The Christ-Experience of Mar Thoma Sliha

The Christ-Experience of

Mar Thoma Sliha

 st_thomas_apostle

Dr Vincent Alappat

frvinualappat@gmail.com

Introduction

The glorious and all-laudable Apostle Thomas, the fisherman on the lake of Galilee, whom our Lord called to be with Him, is the one who made the greatest confession of faith ever in the history. His name occurs in all the lists of the Synoptics (Mt 10,3; Mk 3,18; Lk 6,14-16; cf. Acts 1,13). In the Gospel of John he plays a distinctive part where through three important and critical scenes we come to know the Christ-experience of Thomas Sliha. In order to delve into the Christ-experience of Apostle Thomas we limit ourselves to the scenes where he appears in the fourth Gospel.

The Christ-experience that the Apostle John describes in his Epistles is something unique: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1,1-4). Thereby the Apostle John is presenting the collegiality of the Christ-experience which formed the basis of the reality of the Church. However we cannot deny the personal dimension of it which is a genuine human experience and such an experience of St. Thomas stands as the foundation of the Syro-Malabar Church.

1. Christ-Experience at Various Levels

In the Gospel of John we come across the Christ-Experience of either individuals or groups at different occasions. John the Baptist who came to bear witness recognizes not only who and what he is not (Jn 1, 19-23), but also acknowledges and affirms who Jesus is, namely the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1,29) and also as ‘the Son of God’ (Jn 1,34). Jesus, the Lamb of God is to save mankind by His blood and death at Passover time (Jn 13,1; 19,14.21). The image is particularly apt and sheds light into the symbolic value of Jesus’ death, in view of the biblical figures of the Passover Lamb and the saving power of its blood (Ex 12,7) and the eating of its flesh (Ex 12,8). Implicitly it also alludes to the Second Isaiah’s image of the Suffering Servant who humbly submitted to death for the sake of others (Is 53,7-12). The ‘taking away of the sin of the world’ suggests an implicit allusion to the scape goat of Lev 9,15 which the priest offered to God as a sacrifice of reparation, offering it up for all their sins. When John the Baptist testified who Jesus is to his own disciples, they followed Him, asking “Rabbi, where are you staying?”. Later Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother recognizes Him as the Messiah (Jn 1, 35-42) and Nathanael addresses Him as Rabbi, Son of God and King of Israel (Jn 1, 49).

The Samaritan woman sees Jesus at first as a strange Jew, but gradually recognizes him as a prophet and later the Messiah (Jn 4, 1-26) and the Samaritans of the city declared in public ‘that this is indeed the Saviour of the world’ (Jn 4, 42). After the multiplication of loaves and walking on the Sea of Galilee there was a long discourse on the Bread of Life. At this many of His disciples drew back and no longer went about with Him. “Jesus said to the twelve, Will you also go away? Simon Peter answered Him, Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6, 66-69). The man born blind after having been healed by Jesus openly declares. “If this man were not from God he could do nothing” (Jn 9, 33), that is to say he recognizes Jesus as a man from God.

We have been seeing how variously the people from different strata, including the disciples, experienced Jesus in their life situations. How Thomas, called Didymus, one among the twelve, chosen by God to be with Him, experienced Christ in his life time? Thomas’s Christ-experience and the content of his faith are the basis of the Christian community in India. It is this apostolic foundation that makes the Church distinct from other human organizations. Hence we analyse the different scenes in order to understand how deeply and progressively Thomas experienced and realized Christ during his life-time.

2. Christ: The Source and Giver of Life

Thomas is one of the disciples singled out by name in the Johannine Gospel and is mentioned for the first time in the Lazarus episode (Jn 11, 1-16) where, for the Greek reader, his name is translated Didymus (twin). By bringing the dead Lazarus to life Jesus reveals that He is not only the source of life but also the giver of life. Jesus gives life to a dead man (Jn 11, 1-44), for which men condemn Jesus to die (Jn 4, 45-57). Jesus demonstrates this power by raising Lazarus from the dead which leads up to the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ plot, namely it sets the stage for the Jewish leaders’ decision to have Jesus put to death (Jn 11, 44-47).

Jesus is in Bethany beyond the Jordan, the place where John the Baptist at first baptized (Jn 1,28). Lazarus, of whom it is said “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn 11,3 ), is in Bethany near Jerusalem where he with his sisters Mary and Martha lived. It needs two days journey from Bethany across Jordan to Bethany near Jerusalem where Lazarus lies sick and dying. Even if He wanted to, Jesus could not be there in time. He remains in Bethany for two more days (Jn 11,6). When Jesus decides to go to Judea after two days, the disciples try to prevent him saying, “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (Jn 11,8). Prior to it also there were occasions in which the Jews were provoked. When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am”, immediately the Jews took up stones to throw (Jn 8,59). And in Jn 9, 31 we read: “The Jews took stones again to stone him, accusing him of blasphemy, because you being a man make yourself God”.

As soon as Jesus heard that his friend whom he loves is ill, Jesus’ spontaneous reaction was “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (Jn 11,4). Raising Lazarus from the dead would undoubtedly enable others to see the glory of God in action. However through His statement Jesus reveals that God’s glory will be evident only when the Son is glorified. In other words the miracle will glorify Jesus, not so much in the sense that people will admire it and praise him, but in the sense that it will lead to his death, which is a stage in his glorification (Jn 12, 23-24; 17,1). Earlier Jesus had already said that the Spirit had not yet come because Jesus was not yet glorified, that is to say, because he had not yet died upon the cross. Again when the Greeks came to him, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12,23). And it was of His cross that he spoke, for he went straight on to speak of the corn of wheat which must fall into the ground and die (Jn 12, 24). It is clear that Jesus regarded the cross both as His supreme glory and as the way to glory. For him there was no other way to glorify than through the cross. Therefore His words that the raising of Lazarus would glorify Him signifies that to go to Bethany and to save Lazarus was to take a step which would end in the cross as indeed it did.1

When Jesus announced that He was going to Judea, His disciples were shocked and staggered. No need to avoid Judea and its hostile leaders; the hour of night – darkness is approaching, true enough – but it has not yet come (Jn 11, 9-10) and the light is still on earth (Jn 8, 12). As is clear from Jn 13, 30 the night is the time when somebody goes away from Christ. By saying that the light is still there with them and now moving to Judea, Jesus is indirectly inviting the disciples to accompany the path of the cross together with him.

Jesus told them plainly that Lazarus was dead; and that He went on to say that for their sake this was a good thing, because it would produce an event which would buttress them even more firmly in their faith. At that critical moment being perfectly aware of the worst that can happen to them Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11, 16). There lies hidden in the saying of Thomas the truth that the way to Bethany will lead ultimately to the death of Jesus.2 Thomas looked death in the face and chose death with Jesus rather than life without Him;3 for he realized that to enter Judea as His disciples was to risk the same fate.4 Thomas’ anticipation that the disciples may die with Jesus is not without parallel in the Synoptic tradition, for Mk 8, 34-35 invites the disciples to lose his life for Jesus’ sake. Real discipleship consists not in moving with the master at the glorious moments of his life, just like the signs he performed at Cana (Jn 2, 1-11), or healing the son of the royal official (Jn 4, 46-54), or healing the man at the pool of Bethzatha (Jn 5, 1-9); or the multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6, 1-14) or walking on the sea (Jn 6, 25-34) or healing the man born blind (Jn 9, 1-12); but to be with him during the hard times of life. Thomas was bold enough to do the right thing even at the expense of his own life. This reminds us of the teaching of the master: “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for others” (Jn 15, 13). Thomas is inviting all others to accompany the master who is on his way to the cross and eventually the resurrection. Thomas is encouraging the fellow-disciples to give a positive response to the invitation of Jesus, to walk in the light, namely to die and rise with him, which is the fundamental character of the Christian baptismal experience (Rom 6, 1-14).5

3. Jesus: The Way to the Father

The second scene of Thomas Sliha’s intervention occurs in the context of Jesus’ farewell discourse which is directed to the Apostles, whose mission is to continue the work of Jesus in the world. When the Greeks, namely the whole world, began to seek Jesus, His immediate reaction was, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn 12, 23); and prior to that thrice He has said ‘my hour has not yet come’ (Jn 2, 4; 7, 30; 8, 20). Suffering, crucifixion and death are moments of glorification.

After washing the feet of the disciples and giving the new commandment Jesus starts with the farewell discourse where he teaches that “I go to prepare a place for you and I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going?”

(Jn 14, 1-4). A little earlier He had said, “I shall be with you a little longer, and then I go to him who sent me” (Jn 7, 33). At this moment the disciples became bewildered and in their confusion Thomas intervenes asking for clarification concerning the way Jesus is about to go and his destination. “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14, 5). When Thomas expressed his doubt and also by seeing his earnestness Jesus was moved to reveal one of the greatest things He ever said. Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him” (Jn 14, 6-7). That is a great saying in which Jesus took three of the great basic conceptions of Jewish religion, and made the tremendous claim that in him all three found their full realization.6 

It is amazingly true that he who seeks will in the end find his way. Thomas was not ready to be satisfied with any vague pious expressions. Rather he wanted to have a clear vision of the personality of his master. Considering the sincerity and determination of Thomas, Jesus gave an answer which is more profound than the question. In other words Jesus reveals much more than what is asked for. He declares himself as the only way to the Father. The emphasis is placed entirely on the statement “I am the way”, for the ensuing dialogue deals primarily with the way. The concept “the way” is an unusual metaphor to apply to a person, but its meaning is made clearer by the additional statement “the truth and the life” that are also incorporated into that person.7

The Old Testament speaks much about the way in which mankind must walk and also about the ways of God. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply …” (Deut 30, 15-16). For them to follow the way of the Lord is to observe the Mosaic Law. “You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, …” (Deut 5, 33). The Psalmist eagerly prays, “Teach me thy way, O, Lord” (Ps 27, 11). Moses said to the people, “For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you” (Deut 31, 29). At the same time there are facts which unfold that it is the Lord who guides and guards the mankind’s way (Ps 37, 23; 91, 11; Prov 2, 8; 16, 9; Jer 10, 23). The way of the Lord, God’s purpose, which the Prophets proclaimed (Is 40, 3; Mal 3, 1) is fulfilled in Christ (Mt 3, 3; Mk 1, 2-3; Lk 3, 4; Jn 1, 23). In brief the Old Testament people knew much about ‘the Way’ of God in which mankind must walk. Jesus is not telling us about the way, but He is the Way. The way to God has been revealed through the person of Jesus Christ. This self-revelatory statement is given a precise and absolute expression in the sentence that follows. “No one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14, 6) is a culminating point. In Jesus Christ the invisible and incomprehensible God has made Himself so tangible and so comprehensible that they are able to reach the goal of their existence along this way, by accepting in faith the truth, that has been revealed to them in Jesus Christ and by sharing in his life.8

In the Johannine Passion narrative, Jesus who was led to the Praetorium, was interrogated by Pilate. To him Jesus said: “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (Jn 18, 37-38). God is the God of truth (Deut 32, 4), which places the emphasis upon God’s being unchangeable and unchanging and thus the determining centre of the universe.9 The Psalmist ardently prays, “Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth” (Ps 86. 11) and again says, “I have chosen the way of truth” (Ps 119, 30). Jesus calls himself ‘the truth’ not for what He is, but for what He does – namely as one “who has told you the truth which I heard from God” (Jn 8, 40). All that He does originates in the divine truth and makes the latter real in this world. The intimations of God’s saving plan, which were given in the history of Israel, have now become actuality in Jesus. Thus He is the true light (Jn 1, 9), the true vine (Jn 15, 1) the true bread from heaven (Jn 6, 32). Unlike the beings of this world which came into existence and pass away again, Jesus like the Yahweh of Exodus 3, 14 has being in himself. He is the truth; he is the embodiment of truth. In the Greek Philosophical tradition truth was to get to the nature of the real being, the essence of an object. The opposite of this was that which merely ‘seemed’ to be a certain way, only an appearance. Appearances might change, but truth does not.10 

Jesus is ‘the life’. God is the “God of life” (Num 14, 28; Deut 32, 40; Jer 5, 2) and thus He is able to impart it to all the creatures. To those who keep God’s commandments, long life and happiness are promised (Gen 15, 15; Ex 20, 12; Lev 18, 5; Deut 5, 15-16; Ps 91, 16). The writer of the Book of Proverbs says “The commandment is a lamp, and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (Prov 10, 17). “Thou dost show me the path of life” says the Psalmist (Ps 16, 11).

St John emphasizes that in Jesus ‘the eternal Word of life’ (1Jn 1, 2) had become man (Jn 1, 14), so that the people who by faith had identified themselves with him would share in his life (Jn 3, 16; 10, 10; 20, 31). When the Evangelist says, “In Him was life, and the light was the life of men” (Jn 1, 4), and by raising Lazarus from the dead, He proved that He is the life so far as he gives us the life of the Father. Therefore Jesus can say “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10, 10).

Hence ‘the truth’ and ‘the life’ stand as the basis of ‘the Way’. He is the truth in so far as in him there is no hypocrisy. His words and deeds reveal who he is. He is the truth of the Father, whom he alone can faithfully reveal. “He reflects the glory of God and bears the stamp of his nature” (Heb 1,3) and can say “He who sees me sees him who sent me” (Jn 12, 45). Since “He and the Father are one” (Jn 10, 30), like the Father He too is the truth.

Mankind received the life of the Father through Jesus Christ. ‘Come and see, believe, eat and drink’ are the means to relate ourselves with this source of life. He is the truth and the life, hence he is the way. We can reach to the Father only through Jesus, for no one else reveals the Father. To become one with the Father and to live in the house of the Father, He alone is the way. “He has not come to show a “better way to God”. It is not a better way, because there is no other way”.11 Jesus is going to prepare a place for the disciples. They must therefore keep close to Jesus, because only he can take them there. Jesus’ goal is also the goal of the believers and his departure is only meaningful in that it makes it possible for them to reach the goal. From this we can say that the invisible and incomprehensible God has become tangible and so comprehensible in Jesus Christ, namely that we are able to reach the goal of our existence along this way by accepting in faith the truth, that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and by sharing in his life.12 

4. Jesus Christ: My Lord and My God

the-doubting-of-thomasWhen the Apostles gathered together to choose one in the place of Judas, one of the conditions was that he must be a witness to his resurrection (Acts 1, 22) for, the authenticity of an Apostle is greatly based on his having seen the Risen Christ (1 Cor 15, 5-11). The third scene in which Thomas Sliha appears is in the context of the appearance of the risen Christ. After the death of Christ, the grief-stricken disciples were behind the closed doors, for fear of the Jews, not knowing what to do. On the evening of the first day of the week the risen Lord came and stood among them and said to the panic-stricken disciples, “Peace be with you” and then he showed them his hands and his side. (Jn 20, 19-20). They realized that the Risen Lord who presents himself to them after Calvary is not different from the Glorious Lord who was made flesh and worked the signs, who said repeatedly, “I AM”.13 Seeing the hands and the side wounded for their sake, they could immediately recognize and identify him. Since those were wounds received to give them life, the pierced hands and side revealed to them the magnanimity of their master. Moreover, instead of blaming them, who were highly embarrassed, he wished them peace, for he came to give them life abundantly. It makes it very much clear that the wounds and sufferings we accept for the sake of others will make our life ever shining. Then Jesus gave the disciples the mission to carry out what all he started here on earth either by teaching or by doing, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20,21). He emboldened them by showering the Holy Spirit upon them to make their forward journey very safe and secure.

Thomas, who was designated as ‘one of the twelve’, was unfortunately not there when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. It makes it clear that we too miss a great deal when we separate ourselves from the fellowship of Christ’s Church and try to be alone. Things can happen to us within the fellowship of Christ’s Church which will not happen when we keep ourselves away from it. Remember the case of the two disciples who were going to Emmaus by turning their backs on their brethren in Jerusalem. Little wonder, then, that when the Lord himself drew near to them their eyes were kept from recognizing him (Lk 24, 13-16). Yet even to them the Lord manifested his grace by making himself known (Lk 24, 31). The effect was that they rose up the same hour and returned to Jerusalem and found the eleven gathered together (Lk 24, 33). For us Christians to be in fellowship with Christ implies that they desire and seek the fellowship of his people. 14 Moreover, as Schnackenburg points out, the addition of the expression “one of the twelve” is to present him as a representative of the entire pre-Easter disciples, who are of weak faith, and to show that even the intimate circle of disciples had doubt about the resurrection.15

The disciples only say, “We have seen the Lord” and related everything that Jesus had said to them (Jn 20, 25). At once Thomas, who loved his master enough to be willing to go to Jerusalem and die with him when the others were hesitant and afraid, demanded stronger and tangible evidence of the reality and identity of the Risen One as the others experienced. Thomas said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20, 25). How the figure of his dead master had burnt itself into his soul, is seen from the manner in which his mind dwells on the prints of the nails and the wound in his side. It is by these only, and not by well-known features or peculiarity of form, he will recognize and identify his Lord. The progression from ‘seeing’ the prints caused by the nails, to ‘placing’ his finger in them and, over and above that, placing his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side, is clear. Thomas’ episode is testimony to the fact that the resurrection appearances were not illusions induced by wishful thinking.

Thomas was so certain of the death of Jesus that he would not credit the report of his reappearance and insisted that he would not believe unless he could actually touch the Risen One. That is why he became so obstinate. To yield to the sheer obstinacy of loveless persons is a kind of slavery. Thomas was obstinate because of his love and commitment to the Master. He remained for a whole week in darkness and gloom. As the Evangelist presents, “Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20, 26). The reappearance of Jesus took place under the same conditions as the previous appearance, which the disciples had described to Thomas. Therefore, he could not charge them with having fabricated their report when Jesus greeted them in the same manner as before.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20, 27). Thomas must have been startled to hear Jesus quote his very words. Jesus did not immediately upbraid him for his obstinacy, but challenged Thomas to carry out the test that he had suggested. That is to say Jesus subjected himself to the love-filled obstinacy of Thomas. Thereby Jesus halted Thomas on the road to a despairing unbelief and offered him the positive evidence he could build on an enduring faith.

We are uncertain whether Thomas really placed his finger in the wounds and his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side. To Jesus’ challenge, Thomas reacts with an unconditional high-minded confession of faith, the fullest faith in Christ Jesus. Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20, 28). It marks a leap of faith.16 The personal tone due to the twice occurring mou (my) is not to be ignored. The two possessives ‘my’ flow in almost automatically as the natural expression of faith.17 Thomas has found his Lord and his God in the risen one, whom he recognizes as the crucified, and to him well-known, earthly Jesus, and yet as another whom he understands belongs wholly to God.18 For a Jew to call another whom he experienced as a human being ‘my Lord and my God’ would be almost incredible. The Jewish law was strictly monotheistic; so the deification of any person would be regarded as blasphemy (Jn 10, 33). Thomas, in the light of the resurrection, applied to Jesus the titles of Lord (Kyrios) and God (Theos), both of which were titles of deity. Thomas became the one who gave the strongest and most conclusive testimony to the absolute Deity of the Saviour which ever came from the lips of a man.

In the Hebrew world of the Old Testament the two expressions used to address God are Yahweh and Elohim for which the words Kyrios and Theos are found respectively in the LXX (Ps 35, 23). By using these two expressions to address the resurrected Jesus, Thomas publically proclaims that the resurrected one is God and declares him as the Lord of his life. In other words the Easter faith of Thomas recognizes God in the risen Jesus, and makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh.19 The response of Thomas in his confession of faith recalls Jesus’ words to himself and Philip: “If you have known me, you will know the Father. He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14, 7.9). This confession is closely linked with the Prologue (Jn 1, 1): What God is, the Word is, for Jesus is the Word who has now returned to the glory he had with the Father before the world began (Jn 17, 5). “Thomas’ confession comes in a whole series of confessions in John’s Gospel (Jn 1, 49; 4, 42; 6, 67; 9, 37f; 11, 27; 16, 30; 20, 16). It becomes their conclusion and climax, in the form of a Christological statement in the light of the Easter confession”.20 Thomas’ confession provides a climatic illustration of the triumph of belief ,21 for faith is our response to Jesus who discloses himself. In short we can say that the obstinacy of Thomas was in order to become sure; and when he did, his surrender to certainty was complete.22 Thomas’ words ‘My Lord and my God’ stands in the history as the most profound confession of Jesus’ true identity and nothing more profound could be said about Him.

The following words of Jesus to Thomas show that He confirms Thomas confession but that too in the form of a gentle rebuke for he came to believe only after an assurance through seeing. Jesus said to him “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20, 29). And the Risen Lord’s accusation becomes a message too for the succeeding generations of believers.23 Here we have to note one thing, namely what all Thomas experienced in his encounter with the Risen One is summed up in ‘seeing’. The emphasis rests on the sensual perception, yet without stressing ‘touching’. Thomas was fortunate to be the exponent of that experience of Jesus’ appearances, which is denied to us the later believers. Thereby he became a staunch believer eligible to be included among the others who had seen and believed.24

Unfortunately Thomas Sliha is remembered more for his doubting than for his supreme expression of faith. Jesus’ reply simply contrasts two different and valid ways of faith. On the one hand, disciples who had been with Jesus came to ‘see’ him and believe in him as risen through special faith experiences, that is, appearances. But the later disciples down through history have not experienced the risen Jesus in the same way. Yet, they too have received the gift of faith and they are in this respect equally praised and blessed by God. Schnackenburg points out that the beatitude form of style is used as an appeal to the later believers without the ‘seeing’ granted to Thomas, in order to come to the same firm faith and high-minded confession as he did. How that can be is not expressly said; but the preaching of the Word and the testimony of the first disciples is presupposed, as is the written testimony which the Evangelists provide with the Gospels.25 

5. Believing by Seeing

In the Sacred Scripture we can see how the seeing and the act of believing are closely connected. When Moses saw the burning bush from where God revealed Himself to him saying “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” and when he was called by God to lead the Israelites from the Egyptian slavery to the promised land (Ex 3, 1-22) Moses believed in God and committed himself to rescue them out of Egypt. Later the people of Israel saw the great wonders Yahweh performed for their sake against the Egyptians and as a result they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses (Ex 14, 31). When we come to the New Testament, especially the Fourth Gospel, where what immediately precedes the resurrection appearances of Jesus are also ‘signs’ because they are miraculous events which reveal the truth about Jesus. After the first sign which Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee, it is stated that his disciples believed in him (Jn 2, 11) and further stated ‘many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did’ (Jn 2, 23). At Capernaum when the official approached Jesus asking a favour to heal his son who was at the point of death Jesus said to him “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. Later when he experienced that his son was cured, it is stated, “and he himself believed, and his entire household” (Jn 4, 46-54). The born blind man, when he was healed by Jesus, publically proclaimed “Lord, I believe; and he worshipped him (Jn 9, 38). Again we read when Lazarus was raised from the dead, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him” (Jn 11, 45). The disciples who saw the empty tomb, for them it became a sign and they believed (Jn 20, 8). Mary Magdalene also believed by seeing and so she said to the disciples “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20, 18). The other disciples also believed only when he showed them his hands and his side and they were glad when they saw him (Jn 20, 20). Thomas Sliha also believed by seeing and our Lord confirms it by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (Jn 20, 29). Hence we have the historic apostolic witness by seeing.

6. Believing without Seeing

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20,29 b). We have been dealing with a belief that has arisen in the visible presence of Jesus; but with the inauguration of the invisible presence of Jesus in the Spirit (Jn 19, 30.34), a new type of faith emerges. In Jn 20, 21 we have heard of the mission of the disciples, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20, 21). Now those who are the fruit of that mission are brought into view. What is to be noted is that one must believe, whether that faith comes from seeing or not. As Raymond E. Brown brings out, here the emphasis falls on those who do not see are equal in God’s estimation with those who did see and are even, in a certain way, nobler. God has blessed those who have not seen just as much as He blessed those who did see.26 “But for the fact that Thomas and the other apostles saw the incarnate Christ there would have been no Christian faith at all”.27 As long as Jesus stood among the humanity, one had to come to faith through the visible. Now this is the era of the Spirit or the invisible presence of Jesus (Jn 14, 17), and the era of signs or appearances is passing away; the latter one leads to the other. Jesus rejects as imperfect that tradition which attempts to overcome doubt by palpable proof of the visible. We the Christians have to preserve and keep faith in the same Risen Lord, not on the strength of what we have seen, but on the word of apostolic witness, which underpins the Church. Jesus has given to the Church the task of bringing people to faith through the faithfully preached message of salvation and the convincing power of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter describes the greatness of such a faith: “Without having seen Him you love Him; though you do not now see Him you believe in Him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet 1,8-9).

7. Conclusion

Our Syro-Malabar Church owes its existence to the Christ-Experience of Thomas Sliha and the content of his faith. At first he experienced the living Christ as the source and giver of life. By raising Lazarus from the dead Jesus proved it visibly. With St Paul he could say, “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1Cor 15,10) and what I ought to be is my gift to God. Seeing his enthusiasm and sense of dedication Christ revealed to him that He is ‘the way’ to the Father. He became flesh and dwelt among the humanity not to show a ‘better’ way to God the Father. It is not a better way because there is no other way; for He alone is the way. We, the believers are able to reach the goal of our existence along this way by accepting in faith the truth that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and by sharing in His life. Later when he experienced the Risen Christ, he could easily make a leap of faith proclaiming Him as his Lord and God. In his great confession ‘My Lord and my God’ Thomas recognizes God in the Risen Jesus and makes clear that one may address the Risen One in the same language in which the Israelites, our forefathers addressed Yahweh. Thereby Thomas Sliha makes the most profound confession of Jesus’ true identity and his confession of faith recalls Jesus’ words to himself and Philip: “If you have known me, you will know the Father. He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14, 7.9). Thomas Sliha was fortunate to be the exponent of the personal experience of the Risen Christ’s appearances, which is denied to us the later believers. Like the other disciples Thomas Sliha also believed by seeing. Accepting the Risen One as the source and giver of life, and as ‘the way’ to the Father, Thomas Sliha started to proclaim the Risen One as his Lord and God and to give testimony. In this era of the Spirit and the invisible presence of Jesus, it is ours to enlighten the faith handed over to us by the Sliha through living testimony and proclamation. At this time of New Evangelization let us remember that our Church stands in need of genuine restoration and radical renewal in order to continue its unique mission started by Thomas Sliha, the father of our Church.

Endnotes

  1. E. Haenchen, Trans. by R. W. Funk, John 2 A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Chapters 7-21) Hermeneia (Tubingen 1984) 60.
  2. Haenchen, John 2, 60.
  3. L. Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Michigan 1971) 545.
  4. J.H. Bernard, ed. A.H.McNeile, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St John Volume II (Edinburg 1972) 371.
  5. M.Vellanickal, “St. Thomas’ Christ-Experience: Foundation of the Syro-Malabar Church”, in M. Manakatt & J. Puthenveettil, Syro-Malabar Theology in Context, OIRSI, (Kottayam 2007) 75.

     6 .    W.Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 2 Chapters            8-21, The Daily Study Bible (Bangalore 1975) 157.

     7.     R. Schnackenburg, The Commentary According to St. John Vol. 3, Chapters 13-21 (London 1982) 65.

  1. Schnackenburg, St. John, 65.
  2. O.A. Piper, “Truth”, IDB vol 4, 716.
  3. B.H.Bryant & M.S.Krause, John, The College Press NIV Commentary (Missourie 1998) 163.
  4. Bryant & Krause, John, 166.
  5. Schnackenburg, St. John, 65.
  6. T.E. Crane, The Message of Saint John (New York 1980) 109.
  7. A.W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, Three volumes complete and unabridged in one, Michigan 1975, 293.
  8. Schnackenburg, St. John, 329.
  9. Morris, The Gospel, 854.
  10. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, Minnesota 1961, 1385.
  11. Schnackenburg, St. John, 332.
  12. R.E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible, New York 1982, 1047.
  13. Vellanickal, “St. Thomas’ Christ-Experience”, 83; Schnackenburg, St. John, 333.
  14. F.E. Gaebelein (ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version of the Holy Bible Volume 9 John – Acts, Michigan 1981, 194.
  15. Barclay, The Gospel of John, 277.
  16. M.Vellanickal, Studies in the Gospel of John, ATC, Bangaloore 1982, 191.
  17. Brown, The Gospel, 1046.
  18. Schnackenburg, St. John, 335.
  19. Brown, The Gospel, 1049.
  20. C.K. Barrett, The Commentary on St. John’s Gospel, London 1978, 477.

    (Article published in MAR THOMA MARGAM, OIRSI, Kottayam)

 

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