Sunday, April 15, 2012

Signs of Life

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name. (John 20.30-31)

Under the Radar

The Resurrection hands Jesus’s followers a great big problem that gets even bigger 40 days later, when He vanishes into the heavens. They’re charged with spreading the Gospel—the Good News of God’s kingdom—and the disciples quickly discern that Jesus’s story is a major part of that larger story. For the Good News to stick, it needs to have been delivered by Divine Messenger, the Messiah, God Made Flesh. And the critical proof point that Jesus is God rests in the Resurrection. The disciples have no doubt that Jesus arose from the dead. They saw Him and spoke with Him after He left the tomb. Indeed, the main event in Sunday’s Gospel (John 20.19-31) explains how Jesus allowed Thomas to touch His transformed body to convince him that He’s alive. Yet it appears not many outside Jesus’s close-knit circle encounter Him as the Risen Christ. He appears to two unnamed disciples on the Emmaus Road. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul asserts that Jesus was seen by a group of 500, although it isn’t reported in the Gospels. As far as we can tell, Jesus pretty much stays under the radar.

If we were among Jesus’s first disciples tasked with spreading the Good News, declaring His resurrection would be a tough row to hoe. We’d be hard-pressed to respond to comments and ridicule about Jesus’s whereabouts after leaving the tomb. “So where was He, what was He doing, if nobody but a handful of you saw Him? You’d think He’d make at least one token appearance at the Temple, just to set the record straight. This is a lot of baloney.” How would we answer that?

Fortunately, the disciples’ message is so compelling that many believe their word that Jesus arose from the dead. And that’s all the more amazing when we recall that Jesus leaves the world with nothing but His followers’ witness to substantiate He was ever here. First-generation believers have no grave, no relics, no writings, no children—no artifacts of any kind—they can point to as hard evidence Jesus even existed. Yet to this day, all but a very few question that He lived among us, teaching us how to live and presenting a principled Gospel that opens the door to a life in God. How can that be?


John offers a fascinating clue when he closes Chapter 20 with this observation: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.” (v30-31) Jesus leaves a legacy of signs that He was with us—signs that He stamps in the faith of His followers, who did see and speak with the Risen Christ. And the reason John singles out Thomas’s experience may very well be because it’s the most dramatic of the “many other signs” Jesus leaves.

Thomas, who misses Jesus’s first post-resurrection visit with the disciples, wants to be sure Jesus is alive. Although his insistence on touching Jesus’s wounds has labeled him a doubter, I’m not convinced Thomas questions the Resurrection as much as he distrusts his colleagues’ report. It’s only been 10 days since Jesus’s prediction of His death, resurrection, and ascension troubled Thomas. In John 14, during the Last Supper, Jesus frames what’s about to happen as a departure, return, and second departure. “I’m going away,” Jesus says, “but I’ll come back and show you how to go where I’m headed. And you know the way to the place where I’m going.” (v3-4) But Thomas isn’t content with Jesus’s hazy terminology. He speaks up: “Lord, we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way?” Jesus puts Thomas at ease, reassuring him, “I am the way.”

In light of this exchange, it makes perfect sense for Thomas to wait until He meets Christ for himself to believe Jesus is alive. He won’t be led down a garden path. He won’t risk the possibility the other disciples have mistaken someone else for Jesus. He requests a sign. When Jesus grants his request—revealing Himself to Thomas, as the Christ, the Way—something extraordinary transpires within the disciple. He believes. “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaims. (John 20.28) And in that exclamation an even greater thing occurs. Thomas’s faith transforms him into a sign of life. The Risen Christ becomes his reason to live.

A Belief So Strong

John says he records selected signs of Jesus’s resurrection so that we may come to believe that Jesus is “the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.” In a later letter, he revisits this idea when he writes, “This life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1 John 1.2-3) In both texts, John stresses our role in Jesus’s ongoing story. We are signs of life.

The absence of hard proof that Jesus arose from the dead—indeed, that Jesus ever existed—is our invitation to believe. Our faith must transcend hearsay evidence. It must grow out of a real encounter with Christ that allays all doubts about Him. It’s a belief so strong that it can’t be shaken, even as it shakes us to our core and causes us to exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” It’s the confidence one gospel songwriter condensed into the powerful declaration, “I know Him for myself.” That faith transforms us from reasonable doubters into triumphant signs of life. We become walking, talking evidence of Christ’s Resurrection—living witnesses to a life that conquers death in all of its forms.

In her Resurrection sermon last Sunday, our pastor quoted Clarence Jordan, an influential New Testament scholar whose words have stuck with me all week. He wrote: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of His transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that Jesus lives is not a vacant grave, but a Spirit-filled fellowship—not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away Church.” Jesus left no paper trail, made no major post-Resurrection appearances, and vanished without a trace of His earthly existence because it was unnecessary. Instead, He left a self-perpetuating legacy of signs stamped in our faith. You are a sign. I am a sign. Everyone who believes is a sign. We are all signs of life.

 Jesus left no hard proof of His resurrection—indeed, no paper trail or artifacts at all to confirm His existence—because it was unnecessary. Proof that He lives is stamped in our faith. We are walking, talking signs of life.


Sherry Peyton said...

What a powerful statement Tim! Indeed, nothing speaks louder than action. I have always said that all the preaching in the world is worth so much less than a life LIVED in faith. That is the great testimony that convinces. All the more conclusive when we know the person who has "miraculously" become a new person, who is peaceful and generous, kind and loving. That is EVIDENCE. It's as simple as the remembering that we convince others of the rightness of our claims by living as if we believe it. Saying things means little. I am so sure that this sincerity an the living of the gospel was what propelled it around the world. Blessings dear friend!Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, your comment puts me in mind of a saying we hear frequently around our church: "Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary." What a gift Jesus willed to us--this ability to live out our faith in attitude and gesture, relying only on words out of expedience. You're so right, it's much more blessed to allow what we say to bear out our lives than to talk, talk, talk and then have nothing to show for what we say!

Many blessings--and I've been holding you and Parker in my thoughts during this rough patch of weather that's sweeping past us Midwesterners.