Monday, April 6, 2015

Not with an Answer, but with a Question…

We called an emergency meeting of the Vestry earlier this week fearful that so many people might attend today’s service that not everyone could find a place to sit.  We landed on a bold idea.  We are going to offer four distinctive Easter worship services from today forward.  The first service will be for those who are new to the faith.  The second will be for regular members who prefer a more traditional service.  Next, there will be a service specifically geared toward those who have lost their faith.  And finally, we will have a service for those who a bad experience with a church in the past.  In order to market each service, the Vestry has decided to name them Finders, Keepers, Losers, and Weepers.

Imagine you are sitting in a theatre looking at the screen as the movie comes to an end.  Queue the music and the final credits.  First to appear is the name of the star, then other lead actors and actresses.  The director, cinematographer, and producer follow.  After that comes a list of names that demonstrates it take a lot of people to make a movie: best boy, key grip, drivers, hair stylists, second set coordinator, etc.  I like to focus on what are known as the bit parts.   In the credits these roles appear as the ‘third police officer’, ‘child with a popsicle’, and ‘old woman with a baby carriage.’ 

Mark’s gospel has a bit role that is both curious and significant.  It involves an anonymous young man who makes only two brief appearances in the narrative. 

In Mark 14, after Jesus is arrested and all the disciples flee, we read this:

A certain young man was following Jesus, wearing nothing but a linen cloth.  The arresting party caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.                                    (14:51-52)

Have you ever noticed this character before?  Who is he?  What is he doing following Jesus?  And what is the significance of wearing only a linen cloth?

The only real clue we have comes from the Greek word used to describe the wrap.  The word is sindona, which is used only to describe a type of linen used to bury the dead.  Symbolically, this young man is clothed with the shroud of death.  That he casts it off, leaves it with authorities, and runs off naked suggests that Jesus is going to take upon himself the death intended for the young man.  This anonymous young “follower” of Jesus appears to understand something the disciples never seem to get.  On several occasions Jesus tells them that he must die, but each time either they reprimand him, change the subject, or remain silent.  This young man – who some say may be Mark himself – becomes the first person saved by Jesus.  But who he actually is, why he follows Jesus, and to where he flees are subjects not addressed by Mark’ gospel. 

We might be inclined to forget about him altogether if it were not for the fact that he makes another appearance in the narrative four days later. 

When the woman go to the tomb to finish the burial work so hastily begun on the Friday before the Passover, they encounter the same young man sitting in the open tomb where Jesus had been buried.  He is now dressed in a “white” robe (a word used in only one other place – in the story of the Transfiguration where Jesus’ clothes become radiant white).   The person who once wore the shroud of death is now clothed with a royal garment that symbolizes the new life of the Resurrection. 

This bit player in the grand narrative of Mark’s gospel is given the role to make the greatest announcement in human history:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised.  He is not here.  Look, there is the place they laid him.”

The young man directs the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.  They flee the tomb in terror and amazement (literally in trauma and ecstasy), but say nothing to anyone about what they have seen because they are afraid.

In Mark’s gospel, in its most ancient form, this young man is the only person who testifies to the Resurrection.  Most scholars believe that the original gospel did not end here, but describes what happens when the disciples go to Galilee.  But, like a book where the last page has been torn out, Mark’s story ends at this odd place.  Most bibles include two possible alternative endings, but note that both were added some time later by well-meaning editors who wanted to give the story a proper ending.  Still, each is so different stylistically from the rest of Mark that they could not possibly be authentic.

So we are left with what many consider to be the most unsatisfying conclusion of the four gospels because it does not describe an encounter with the Risen Christ.  But perhaps, just perhaps, it is the best gospel for our modern age.  You see, many today easily dismiss accounts of a person rising from the dead.  Zombie Jesus, they wag.  But Mark’s lean story forces us to ask what happened.  How can we understand the end of the Jesus movement on the cross in a way that makes sense of how the Christian faith has come down through history to us?  How did one person’s death give rise to the world’s greatest religion?

Did the women go to the wrong tomb?  Well, if they did, why didn’t someone go to the actual tomb and produce Jesus’ lifeless body?  Did someone steal the corpse – maybe this anonymous young man – and move it to a different location?  If that happened, why did no one ever find the body?  And more critical, how did a missing body manage to invigorate Jesus’ dispirited disciples?  Each gospel account reports that the empty tomb leaves Jesus’ followers feeling bewildered and afraid.  Perhaps, some say, after some time passed, those dispirited disciples decided to commit their lives to perpetuating Jesus’ message and teaching.  Well, frankly, that doesn’t seem likely.  They themselves might have embraced the deeper meaning of what Jesus taught and did, but it is difficult to comprehend how this became a worldwide movement and has fueled the human spirit and imagination for two centuries.

If those explanations do not seem credible, what is left?  What could possibly explain how Christianity grew from an anonymous young man’s testimony that left a small group of women both ecstatic and traumatized (as if they had just departed from the latest high-tech roller coaster)?  How did it grow if these women depart this tomb and, at least at the outset, say nothing to anyone?  Let me finish this sermon consist with Mark’s gospel – not with an answer, but with a question… How do you make sense of why we are here today?