Two thousand Easter Sundays after the first it can be difficult to imagine the sweep of emotions, feelings and thoughts that went through the minds of the disciples that first passion week. For us, the end is already known. It is more or less always in sight as we experience our modern passion weeks. We go into our Palm Sunday services, knowing that the storm clouds of Friday loom on the horizon. “But wait! What’s that? A silver lining caused by the glory on the other side of those clouds.”
Even the authors of the Gospels can’t avoid jumping to the conclusion before experiencing the messiness of the middle. These authors, like us, are telling the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection after the fact — some 40 to 70 resurrection Sundays later. The author of the gospel of John for instance, is acutely aware of the resurrection as he brings us through the turmoil of the cross. John is the only author to describe Jesus crucifixion as a “lifting up,” a moment of glorification, gesturing to the ultimate victory the cross would usher in.
Yet there is something sick about the glorification of the brutality that would come. I doubt that the disciples who experienced it first-hand would have called it “Good Friday.” Indeed, the experience of passion week for the first disciples of Jesus would have been remarkably different from our own. We think of resurrection Sunday as the height of the Gospel story, a point where everything is made clear. Yet for the first disciples, that first Easter was met with a confusion that only grasped at the thinnest notion of what resurrection Sunday really meant.
It can be hard to capture these original sentiments and emotions in our modern worship contexts. The modern protestant church can be very uncomfortable living through the despair of Friday and Saturday without reference to resurrection Sunday. Where our modern western traditions failed us, the orthodox eastern tradition of apophatic theology may provide a model to guide us through the emotional and mental state of the original disciples as they experienced the first passion week.
The apophatic tradition seeks to clarify our understanding by describing what God is not. Sometimes called the “way of denial” it seeks to outline our positive statements about God by finding the limits of their language. It asks us to highlight the ways in which God has condescended in his self-revelation to the limits of human communication. In so doing it helps us to identify the ways in which our positive descriptions of God in fact limit his being. It is a description of God in relief. Like the experience of the disciples on that first Easter Sunday, it gives us a hazy clarity of the outline of who Jesus is, allowing us to say:
Jesus is the Messiah
Jesus is not the messiah
Jesus is not not the messiah
The first apophatic easter
“Jesus is the messiah”
Peter is one of the first disciples to properly identify Jesus as the Messiah. Just before Jesus goes onto a high mountain to have his glory revealed in the transfiguration, Jesus asks Peter to tell him who Peter thinks Jesus is. Peter’s answer is, of course, famous: “You are the messiah.” After this identification and its confirmation with the transfiguration, Jesus “sets his face to Jerusalem” and the entire narrative of his life takes a vector towards the ushering in of the kingdom of God.
For his disciples, inextricably mired in their contemporary messianic images, Jesus identification as the messiah meant that he was the man that would usher in the renewal of a territorial kingdom of God in Isreal. Indeed, the vast majority of the disciples and those that followed Jesus, likely hoped that, as the messiah, Jesus would initiate a new exodus and throw off the oppressive yoke of Rome from the Jews.
It is no wonder then, that on Palm Sunday the inhabitants of Jerusalem greeted Jesus as the king they had hoped for. He was the righteous branch, the shoot of Jesse, the son of David that would bring back the glory of Israel. As they and the disciples gathered their palm fronds to lay before the king’s steed surely many of them proclaimed excitedly to their neighbor “Jesus is the Messiah!”
“Jesus is not the messiah”
Just take that statement in for a moment. When was the last time you thought that! If you’re like me it has been a long time. It’s a good reminder though of how you felt some time ago. If not consciously then in your being.
For the disciples shortly before sundown on “Good” Friday, when Jesus body had been laid in a hastily prepared tomb, that is exactly what they were thinking. Peter, so quick to identify Jesus as the messiah before likely spent the Sabbath (Saturday) lurking from shadowed doorway to shadowed doorway. Unable to escape Jerusalem because of Sabbath regulations against walking too far, he had the entire day to dwell on how he might have gotten things horribly wrong: “Jesus was not the messiah.”
How could he be. Jesus was treated as a political upstart, who was crucified on a garbage heap at the far end of the roman empire. The messiah was supposed to usher in the most powerful kingdom on earth, not die at the hands of it. For Peter, this messianic ride was over and he was a wanted man. We have to wonder to what extent, on that Saturday, he was already planning his escape. Could he pick up his life again and move on? The best plan from the despair of that first Saturday was to do exactly what the gospel of John tells us he did: Head back to Galilee, see his wife and get back to fishing.
“Jesus is not not the messiah”
Though we experience Easter Sunday as a “breakthrough” the first disciples experienced it as a slow and dull process of removing the wall brick by brick. They had their understanding of what a messiah was. Changing that would happen in fits and starts, beginning from the known and grasping cautiously into the darkness of the unknown. From “Jesus is the messiah” on palm Sunday to “Jesus is not the messiah” on Friday and Saturday to a vague notion that “Jesus is not not the Messiah.”
On Palm Sunday the disciples affirmed Jesus was the messiah because, for all intents and purposes, he looked like what the messiah was supposed to look like on the precipice of ushering in the territorial Israelite kingdom. On Friday, when everything went to ruin, Jesus was not the messiah because he had failed to live up to those expectations. It is no surprise then that Mary, coming to the empty tomb that first Easter, has no idea that Jesus had completely redefined what a messiah could be. For her, he was dead and someone had stolen his body.
For Peter, who ran to the tomb after hearing Mary’s report, there was something more going on here. Jesus was risen. He wasn’t merely the righteous branch, the son of man, the son of David , the messiah, but he wasn’t merely a man either, who died on a cross only to be forgotten as the new week’s business picked up.
But the truth was only partially realized at the back of Peter’s consciousness. He wasn’t ready to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah so he trekked back to Galilee and began fishing again. Perhaps as he walked back to Galilee, reflecting on the empty tomb and the testimony of his friends who saw Jesus alive, Peter could only muster what he didn’t know: “Jesus was not not the messiah”
Celebrating your apophatic easter
As you pass this passion week I would challenge you to live it as the disciples experienced it. If you have for days or weeks or years, proudly proclaimed that “Jesus is the Messiah,” I would challenge you to dwell on the despair that might accompany having to reject your own positivism. Take the time this Easter to identify with those that have no notion of a resurrection Sunday yet. Their experiences of the church and religion have led them to proclaim that “If that is what Jesus the messiah is like, I want nothing to do with it. He is no messiah to me!”
And if you, yourself are in that place. If you proudly proclaim that “Jesus is not the Messiah” I would challenge you to dwell on the vague grasping of millions of people over the course of two thousand Easters. I challenge you to dwell on the ways in which your negative experiences of those who have proclaimed “Jesus is the Messiah” have shaped your own proclamation that “Jesus is not the Messiah.” Are you holding to a false negative based upon bad assumptions and definitions?
Sometimes our experiences deceive us. We think that a person is one way and then they show us a completely different side of themselves, and we recognize that they were never who we thought they were. The glory of the apophatic tradition is that it rejects our positivist statement but it equally rejects our negativist assumptions based on experience. It recognizes that in rejecting an idea we actually haven’t reconceived anything, we are simply saying that it doesn’t fulfill our definition of what that thing or idea is. And so together we can say:
Jesus is the Messiah
Jesus is not the Messiah
Jesus is not not the messiah.
I pray that as the not not messiahship of Jesus pervades your being this week that you would be overcome with the sense of the truth of all three statements. If all you can muster this week is that “Jesus is not not the Messiah” then you are in good company. Many in that place have experienced a first or even second call on their life.
Peter did. Following that first Easter the author of the Gospel of John tells us that Peter went back to fishing the sea of Galilee. One morning, with empty nets and the vague notion that Jesus was not not the messiah, Peter saw a man on the shore. The man told him to cast his net on the other side of his boat. Peter did so and wound up pulling in the biggest load of fish in his life. In the process, Peter recognized the man as the risen Lord and went on to affirm Jesus as the messiah again. Jesus responded by asking Peter to follow-him.
You see, when you are in the place of recognizing that Jesus is not not messiah, you are in the best place to redefine your own being. As you return to work after Easter Sunday you may find that, just like Peter, “You are a fishermen,” that “You are not a fishermen” and somehow down the line “you are not not a fishermen” but a “fisher-of-men” – a disciple of the risen lord.
Blessings and Peace to you this week.