The conversion of St. Paul points the way to understanding Jesus’ baptism

In his book, “Into the Abyss of Suffering,” Kenneth Overberg quotes Mark 1:40-42:

Sockeye, aren't they just gorgeous fish  Christina CookA leper came to him and kneeling down begged him, “If you wish, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, “I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.

 Kenneth Overberg then states, “With a simple but profound touch, Jesus breaks down barriers, challenges customs, and laws that alienate, and embodies his convictions about the inclusive meaning of the reign of God.” [i]

On page 79, Kenneth Overberg mentions the Hymn of Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions, principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.

Lake TahoeHe is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things he himself might be preeminent. In him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things for him.”

The point of discussion in the book is whether the Jewish concept of redemption is central to Gospel and/or Epistle. In the Gospel, at least in the New American Translation, “Redemption occurs 11 times, Ransom, 9 times, and Expiation 4 times.

As a point of comparison, in the first sentence of Romans, the words Christ, Jesus, and God, occurs 4 times each. It is clear from reading this first sentence of Romans, that when St. Paul desires to emphasis an idea, he repeats the label/word of that idea.

Seder plate smallTherefore, we must conclude that the almost total absence of the words for redemption, ransom, and expiation in the Gospels and Epistles means that although the writers were aware of these ideas, they were not central to their Christology.

We notice that in his letter to the Colossians, which has the hymn in question, we also find mention of Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, the son of the prophet, the writer of the Gospel of St. Mark. St. Mark had in his earlier days traveled with St. Paul. Still, the vocabulary of the Gospel of St. Mark makes clear, how his greatest influence was St. Matthew, not St. Paul. St. Luke, in his writing makes his influence by St. Paul clear.

With this in mind, it is important to compare the baptism of Jesus with the conversion experience of St. Paul. The baptism of Jesus is particularly important because immediately after comes the thesis statement for the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, although St. Luke’s thesis statement is fundamentally different. In Matthew and Mark, the thesis statements are:

At once, the Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, (in Aramaic Chai, or living things) and the angels (In Aramaic Melechim, which means messengers) ministered to him. Forty days could be interpreted as forty years, one day for each year of Jesus’ life. The star of St. Matthew’s nativity, is thought be a constellation of planets which occurred around 7 B.C.

If Jesus’ crucifixion was April 1, 33, when there was a lunar eclipse, and which was Passover and Good Friday, Jesus was 40 years old. The messengers would then refer to the twelve apostles. Their ministry was walking with him during his travels of healing. St. Luke states Jesus was 30 during the Passion, so he has a different thesis statement.

With this in mind, a close reading is important to find out how the temptation leads up to the thesis statement for the work. St. Mark relates, “On coming up out of the water Jesus saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him.” “A voice came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Here, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all present. Jesus is being baptized. The Spirit is present as the dove, and God is present as the voice. Some would argue that the reference to the heavens being torn open is not to be taken literally. With this in mind, we look at St. Paul’s conversion.

“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’ He told me, ‘I am Jesus from Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.” Acts 22:6-9

We notice how the sky fundamentally changes in both stories. Only Jesus and St. Paul see the light, the change in the sky, and only Jesus and St. Paul here the voice, as a voice. St. Mark relates, “You are my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased.” Compare this with the temptation scene which states, “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen of him.” God speaks to Jesus, and not to the crowd with him, including John the Baptist, at Jesus’ baptism.

St. Paul, when read in Aramaic, shows a rather dramatic similarity with near death experiences. A near-death experience is a very unique and powerful experience that people sometimes report after a near-death episode. In such an episode a person is either clinically dead, near death. People experiencing this reported two types of experiences. Most reports are pleasurable, involving feelings of love, joy, peace, and bliss.

The “classic” experience includes four phases. However, each is unique. In the naturalistic phase, they became aware of the “natural” surroundings. They experience their bodies and the surrounding area from a perspective outside their bodies. In the supernatural phase, they experience meeting beings and environments that they do not consider part of the “natural” world. They experience a “life review.” The final phase is a return to the physical body.

Most say their experience changed them. Some changes happened right away, others more gradually over time. Many people who experience this need time to integrate the experience. Some people need months; others need years. We can see this in the experience of St. Paul. Before his encounter with Jesus, he persecutes the church. Afterward, he is one of the major forces promoting Christianity.

St. Paul tells us among other things, “We, who are Jews by nature and not deviants from among the ethnics, who know that a person is not justified Tzaddic, by works of Torah but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified Tzaddic by faith in Christ and not by works of Torah, because by works of Torah no one will be justified Tzaddic.” Galatians 2:16

It is important to note that the Hebrew word “Tzaddic,” also means charitable, and is used in the Middle Greek, and Aramaic reflexive tenses. “We, who are Jews by nature and not deviants from among the ethnics, who know that a person is not made charitable, by works of Torah but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may made charitable by faith in Christ and not by works of Torah, because by works of Torah no one will be made charitable.” Galatians 2:16

If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is on earth. You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in importance. You have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. Colossians 3:9-10

St. Paul speaks of a literal death. He speaks as one who has seen a physical, literal death. He also speaks of each person undergoing this death. We go back to that hymn of Colossians.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions, principalities or powers; all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.

This person, the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, is the person who undergoes baptism at the hands of John the baptist, and in the process faces real death. He is both part of the Trinity, coming before all of creation, and truly man, able to experience real death. Jesus is the leader, undergoing the test first, himself, so that we might follow, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Psalm 23, Luke 1:79 He does not lead us to death, but through death and into new life, a life where, having experienced death itself, we are able to see the suffering of others.

This is why the short ending of St. Mark is the original ending.

The young man told them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. Go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” They went out and fled the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


Of course, if they told nobody and this is the end of the story, how do we know the story? We died with Christ and rose with Christ. We were physically present when Christ died. That is how we know. Now we put on the new person, having undergone the near death experience ourselves. Now, we know what it is like to die, to suffer, as others suffer. Knowing that suffering, God charges us, as individuals, and as a Christian community, to bring our rising to others. That is what St. Paul is all about, and that is what the Gospels are all about.


[i] Into the Abyss of Suffering, Kenneth R. Overberg, p 37


We are pro-life just so long as it is convenient

At our Cathedral in Reno Nevada there was an interesting debate between a person who identified with the Tea Party and a more progressive person. The Tea Party Person began by discussing with another teacher, what he perceives to be the virtues of vouchers for public education. Yes, the Tea Party folk, who opposed bussing in the ‘70s, now want to promote busing their children to the school of their choice, so their children don’t have to sit next to poor children in the public schools.

We go to school to learn how to read, much as people did 3300 years ago.
We go to school to learn how to read, much as people did 3300 years ago.

The progressive felt the urge to point out “Resource capital, including parent education, parent income, and educational items in the home, was most predictive of academic performance.” This according to Ronald L. Mullis Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA, Richard Rathge North Dakota State University, Fargo, USA, and Ann K. Mullis Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA. Which school the child attended was not a major variable.

The progressive also felt the urge to relate how his father was a wiz in mathematics, graduating from an Auto Mechanics tech school in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Summa Cum Laud. This gave the progressive an advantage when studying that class in school.

Should this voucher system come in, the effect would be, middle class and upper class students, those with parents knowing the material, would bus themselves to the better schools. Lower income students, those without parents knowing the material, would not be accepted into these schools, so would remain in the inner city schools. The nation would become more racially and economically paralyzed, which is the true goal of the Tea Party movement, not pro-life.

This being the metropolitan area of Reno/Sparks, the progressive pointed out how McQueen High School is the regional powerhouse in football. All the quality players would want to attend McQueen High. The other players would have to settle for the rest. The decidedly second string and lower players would have to settle for Sparks High where they would have no chance of receiving the high quality coaching necessary to become quality players, have a winning season, or more important, receive a football scholarship.

The question our tea party representative could not answer, was how this disadvantage relates to the three “R”s” literature, language arts, and the logic of mathematics. The best students would attend Washoe High School and the rest would attend the rest.

The discussion then switched as the progressive noted how he just donated a hundred dollars in groceries recently purchased at Wal-Mart by a member of how family. In his home there is a family feud as the progressive opposes purchasing items at that store because of Wal-Mart’s human rights record. The progressive noted the 1,239 who died in the building collapse and the 112 who died in a fire this past year, and how Wal-Mart blocked safety provisions in its factories. He also noted there are other cases where Wal-Mart factories in Bangladesh have had fires and other catastrophes.

The Tea Party representative argued that he did value human rights, but sometimes it is inconvenient to do so.Elie Wiesel had the opportunity to interview the distinguished French Catholic author Francois Mauriac. In the course of the interview Mauriac spoke about his love for Jesus and his saving  death on the cross, the standard Christian verbiage about Catholic faith. Wiesel explains what happened next.

Giving in to an angry impulse, he closed his notebook and rose. “Sir, you speak of Christ. Christians love to speak of him. The passion of Christ, the agony of Christ, the death of Christ. In your religion, that is all you speak of. Well, I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six six million times more, than Christ on the cross. Can you understand that, sir? We don’t speak about them.”

Of evil he said, “I think that evil has many faces, but I would say that all of these haves have masks, and beneath the mask there is indifference. That is what all the faces of evil have in common: indifference.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

All people go to God in need, for help and calm and foot they plead.

That sickness, guilt and death may cease, all, Christians and Pagans pray for peace.

Some turn to God in God’s need and dread, a God poor, despised, without roof or bread.

By sin’s harm weakened and by death distressed, Christians stand steadfast by their God oppressed.

Other factors apply. The Tea Party representative argued that Wal-Mart did not kill all these thousands of people. Their supplier did, and they were just letting the market decide where they purchased their goods. They were not responsible. The Progressive pointed out that the market is not a thing, and properly speaking does not exist.

He related how the Tea Party representative was positing a super natural force capable of thought, it decides things, “Divine,” is the Latin word, who is in charge, who dominates the economy, (the Latin word is Dominus and is a name for God), and who cares about its decisions, “Theos,” is the Greek word. He was positing idolatry and in a Catholic Church.

The progressive also related that Wall-Mart is accountable for holding its suppliers accountable for their actions. If they do not, and they did not, people who shop at Wall-Mart are accountable to God for holding Wall-Mart accountable. Not doing so is a grave matter. If they have alternatives, it is willingly agreed to. If they know about Wall-Mart’s decision, it is with full knowledge.

The Tea Party representative changed the conversation, arguing that progressives do not like Wal-Mart because they are against unions. The Progressive countered how interesting it is that he, as a Tea Party Representative claims to be pro-life, but how the Union, who has no pro-life stand is standing up for workers in third world countries, who will not be unionized, so they can have dignified lives, but the Tea Party is making excuses for not doing so. The unions hold Costco out as an example about how to do it right, but they are only 15% union. Average pay for a cashier, Walmart, $8.53, COSTCO, $15.60. We need look no longer for the issue.

The Progressive also related how One Walmart’s Low Wages Could Cost Taxpayers $900,000 Per Year. There are four Wall-Mart stores in the Reno-Sparks metropolitan area, which means the Tea Party representative s paying part of the $3.6 million dollars Wall-Mart costs the tax payers in Reno Sparks alone.

The Tea Party representative argued that other stores also pay law wages. To this the progressive argued how the Unions fight hard to promote life for workers who are not members and likely will never be members. He, a person who claims to be staunchly pro-life comes up with nothing but excuses for corporate bad behavior. He also related that we should not allow abortion because we might not catch all the women choosing to have one.

We should not allow rape, burglary, and other crimes because we might not catch all the people engaging in these crimes. He concluded by relating how the Union fights for human rights, while the Tea Party fights to find excuses.

The labor unions, which do not claim to be pro-life travel thousands of miles to promote the lives of people who cannot help them in return. Pro-life people cannot travel an extra four miles, ten minutes, to shop at a store with ethics. For pro-life people, saving lives means two leisurely walks each year, carrying multi -ounce signs, around a Truckee Meadow. For Union people, it often means getting sprayed with tear-gas.

The conservatives accept Torah and Gospel except when it is inconvenient. Unions do not except Torah and Gospel as the law of the land, although they very much accept the Torah and Gospel law of love and solidarity as what the law of the land should be all about.The Tea Party and the pro-life movement are pro-life, so long as it is convenient, and that is just not good enough.

We need a faith that stands for God when it is inconvenient, when God suffers in the person of the people dying in Bangladesh, in the sweatshops of China and the third world, and in the chicken processing plants like in Hamlet North Carolina, or the Triangle Factory in New York. That clearly is not the conservative movement in America.