther. Thanks be to God. Amen.