The First Word
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The Naked Young Man

The Naked Young Man

Mark 14:51-52

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

Good Friday: Passion Stories

30 March 2018

 

    

    When Katie e-mailed the participants in tonight's service, she listed what roles we would each have. The list said, "Naked Young Man—Scott Jones." I felt the need to Reply All that I did not, in fact, plan to be naked tonight. You are glad, I'm sure that I've carried through on that promise.

    I did feel that someone missed a great opportunity for a joke. Someone should have replied, "We didn't think so Scott, since it said 'young man.'"

    But wait, there's a naked young man that's part of the Passion story? Indeed there is. Only here in the Gospel of Mark. And it's a rather important role the naked young man plays, as he reappears in the tomb on Easter Sunday, but you'll have to wait a couple of days for me to say more about that.

    This character is a reminder of a flaw in our religious understanding. We synthesize the narratives of the Four Gospels in such a way that the specific details are forgotten. Tonight we are, instead, reading in detail the narrative as told by only one Gospel writer, and so we encounter this overlooked, but significant character—the naked young man of Mark.

 

    If you are reading along in the Gospel and get to these verses and are surprised and confused, then good. Because this odd little detail is supposed to be mysterious. A mystery that isn't resolved until the Easter morning narrative. But there are a few things we can discern about this mysterious character.

First, this is one of many clues in the Gospel of Mark that the author isn't telling a factual history. He is composing a story that has goals and purposes. We know that because in actual fact no naked young man would have been walking around with Jesus and the disciples wrapped only in the kind of cloth used as a shroud.

    Yes, that's the actual meaning of the word translated here "linen cloth." The young man is wrapped in a shroud. The kind of cloth they used to cover corpses. The same kind of cloth that Joseph of Arimathea will use to wrap Jesus in after the crucifixion.

    So, we are dealing with a symbolic character. This naked young man symbolizes something. What does he symbolize?

    In the early Christian church baptisms were usually performed at dawn on Easter Sunday after the candidates spent all of Lent in preparation and catechism. And at those Easter Sunrise services the candidates for baptism were naked. Representing dying to the old self and rising again into new life. Becoming a new creature. A new human being. Baptism still symbolizes death and resurrection, though we've prettied it up.

    This naked young man represents "a disciple" and therefore "all disciples."

    And in this moment, he runs away. We aren't told whether his running away is a good thing or a bad thing. Does he run away in fear and faithlessness? Or does his escaping capture symbolize the freedom from death that all disciples achieve in the resurrection? I'm going with the latter meaning myself. Here, at the darkest moment of the Gospel, is a foreshadowing symbol of the resurrection.

 

    A few decades ago a biblical scholar announced that he had discovered a lost portion of Mark that included one more story of the naked young man, set before the arrest in the Garden. Scholars now generally believe that story is a hoax. But before they arrived at that conclusion, the story opened up exciting possibilities. The young man is one whom Jesus raises from the dead, and he later comes to Jesus naked, covered in this cloth, and he spends the night with Jesus who "taught him the mysteries of the Kingdom of God." The text was fraught with homoerotic possibilities.

    

    God wants us to become our best selves. To be set free from what excludes and harms us. To be empowered with the confidence of God.

    My own passion story identifies with this young man. I was once imprisoned in the closet of homophobia. I lived in fear and that fear meant I was dishonest and lacked integrity.

    And finally, at the age of 29, I arrived after much prayer at a moment of decision—I would explore what it meant to be a gay man.

    And the years that followed contained Good Friday moments—when I feared for my job and career, when my sister abandoned me, when I struggled to find love, when I sunk into depression.

    But it also contained Easter moments. Moments of sublime joy, love, acceptance, wholeness.

    I became a new self. One with integrity and courage and a stronger faith.

    And I have always understood this as a passion and resurrection story. I was stripped of what was holding me back. I died to my old self. And I was reborn.

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