Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE” - Fourth Sermon, Lent 2024

Friday March 15th, 2024

In our commentary on the solemn “I Am” sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John, we have reached Chapter 11 which is entirely occupied by the episode of the resurrection of Lazarus. The teaching that John wanted to transmit to the Church with the wise composition of the chapter can be summarized in three points:
First point: Jesus resurrects his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44).
Second point: The resurrection of Lazarus causes Jesus to be sentenced to death (11:47-50):
So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.”But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.”
Third point: The death of Jesus will cause the resurrection of all those who believe in him (11:51-53). The Evangelist, in fact, comments:
He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on, they planned to kill him.
In summary, the resurrection of Lazarus causes the death of Jesus; the death of Jesus causes the resurrection of all who believe in him!
* * *
Now we can focus on the word of self-revelation contained in the context:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live” (11:23-25).

“I am the resurrection!” We ask ourselves: what resurrection is Jesus talking about? Martha thinks of the final resurrection. Jesus does not deny this resurrection “on the last day,” which he himself promises elsewhere (Jn 6:54); but here he announces something new, namely, that the resurrection begins now for those who believe in him. St. Augustine comments: “The Lord has indicated to us a resurrection of the dead which precedes the final resurrection. And it is not a resurrection like that of Lazarus, or the son of the widow of Nain, who were resurrected to die once again.”

As we can see, the idea of a spiritual and existential resurrection taking place in this life thanks to faith, was not unknown in the Christian tradition. The novelty occurred when someone wanted to make it the only meaning of the word of Jesus. Bultmann’s position is well-known, albeit now largely outdated, it was all the rage when I studied theology. According to him, the resurrection of which Jesus speaks indicates an existential resurrection, an awakening of conscience, based on faith. We are on the line of the vague “call to decision” and of “deciding for God,” to which he reduces almost the entire message of the Gospel.

But John devotes two entire chapters of his Gospel to the actual, bodily resurrection of Jesus, providing some of the most detailed information about it. For him, therefore, it is not only “the cause of Jesus” that rose from the dead, but his very person!

The present resurrection does not replace the final resurrection of the body; it is, rather, its guarantee. It does not make Christ’s resurrection from the tomb useless, but rather is based precisely on it. Jesus can say “I am the resurrection” because he is the Risen One! Before John, it was the Apostle Paul who affirmed the inseparable link between the Christian faith and the real resurrection of Christ. It is always useful and timely to remember his incisive words to the Corinthians:

And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. Then we are also false witnesses to God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if in fact the dead are not raised…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins (1Cor 15:14-17).

Jesus himself had indicated his resurrection as the sign par excellence of the authenticity of his mission. To his adversaries who asked him for a sign, he gave an answer that can hardly be attributed to anyone other than Jesus himself:

He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights (Mt 12:39-40).
His opponents knew well that Jonah had not remained forever in the belly of the whale, but that after three days he had emerged from it.
In a previous meditation, I spoke about the prejudice present in non-believers towards faith, which is no less evident than what they reproach believers for. In fact, they reproach believers for not being able to be objective, since faith imposes on them, from the start, the conclusion they must arrive at, without realizing that the same thing happens among them. If you start from the assumption that God does not exist, that the supernatural does not exist, and that miracles are not possible, the conclusion you will reach is also given from the start, and is therefore, literally, a pre-judgment.
The resurrection of Christ constitutes the most exemplary case of this. No event in antiquity is supported by as many first-hand testimonies as this one. Some of them date back to personalities of the intellectual caliber of Saul of Tarsus who had previously fiercely fought against this belief. He provides a detailed list of witnesses, some of whom were still alive and could easily have disproved him (1Cor 15:6-9).
Discrepancies regarding the places and times of the apparitions are put forward, without realizing that the unplanned coincidence on the central fact is a proof of the historical truth of it, rather than its denial. No “pre-established harmony” in this case! Before being written down, the events of Jesus’ life were transmitted orally for two decades, and marginal variations and adaptations in the founding narrative are typical of every oral transmission inside a living and expanding community.

Apparitions, of course, are not the only proof of the resurrection of Christ. St. John Chrysostom has a famous page that no modern critical investigation has been able to contradict. In a homily to the people he said:

How could it occur to twelve poor men, and ignorant ones at that, who had spent their lives on lakes and rivers, to undertake such a work? They, who had perhaps never set foot in a city or a square, how could they think of facing the whole earth? […] Rather, shouldn’t they have said to themselves: “In his life he failed to conquer a single nation and we, with his name alone, should conquer the whole world?” Wouldn’t it be crazy to undertake such a mission, or even to simply think about it? It is therefore evident that if they had not seen him resurrected and had not had irrefutable proof of his power, they would never have exposed themselves to such a risk.

To all these proofs the non-believer can only oppose the conviction that the resurrection from the dead is something supernatural and the supernatural does not exist. And what is this if not, precisely, a pre-judgment and an “a priori”?
“Fides christianorum resurrectio Christi est,” St. Augustine wrote — “The faith of Christians is the resurrection of Christ”. And he added: “Everyone believes that Jesus died, even the reprobates believe it, but not everyone believes that he was resurrected and you are not a Christian if you don’t believe this.” This is the true article by which “the Church stands or falls.” In Acts, the Apostles are defined simply as “witnesses of the resurrection” (Acts 1:22; 2:32). This is why it was worthwhile to refresh our faith in it, before celebrating it in our liturgy in a couple of weeks.
* * *
Only now, after having reaffirmed the historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ, can we dedicate our attention to the existential meaning of the word of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life”.
Commenting on the episode of the dead resurrected and appearing in Jerusalem at the moment of Christ’s death (Mt 27:52-53), St. Leo the Great writes: “Let the signs of the future resurrection appear now in the Holy City [meaning, the Church], and what must be accomplished one day in the bodies, may now be accomplished in the hearts.”
The best way to understand what a resurrection of the heart is all about, is to see what the physical resurrection of Jesus produced, spiritually, in the life of the Apostles. Peter starts his First Letter with these lofty words:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. (1 Pt 1:3–4)

Strangely enough, the word “hope” is absent from Jesus’ preaching. The Gospels relate many of his sayings on faith and charity but none on hope, even if—as we will see later—all his preaching proclaims that there is a resurrection from the dead and an eternal life. On the contrary, after Easter, we see the idea and the sentiment of hope literally explode in the preaching of the Apostles. God himself is called “the God of hope” (Rom 15:13). The explanation for the absence of sayings on hope in the Gospel is simple: Christ had first to die and rise again. Rising from the dead, he unsealed the source of hope; he inaugurated the very object of hope, which is a life with God beyond death.

Let us try to see what a surge of hope could produce in our spiritual life. The Acts of the Apostles relate what happened one day al the door of the temple of Jerusalem called “the Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3:2). A cripple lay there begging for alms. One day, Peter and John passed by, and we know what happened next. The cripple, healed, jumped to his feet and finally after who knows how many years he had been lying there abandoned, he too went through that door and entered the temple “jumping and praising God” (Acts 3:1–9).

Something similar could also happen to us with regard to hope. We too often find ourselves, spiritually, in the position of the cripple on the threshold of the temple; inert and lukewarm, as if paralyzed in the face of difficulties. But here the divine hope passes by us, carried by the word of God, and says to us too, like Peter to the cripple and Jesus to the paralytic: “Get up and walk!” (Mk 2:11). And we jump to our feet and finally enter into the heart of the Church, ready to assume, again and joyfully, tasks and responsibilities. These are the daily miracles of hope. It is truly a great miracle worker; it puts thousands of cripples back on their feet, thousands of times. Indeed—as Isaiah told us—it puts eagle wings on their feet and makes people walk without stumbling.

What is extraordinary about hope is that its presence changes everything, even when externally nothing changes. I have a small example of this in my own life. I am a person who suffers from the cold much more than the heat. Now, in Italy, in March, at the beginning of spring, the temperature is more or less the same as in late October and early November. Yet I noticed that the cold of March made me less depressed than the cold of November. I wondered why and finally found the answer. The cold of November is a hopeless cold because we are heading toward winter. The cold of March is a cold with hope!

* * *

The Letter to the Hebrews compares hope to “an anchor of our life sure and firm.” Sure and firm because it is cast not on earth but in heaven, not in time but in eternity, “beyond the veil of the sanctuary” (Heb 6:18–19). This image of hope has become classic. But we also have another image of hope, in a certain sense opposite to the previous one: the sail. If the anchor is what gives the boat safety and keeps it steady between the swaying of the sea, the sail is what makes it move and advance in the sea.

Through both things does hope operate, both within the boat of the Church and our own lives. It is truly like a sail that collects the wind and without noise transforms it into a driving force that carries the boat, offshore or ashore according to the needs. Just as the sail in the hands of a good sailor is able to use any wind, from any direction, favorable or unfavorable, to move the boat in the desired direction, so does hope.

First of all, hope comes to our aid in our personal journey of sanctification. Hope becomes, in those who exercise it, the very principle of spiritual progress. Hope is always on guard to discover new “occasions for good,” always something that can be done. Therefore, it does not allow them to settle down in lukewarmness and sloth. Hope is the complete opposite of what is sometimes thought; it is not a beautiful and poetic interior disposition that makes you dream and build imaginary worlds.

On the contrary, it is very concrete and practical; it spends its time putting tasks to be done in front of you. When in a given situation there is absolutely nothing to be done – writes the philosopher Kierkegaard – , then, yes, it would be paralysis and despair. But hope, looking at eternity as it does, always finds that there is something that can be done to improve the situation: work harder, be more obedient, more humble, more mortified.

When you are tempted to say to yourself “There is nothing more to be done,” (it is again Kierkegaard speaking) hope comes forward and tells you “Pray!” You answer “But I prayed!” and she “Pray again!” And even when the situation should become extremely hard, such that it seems that there is really nothing more to be done, hope still points you to a task: to endure until the end and not lose patience.

These objectives emphasized by the believing philosopher are demanding, even downright heroic. It is clear that they are not possible through our efforts, but only thanks to the grace of God who comes to our aid and does not leave us alone.

Hope has a privileged relationship, in the New Testament, with patience. It is the opposite of impatience, of haste, of “everything, and now.” It is the antidote to discouragement. It keeps the desire alive. It is also a great pedagogue in the sense that it does not point out everything at once—all there is to do or can be done—but puts in front of you one possibility at a time. She only gives “a daily bread.” It distributes the effort and thus makes it possible to carry it out.

Scripture continually sheds light on this truth—that tribulation does not take away hope, but rather increases it: “Affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope” (Rom 5:3–4). Hope needs tribulation as the flame needs the wind to strengthen itself. Human reasons for hoping must die, one after another, for the true unshakable reason that is God to emerge.

It happens as in the launch of a ship. It is necessary that the scaffolding that held the ship up artificially, when it was under construction, be removed and all the various props be taken away one after another so that it can take off and freely float on the water. Tribulation removes from us any “hold” and leads us to hope only in God. It leads to that state of perfection that consists in hoping when there seems to be no hope (Rom 4:18)—that is, to keep hoping by relying on the word once spoken by God, even when all human reasons for hoping have disappeared. Such was Mary’s hope under the cross. Popular piety is not wrong when it invokes Mary with the title of Mater Spei, mother of hope.

This strengthening effect of hope is beautifully described in the text from Isaiah:
Though young men faint and grow weary,
and youths stagger and fall,
They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
they will soar on eagles’ wings;
They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint. (Is 40:30–31)
The oracle is the response to the lament of the people who say: “My fate is hidden from the Lord.” God does not promise to remove the reasons for weariness and exhaustion, but he gives hope. The situation remains in itself what it was, but hope gives the strength to rise above it. It is really like putting on wings.

In the book of Revelation, we read that “When the dragon saw that it had been thrown down to the earth, it pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle, so that she could fly to her place in the desert” (Rv 12:13–14). If the image of the eagle’s wings is inspired, as it clearly seems, by the text of Isaiah, this means that the whole Church has been given the great wings of hope so that with them it can, every time, escape the attacks of evil and overcome every difficulty.
We end by listening to the invocation the Apostle Paul addressed to God in favor of the faithful of Rome at the end of his Letter, as it was meant for us in this very moment:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit. (Rom 15:13)

1.Augustine, On the Gospel of John, 19,9.
2.W. Marxsen, The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, London, 1970.
3.Cf. J.D.G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, 3 vol., Grand Rapids, Mich, 2003, synthesized in his A new Perspective on Jesus, Grand Rapids, Mich 2005.
4.John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Corinthians, 4, 4 (PG 61, 35 s.).
5.Augustine, Enarr. in Psaslmos, 120,6.
6.Søren Kierkegaard, The Works of Love, Part II, no. 3.