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Mar 27, 2016

Signs of Life

Signs of Life

Passage: John 19:1-21:25

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: The Story

Category: Easter

Keywords: confusion, death, doubt, evidence, faith, grief, life, resurrection, signs


This message looks at the different "signs of life" that various followers of Jesus saw upon his resurrection and how they reacted to Christ. We examine the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian's faith and journey with Jesus in this life.


Signs of Life

Easter 2016

Have you ever been close to someone who is dying when they glimpsed Jesus…or an angel…or a departed loved one…or God

ILL:  Trudy Harris is a hospice nurse.  She hasn’t always been that.  In fact, when she began her nursing career, caring for dying people was the last thing she wanted to do.  But she’s been doing just that for several decades now.  To those who think that caring for the dying must be depressing, Trudy says,

On the contrary, I mark the day I started work with hospice more than 20 years after I graduated nursing school as the beginning of my real education, an education in hope and joy.”

How has being around the dying been an education in hope and joy?  Here are a couple of ways Trudy has learned that.  She recounts:

I knew hospice was my calling because almost from the day I started, I met people who showed me just how thoroughly I had misunderstood death. I came to understand the joy God has prepared for his children.

I began to see a pattern in my work. The closer my patients came to dying, the more their eyes and spirits seemed to open to a reality I only glimpsed dimly. One after another, patients recounted not just visits from absent loved ones but an extraordinary awareness of God’s presence.

Sins they’d agonized over for years suddenly felt forgiven. Grievances they’d spent a lifetime nurturing vanished in a rush of reconciliation. Even unbelievers unaccountably yearned for God, questioning or arguing with me about my faith, until all at once they began praying.

Slowly it dawned on me that death is an ending only for those of us still wrapped up in the story of our own earthly lives. From the perspective of the dying, death is a strange and wonderful beginning, a threshold to some new and more beautiful world. 

Trudy continues, “She was 54 and had inoperable cancer. She lay in bed on pillows surrounded by fragrant , flowers. The two of us were alone in her room.  Lenora’s family was gathered at her house. Suddenly she addressed me sternly.

“Ms. Nurse,” she said, pointing to a corner of the room, “this big angel comes and stands by my bed. Right there. He’s always smiling at me.” She fixed me with a look. “Ms. Nurse, when I see that angel, do you really think I see that angel?”

Something in Lenora’s tone told me she’d already tried convincing her family about this angel. Years before, when I first started working as a hospice nurse, I might have hesitated answering her question. I knew all too well the effects of medication and exhaustion on a dying brain.

That day, though, I knew exactly what to say. I knew, because years of working with people at the end of their lives had taught me a new, more hopeful and, I believe, more truthful understanding of death. I knew Lenora was seeing more, not less, than the rest of us.

Then Trudy shares about her own journey through the shadow of death with her own grandfather. 

“I remember when Grandfather was dying. One day we were sitting looking out the window. He turned to me and asked, “Who is that man standing there by the lake?”

“It’s the weeping willow tree,” I said.

“I see the tree,” he said with a smile. “I mean the man standing underneath. Who is he?” I saw no one and in those early days I had no idea what Grandfather might be referring to.

That evening, though, I told my youngest son what Grandfather had said. “Do you think he saw Jesus?” my son, who was 10, asked.

I put the same question to Grandfather at bedtime. “Yes, dear, why?” he replied. He died a few hours later.

Trudy confesses, “Thanks to my patients, I’ve been able to catch glimpses of that man under the willow tree, glimpses of heaven while I’m here on earth. There can be no greater hope than that,” she concludes.  [Found at https://www.guideposts.org /inspiration/life-after-death/proof-of-life-after-death-hospice-nurse?nopaging=1. ]

Is it those kinds of “glimpses of Jesus” that the disciples or the women at the tomb that Easter morning had?  Or were their encounters with Jesus different, more “physical”, more verifiable?

The theme we’ve chosen for this Easter Sunday 2016 is “Signs of Life.”  The last time we were together as a church family was this past Friday evening.  You may remember that I referred to that day we call “Good Friday” on the church calendar as “that horrible ‘Good Friday’.” It is “horrible” because of the injustice, the torture, the humiliation, the sin and the darkness that enveloped our world as God in the person of Jesus Christ embraced all that as well as becoming the pin-cushion for the wrath of God against all human sin.  Why? So that we could all make a choice about responding to God and eternal life in Jesus Christ. 

            But today is Easter!  It’s is the singularly most crucial, critical and transformational day of the entire Church calendar.  Most Christ-followers through the centuries have worshipped on Sundays because Jesus triumphed over death that resurrection morning, a Sunday, not the “Sabbath” Saturday. Good Friday was ‘horrible’, but Easter Sunday is glorious! 

            And while the ‘signs of life’ even at the times of death that Nurse Trudy experienced with her patients and family members are wonderful and interesting, they are still not the same as Resurrection Day.  God has given to all humanity even more powerfulsigns of life’ to stake our very faith and relationship with Him on. 

Those signs have been so convincing to cynical skeptics as well as sincere believers that millions of people throughout the last two-thousand years of human history have hinged their entire lives, their deaths and their eternal futures on the one we call Jesus Christ.

            The Apostle Paul was so bold as to tell us in I Cor. 15:14 that, “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” He goes on in vs. 17 to say, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18) Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

            These “signs of life” of the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ nearly 2,000 years ago were very different in nature from the ones Nurse Trudy wrote about.

  • Hundreds of people saw Jesus post-death, not 1 or 2.
  • Skeptics were turned into believers who eventually became martyrs for that belief.
  • Doubters who said they wouldn’t believe unless they actually inserted their hands into the sword-hole in Jesus’ side and the nail-holes in his hands and feet...did just that.
  • And those experiences didn’t happen just around the time of Jesus’ death but for weeks following His resurrection… over 5 weeks…in different cities, different regions and different homes…with those who were followers and with those who were not.

So let’s do a little inventory this morning of the “signs of life” that happened during those 40 days following Jesus’ resurrection.  And as we take this inventory, ask of these historical accounts things like…

  • What is different about Jesus’ resurrection from near-death sightings?
  • What is different about the people that saw him?
  • What difference should that make to us?

So who were the very first people to experience Jesus resurrected?  Interestingly, it wasn’t the women who followed Jesus.  It wasn’t his mother, Mary.  It wasn’t his disciples Peter or John.  It WAS military men, hardened soldiers in the Roman army.  These men’s lives depended upon their ability to foil any plot to steal Jesus’ dead body. 

It wasn’t a hard assignment.  They had the swords and the governor’s authority.  The tomb had been sealed with the Roman seal.  It was pretty simple stuff…except for the fact that Jesus’ word always comes to pass. 

            Matthew tells us the story in chapter 28, vs. 1--After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”  So much for tough guys!  J

Matthew tells us that, at this point, the angel of the Lord spoke to the women who had come to the tomb encouraging them to not be afraid.  The soldiers were not so fortunate.  Apparently God wanted fear to so grip these hardened professional enforcers that they would never forget what happened that morning. 

After the angel had sent the women on their way to go share the great news of the resurrection with His disciples, these tough guys finally found their legs. 

It’s one thing to have your Commanding Officer tell your platoon to “take that hill and hold it,” or “secure those prisoners and detain them.”  But to get guard duty over a corpse…and then not be able to keep track of a dead body… that’s pretty embarrassing.  For Roman guards it was worse than that; it was an automatic death sentence. 

So what would you do if you were in their sandals to save your head?  Here’s what they actually did.  Matthew 28:11ff--While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

            Even having had advanced warning from Jesus about his resurrection…and having found the best security force known in the then Roman world…this cover-up story was a pretty sad substitute for the truth. 

I get soldiers wanting to save their own skins.

            I get sanctimonious, murderous enemies of Jesus wanting to cover up the truth.

But here are the smartest brains of the day, the toughest guys in the empire, and the best they can come up with is precisely what their previous plan was designed to avoid—the LIE that Jesus’ followers stole the body!  Really???  That’s the best they can do???  Amazing. 

            So they fall back on what they know—bribery, hush money, political arm-twisting and lies

            But there are a couple of glaring problems with their house of cards.  First, if you’re asleep, how do you know what happened to Jesus’ body?  Did the disciples leave a note in the dirt?  Were they so stealthy that not one of the guards…whose very lives depended upon them staying awake…heard them break the Roman seal, move a massive bolder in the silence of the night air, unwrap a dead body so the grave clothes could be left there, and then carry the body of Jesus off somewhere that nobody ever found? 

            Furthermore, IF the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, they knew where the body was. Why not just round up them and all other known followers of Jesus, interrogate them, torture them if necessary like they had their master, and find the crazy corpse?!  All they had to do was produce the dead body of Jesus and their whole problem would be solved! 

            But life can be stubborn and persistent…especially when we’re talking about resurrection life.  J

            But so can disbelief.  I find it interesting that the 1st people to experience Jesus’ resurrection were, not believers, but skeptics.  God gave to those who were responsible for Jesus’ unjust and cruel death yet more proof of His identity as the God of life, the God of the resurrection. 

            We know what happened to the stubborn Pharisees, most of the Sanhedrin and the other religious leaders of the day.  They continued in their stubborn unbelief. 

            But we don’t know what happened to these guards.  I’m betting that for some of them, despite the bribes, the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was too overwhelming.  The signs of divine life they observed were too seared into their consciousness.  And the post-resurrection encounter with an angel were more than their battle-hardened minds could reject.  But we’ll have to wait for the final resurrection to find out for sure.

            Looking at the biblical theme of the resurrection, I Corinthians 15 is the premier resurrection chapter in the Bible.  It is by no means the only. In fact, the oldest book of the Bible, Job, chapter 19, records that Job believed in a resurrection of the dead.  In the midst of horrible suffering, he still declares,

25 I know that my redeemer lives,
    and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him
    with my own eyes—I, and not another.
    How my heart yearns within me!

The book of Hebrews, chapter 11, tells us that the patriarch Abraham believed in God’s power to bring about a resurrection of his son Isaac.  God had promised to build a great nation specifically through Isaac.  But God was also asking Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering on Mt. Moriah.  So how did Abraham reconcile God’s promise through Isaac and his command to basically end Isaac’s life?  Listen to Hebrews 11:17-18--“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead….”

            So from the earliest stories of the Bible, we know that resurrection life was something God had revealed to his children.  But back to I Cor. 15.  That chapter contains what scholars believe is one of the earliest creeds of the early church.  It starts in vs. 3—

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 

            Paul’s list here isn’t exhaustive.  It doesn’t talk about some of the first people to see the resurrected Jesus, namely the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint it with more perfume. It talks about Peter (Cephas) by name and the remaining “Twelve”…which were really 11. We’ll come back to them.

            But what 1st Corinthians 15 tells us that no other passage does is that Jesus appeared to “more than 500” of the believing “brothers and sisters at the same time….”  There was some large gathering of disciples of Jesus at which Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance.  And by the time Paul writes I Corinthians in about 55/56A.D., most of them were still alive.  Paul is essentially saying, “If you don’t believe me, go ask them.  They’re still alive.” 

            All a true skeptic would have had to do was find several of the people who claimed to be at that resurrection appearance of Jesus and perform good old detective work.  Just ask each of them the same questions…in separate rooms…before they had opportunity to tell the others what they had said…and you could have easily been telling if they were lying.  If the stories agreed on what they saw, when and where, then you’d know they were telling the truth.  If answers differed, you’d know they were lying.  Paul is inviting skeptics to do their homework. 

            This is the big problem with skeptics of the resurrection.  They either aren’t willing to do the hard work to try and back up their objections to the resurrection of Jesus OR they aren’t intellectually honest enough to treat this event as they do all other historical events and take the testimony of hundreds of eye witnesses. Doubts aren’t the problem.  Actually wrestling with the evidence is.

            So let’s look at some more of the convincing “signs of life” Jesus gave to people that absolutely convinced them belief in His resurrection was central to their faith

            The first people to see Jesus resurrected, be convinced he had actually, physically risen from the dead and to talk about it were, interestingly enough, WOMENAll 4 Gospels agree on this point. They all point to the women who went to the tomb early that Sunday morning to grieve and anoint Jesus’ corpse with spices (Mk. 16:1).  We know that among those women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Joanna, and probably a number of other women

            According to the Apostle John in Jn. 20:11ff, Mary Magdalene was one of if not the first person to see Jesus resurrected.  Her life had been absolutely changed by her encounters with Jesus.  He had taken this woman afflicted by “7 demons”, healed her and set her life upon a completely different course. 

Now she encounters him somewhere near the tomb.  She was so distraught that she, at first, didn’t recognize Jesus.  She thought he was the gardener.  Wow, talk about a misidentification!

APP:   Grief will do that to you. Pain and suffering can so cloud our eyes that we think God is nowhere near.  But sometimes when death seems to have won the battle or our hearts are broken about what God has allowed to happen in our life or to someone we love, God is actually right there, calling our name, asking us to recognize that he is the Resurrected One who is greater than whatever death experience we’re in.

            From someone possessed by grief and desperately wanting to just find a dead corpse to someone who went straight to the disciples, absolutely convinced that Jesus was alive, Mary was a totally transformed person by her brief encounter.  The text indicates that the signs of life which convinced her were 1.) his voice, 2.) what she saw with her eyes, and 3.) the fact that she could actually touch his body (Jn. 20:17).  This wasn’t some ghost, some hallucination or some PTSD incident.  The signs of life were incontrovertible for her.  So she went to tell the disciples, none of whom believed, unfortunately. 

            Matthew 28:8-10 tells us that, while Mary hung back at the tomb, Jesus also appeared to some of the other women as they “hurried away from the tomb” having encountered angels there who told them Jesus was “risen from the dead and…going ahead of” them into Galilee. 

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”  

            So again, physical recognition of Jesus as well as the ability to actually touch his body were sufficient “signs of life” to convince a whole group of grieving, frightened and amazed women that the resurrection was real.  Signs of life were overwhelming the power of death. 

            The NEXT person’s doubt to be overwhelmed by the reality of the resurrection is apparently Peter.  None of the Gospels tell us exactly when or where that encounter took place.  But both Luke (24:34) and Paul in I Cor. 15:5 tell us that Peter apparently had his own, individual encounter with Jesus that Resurrection Sunday. 

            Luke’s reference to that comes in the context of one of the most interesting accounts of a resurrection encounter that day when he records the journey of 2 disciples, one named Cleopas and the other who remains unnamed, walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  What is interesting about this encounter is that they didn’t recognize Jesus physically (or visually) until they actually sat at the dinner table with him. There Jesus took bread, gave thanks and then broke it, passing it to all of them.  Then, it says, “their eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). 

            What is interesting here is that there is no question in the minds of these two disciples that a.) they are talking with a real human being, or b.) that this “unknown stranger” is anything less than an actual person.  In fact, they acknowledge that their conversation with him was not your average bus stop chat.  It impacted them deeply.  It touched a very core of their soul.  It awakened them spiritually, so much so that they would say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us…and opened the Scriptures to us?”  (Lk. 24:32)

APPConfusing life events can often cloud our perception of the living God.  When we are most troubled by what appears to be his absence from our lives, He can actually be very present, very near, very engaged with us. 

            Furthermore, there are times when God may allow us to experience various forms of “blindness”, even while He is teaching us about His plans for this world.  But as we slow down and sit down to share life together, open to His teaching, Jesus sometimes “opens our eyes” to what he is doing and where he is…right there. 

The next “sign of life” comes to us also in Luke 24 & John 20. These 2 who encountered Jesus on the Road to Emmaus have returned to Jerusalem and are recounting their recent encounter behind closed and locked doors.  Jesus himself appears in the room, clearly a surprise to all since he didn’t knock nor bother to wait for them to open the door.  Here’s how it went down.

36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

            The “signs of life” that Jesus displayed in this encounter both fit and didn’t fit the expected.  He apparently entered the room while the doors were locked (Jn. 20:19).  It wasn’t that Jesus was a good lock-picker.  Rather, time and space seemed to be irrelevant to the resurrected Jesus.  He could leave a meal 7 miles away one moment and appear in a locked room back in Jerusalem another. 

            His followers could think that he was a ghost one moment and the next find themselves poking around the sword hole in his side or examining the nail holes in his hands.  Meanwhile he asks them for food and consumes it there on the spot, proving that this resurrected body actually has some physical qualities we're used to while clearly having some we are not. 

            The remaining “signs of life” of the resurrected Jesus recorded in the Gospels come largely from John 20 & 21.  The Apostle, Thomas, who had missed the first appearance of Jesus in the upper room and declared his stubborn doubt even when the other Apostles told him what they’d seen, finds himself confronted a week later, in the same house, in the same locked room, by Jesus.  Jesus makes it clear he’s heard Thomas’s stubborn doubts when he invites him to do a “touch-test” of his wounds.  It is this encounter which convinces Thomas once and for all that Jesus is truly “Lord and God.”  But not just a generic Lord and God.  Rather “MY Lord and MY God!”

APP:   This is the critical transition we must all make—from doubting to belief.  Jesus challenged Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”  And then He said something which has everything to do with each of us here today:  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 

            God isn’t asking us to believe out of thin air and more than he asked Thomas to believe without seeing or touching.  But He has given us enough “signs of life”, enough “proofs of the resurrection,” to believe without seeing. 

            Like the Apostles, that kind of true belief will change the entire course of our lives.  We’ll become obedient to Jesus’ commands and call.  We may still go back to the things we felt comfortable doing to make life work before we encountered Jesus…just like Peter and the others went back to fishing for a while as they waited for further instructions from Jesus. 

            But as belief in Christ eventually moved them into life in the Holy Spirit, all the forces of hell arrayed against them could not convince them to abandon Jesus.  They each chose death for the sake of Christ rather than life denying Jesus.

  • Peter chose to be crucified by Nero…upside down…at his own request, so that his death would not be equal to that of Jesus, his Lord.
  • Andrew was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer for a longer time before dying. Andrew lived for two days, during which he preached to passersby.
  • James, son of Zebedee, “James the Greater” was arrested by Herod Agrippa who tried ingratiating himself to the Romans by persecuting Christians. Led to place of execution, his unnamed accuser was so moved by his courage that he not only repented and converted on the spot, but asked to be executed alongside James. The Roman executioners obliged, and both men were beheaded simultaneously.
  • Philip was scourged, thrown into prison, and crucified in 54 AD in Egypt.
  • Matthew:According to legend, the former tax collector turned missionary was martyred in Ethiopia, where he was supposedly stabbed in the back by an swordsman sent by King Hertacus, after he criticized the king’s morals.
  • Bartholomew was said to have died in India either by being crucified or skinned alive and beheaded.
  • Thomas was run through by a spear by enraged pagans.
  • James the Lesser lived longer than most of the Apostles. At the age of 94, he was beaten and stoned by persecutors, and then killed him by hitting him in the head with a club.
  • Thaddaeus Judas or Jude:According to several stories, he was crucified at Edessa (the name of cities in both Turkey and Greece) in 72 AD.
  • Simon the Zealot preached in Mauritania on the west coast of Africa, and then went to England, where he was crucified in 74 AD.
  • John was the only one of the original disciples not to die a violent death. He was exiled to the island of Patmos and passed away peacefully in his old age, sometime around 100 AD.

The “signs of life” these men had been exposed to in the resurrected Jesus had convinced them of their own resurrection yet to come.  The radical change that moved them from being scared, frightened, timid, hiding men to bold, zealous, fervent missionaries for Christ throughout their known world was one thing:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. 

            It is the same truth that is empowering our brothers and sisters today in places like Syria and Iraq and Sudan to face the horrors of ISIS and live for the promised resurrection to come. 

Listen to how The Message expresses Paul’s closing words on OUR COMING RESURRECTION in 1 Corinthians 15.   

51-57 But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. You hear a blast to end all blasts from a trumpet, and in the time that you look up and blink your eyes—it’s over. On signal from that trumpet from heaven, the dead will be up and out of their graves, beyond the reach of death, never to die again. At the same moment and in the same way, we’ll all be changed. In the resurrection scheme of things, this has to happen: everything perishable taken off the shelves and replaced by the imperishable, this mortal replaced by the immortal. Then the saying will come true:

Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

58 With all this going for us, my dear, dear friends, stand your ground. And don’t hold back. Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for him is a waste of time or effort.