This has been a difficult week. It all started last weekend when I began having pain in my abdomen after I would eat. The pain was intermittent and short-lived, but intense. The short bouts of pain went on for hours. It reduced me to tears every time.
At first, I thought it might just be a bad bowel movement that needed to work through my system. But, after five meals, I started to get the idea that something might be really wrong. I do have cancer all over my colon and small bowel, after all.
So I e-mailed my oncologist late Sunday afternoon to describe my symptoms. He promptly responded that I needed to go to the emergency room immediately, as he was worried about a bowel blockage. They checked me in and did a CT scan. The scan showed that I didn’t have an actual bowel blockage. But my small bowel was distended and had “intermittent tapering without a unique transition point.” Translation: the small bowel wasn’t passing waste well, resulting in decreased motility.
They admitted me to the hospital after that (I didn’t get a room until after midnight, but it was nevertheless a sweet room with a terrific view). The solution was pretty elegant – they pulled me off food for a couple days and then gradually re-introduced it, starting with liquids, then liquid foods and then soft foods. The pain abated pretty quickly once we got the bowel calmed down. In total, I was in the hospital for about four days. UT Southwestern did a terrific job. I was really impressed with the excellent care I received.
But this represented an important milestone on my cancer journey. This event indicates a real advance in my symptoms. There’s also no real fix for a functional bowel blockage for me because of how much my cancer is covering the outside of the organs. This takes surgery off the table. As a result, unless we can somehow beat back the cancer, this is very likely going to get worse and more painful. Unchecked, it could eventually kill me. How and when that might happen is a mystery.
But we do have some more tools to employ. On Tuesday, we’ll change my chemo regimen (subject to how my bowels are doing). This has changed several times over the past week, but for now, it appears that I’m going to stay on Folfiri, but add what’s called an EGFR inhibitor to the mix (EGFR stands for Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Inhibitor). What this does this mean?
EGFR activation plays an important role in tumor growth so what we’re trying to do is block it. The problem is that response rates to this therapy have been in the 30-40% range so it may or may not work. If not, there are some other things we can try that are similar.
I had a really terrific attending physician in the hospital. He’s been treating G-I cancers for 45 years. But he very bluntly laid out how colon cancers often end. Let’s just say that end-stage untreatable bowel blockages aren’t pretty. They’re often painful and messy. Many simply starve to death in the end because the cancer robs the body of nutrition. The good news is that the Palliative care team is highly confident they’ll be able to make me comfortable if it comes to that.
So I’m feeling quite a bit better. I’ll probably have to remake my diet to try to take pressure off the bowel. The goal, as always, is to maintain my weight without upsetting my digestive system. This is easier said than done and will take a lot of trial and error to get right. Everyone tolerates food differently so general guidelines are helpful, but I’ll just have to figure out what works for me. Sadly, the three meal a day structure that we build life around is probably over. I’m going to have to learn to eat small portions throughout the day. We’ll see how well I do with that.
This week, we’ll focus on the baptism of Jesus. If you remember back to the brief history of Epiphany I offered last week, the Eastern Church makes the Feast of Epiphany primarily about the Baptism of Jesus, while we, in the west, focus on the Magi.
You may also remember that Epiphany originally came about in the East as a reaction to the Egyptian worship of the sun god, Ra. In Egypt (and elsewhere), they were celebrating a light festival on January 6th so the Eastern Church, in response, developed Epiphany as a celebration of Jesus, whom they referred to as the “the Divine Sun.” How does baptism fit this?
Well, the belief from the early days of the church was that baptism wasn’t just an empty ritual that the Bible ordered the faithful to perform. Rather, the church fathers almost uniformly understood baptism to be our birth into a new kind of life, a supernatural one. As the fourteenth century mystic Nicholas Kabasilas puts it, “Birth and new birth, refashioning and seal, as well as baptism and clothing and anointing, gift, enlightening and washing, -- all signify this one thing: that the [baptismal] rite is the beginning of existence for those who are and live in accordance with God.” So, at its root, baptism marks the beginning of the spiritual life.
At our baptisms, each is illuminated inwardly with the light of Jesus through the Spirit. This illumination is essential because, according to Paul, the Gospel “is veiled to those who are perishing…the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4.3-4).
Thus the Feast of Epiphany became the “Feast of Light,” on which many baptisms took place. In fact, Gregory Nazianzus, at the end of the fourth century, wrote that Epiphany was called “the Holy Light of the Manifestations” [epiphaneion] (Orat 39). There’s a strong connection between Epiphany, light and inward illumination with the manifestation of Jesus to his people.
But there’s another aspect to Epiphany that I haven’t mentioned before. Once again, this developed in reaction to something the Eastern Church abhorred. This time, the reaction was against the so-called Gnostics. The Gnostics were making a very big deal out of the baptism of Jesus, but had a very different understanding about what this entailed. Who were these so-called Gnostics?
Let me admit that even to discuss the Gnostics in this brief forum is fraught with difficulty since any summary treatment simply won’t do justice to the topic. That said, the term “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “Gnosis” which means “personal knowledge.” The Gnostics, in general (and with all the above caveats that this is much too simplistic), believed that people needed a kind of “secret knowledge” that only they could supply. Without this secret knowledge, redemption was impossible.
We’ve always known that the Gnostics existed because of their opponents. Irenaeus, for example, crafted his great work Adversus Heresis in the second century, primarily to refute their thinking, claiming stridently that they had departed from the teachings of the Apostles. Irenaeus claims that since he was a disciple of the martyr Polycarp and since Polycarp knew the Apostle John personally, that the apostolic teaching was preserved in the unbroken line of Bishops that goes all the way back to the Apostles themselves. This is why apostolic succession is important – we’re trying to preserve what the Apostles actually taught about Jesus, not invent our own fairy tales about it.
We also know about the Gnostics from one of the great finds of the twentieth century, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in the Egyptian desert in 1945. This find represents a treasure trove of Gnostic primary texts. As it turns out, after almost 75 years of scholarly review, it appears that Irenaeus had a reasonable, albeit hostile, understanding of what various Gnostic groups were saying.
The Gnostics couldn’t trace their lineage all the way back to the Apostles (even though they eagerly employed their writings, especially the Gospel of John), and, as a result, had very different understandings of things. One of their central disagreements with the Church was that they believed Jesus and Christ were two separate beings. This separation of Christ and Jesus became central to their alternative understanding of what happened at Jesus’ baptism.
Many Gnostics taught that Jesus was just a man. And, well, there’s some evidence for that in the Gospels, isn’t there. Jesus gets tired. He weeps. He doesn’t know things about the future sometimes. And, let’s face it, before Jesus’ baptism, there’s no evidence that he had any special powers of healing or prophecy. All his powers seem to commence after the baptism is done.
So, what happens at Jesus’ baptism? Well, since our Gospel text this week covers Jesus’ baptism in just two verses, here’s how Luke tells it:
“Now when all the people were baptized [by John] and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luk 3.21-22).
The Gnostics’ take was that although Jesus was just a normal (but very good) human being, something really changed after his baptism. This, in part, follows from Luke’s emphasis that the coming of the Spirit on Jesus takes place after the baptism had already taken place.
What happens? Well, to the Gnostics, Jesus was anointed by Christ when the Holy Spirit comes in a form that appears like a dove. Since Christ in Greek literally means “the anointed one,” what the baptism represented to the Gnostics was the joining of a human and a heavenly reality (many Gnostics believed we all have a divine “double” in heaven). In short, Jesus became divine at his baptism, but not before. Thereafter, Jesus is able to do miracles and teaches in a way that confounds even his learned adversaries.
Now, as I suggested above, there’s endless variation on what this means. Let me very briefly give you just a taste of the different flavors of interpretation (I’m taking these primarily from Irenaeus as recounted by Everett Ferguson):
· The Certinthians understood that the Baptism represented a change in Jesus’ metaphysical state
· The Sethians understood the human Jesus was “adopted” by the divine Christ
· The Valentianians taught that the Christ passed through Mary “like water” (note the baptismal tie) and that the Savior descended on him from the heavenly pleroma.
· The followers of Marcus thought beings called Aeons generated Jesus, while the seed of the Father came on him at his baptism.
These understanding give the Gnostics a very good answer to the central problem that Jesus’ baptism presents for orthodox Christians: why does the supposedly sinless Jesus need to be baptized by John’s baptism which is for “the remission of sins?”
In prior posts, I’ve answered this simply by following St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the fourth century, who said, “If baptism is for our sake, a pattern has been established for us.” (On the Sacraments, 1.15.16). Jesus’ baptism not only provides the pattern for our own baptisms (note the centrality of water, prayer and the presence of the Triune God), but also enables us to identify, and ultimately, unite with Jesus.
That’s all nice, but the Gnostics’ answer was simpler: Jesus was baptized because, like all humans, he needed to be baptized. Since Jesus was just a man, he was good, but not sinless. Jesus becomes something special after he’s anointed with the heavenly Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The orthodox were horrified by this because it implied that Jesus wasn’t fully God. At best, Jesus became a subordinate demi-god with nifty powers on earth. And, as the church fathers would point out, if Jesus wasn’t fully God, it’s hard to understand how his crucifixion and resurrection could bring about our redemption.
In fact, Luke himself interprets our Gospel text for us this week via our Epistle text in Acts (10.34-38). (Remember, almost all scholars agree that Luke wrote both his Gospel and the book of Acts.) In Acts, Luke says the following:
“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (10.35-38).
So, according to Luke, Jesus wasn’t anointed with Christ, as the Gnostics asserted. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and power. Jesus does some nifty things while on earth, but this would have no real effect on solving the central human dilemmas of sin and death if he’s not God.
This is why we confess in the Creed that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made.” Jesus wasn’t some creature that God adopted to spread special knowledge, but was always and fully God. Thus the orthodox and the Gnostics would part ways over this.
This is also one reason I’m so insistent that the sacramental life of the church ought to be central for us. The sacraments almost always employ tangible earthly items (like water and oil at baptism or bread and wine at the Eucharist), but are transformed physically with a new spiritual reality.
In a sense, baptism is the central thing we do as a community because the covenant we adopt together at our baptisms defines what it is that we believe as a community and how it is that we’re going to live together. Together, we’re going to believe in the eternal triune God; we’re going to continue in the apostles’ teaching; we’re going to relate to each other within the one, holy catholic and apostolic church; we’re going to look forward to resurrection as our hope; we’re going to love our neighbors as best we can; we’re going to strive for justice and peace in the world and we’re going to eschew and root out evil wherever we might find it. Hopefully, these sound like familiar themes from my writing – the themes come right out of our baptismal covenant that we all share.
This may seem like a marginally interesting tale from the dustbin of history, but it has great relevance for us today. I say this because our culture is informed through and through with gnostic beliefs, albeit shorn of its mythological cosmology. It’s also affecting the church in tangible ways.
Today, when someone tells me that they’re “spiritual, but not religious,” this is thoroughly Gnostic. When churches are led by leaders who have no clue what the apostolic teaching actually was and run roughshod over the sacraments, this is thoroughly, albeit unintentionally, gnostic. The Gnostics wanted to help their followers reach God without all the annoying baggage the Church heaped on them. They offered an easier, more popular way. Our consumer approach to religion is full of it.
Here’s how Princeton’s Elaine Paigels, probably the best-known scholar of Gnosticism today, describes it. It might sound familiar:
“These so-called gnostics, then, did not share a single ideology or belong to a specific group; not all, in fact, were Christians. Those who did identify themselves as Christians included a wide variety of people who chose to follow their faith in their own way. Many gnostic Christians were members of Christian congregations, including both lay people and members of the clergy, who wanted no more than to supplement the teaching and worship common to all Christians with deeper insights derived from their own spiritual experience. Many gnostics also followed certain spiritual teachers who promised to initiate them into deeper mysteries of the faith” (Adam, Eve and the Serpent, 60).
Paigels might be describing people who lived long ago, but it would also well describe a whole lot of people today. Our culture may be very different, but gnostic ideas are popular because they promise release from having to believe or do anything in particular.
As we’ve already seen from our Epistle and Gospel texts, all of our texts this week are simply in service of trying to explain Jesus’ baptism. Every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary employs the same texts but just swaps out the Gospel reading. So, since we’re in Luke this year, one of the things that might be helpful is to discuss Luke’s unique perspective on Jesus’ baptism. I’m following Everett Ferguson on this, who has written the most definitive treatment on the baptismal practices of the early church.
According to Ferguson, Luke has several unique things that he stresses:
· Unlike all the other accounts, Luke has Jesus praying at his baptism when the Spirit comes on him. Jesus’ prayer clearly occurs after his baptism since the Greek verb for prayer is in present tense while the word for baptize is an aorist passive participle, suggesting it already had happened. The importance of this is that Jesus’ prayer is not the prayer of a penitent, suggesting the Gnostics were wrong to say that Jesus “needed” to be baptized because he was a sinful man.
· As a result, Luke is unique in having the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus while he was praying.
· Luke adds the descriptive word “bodily form” to the dove which descends on Jesus. Unlike other accounts, Luke’s emphasis is on the appearance of the Spirit, not just that the descent was like a dove. Once again, there’s no mention of the descent of the “Christ.”
Luke’s description is similar to Matthew and Mark’s account in that there’s a voice from heaven, a rending of heaven and a dove-like figure that descends. This has led to centuries of discussion on what the dove is supposed to represent. Some see ties to creation, to Noah’s flood and to the Exodus among other theories.
But what’s central is that all three persons of the Trinity appear in distinct, but related ways in this scene. Thus the baptism of Jesus plays a central role in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. God has to be triune since the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all play distinct roles. After all, we hear the Father’s voice out of heaven; the Spirit descends and Jesus is baptized. Yet we believe that all three persons are co-eternally and co-equally God. They’re simply playing different roles. (The word "Person" that we use for Father, Son and Holy Spirit comes from the Latin, "persona," which was the word for the masks actors would wear in performing different roles in a play.) By the way, this is why we insist that one has to be baptized in water using the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” to have a valid baptism.
What the baptism and the presence of the triune God bring is the opportunity for a new relationship between God and humankind. To say it simpler, it anticipates the inauguration of the New Covenant, a covenant that will include all people, not just Israel.
This is the point of our Psalm (Ps 89) for this week. The Psalmist emphasizes the eternal covenant that God made in the past with David:
“I will sing of your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, forever/with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love [hesed] is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, ‘I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: I will establish your descendants forever and build your throne for all generations” (89.1-4).
The words “loyal love” are a translation of the single Hebrew word “hesed.” It’s an essential word in the Hebrew Bible, as it implies the covenantal love that God has for his people. Specifically, in this case, the Psalmist is recounting the so-called Davidic Covenant that someone from the line of David would rule perpetually.
Jesus, of course, is acting as the “new David” at his baptism. Jesus becomes the fulfillment of the promises of the Davidic covenant when he sits down at the right hand of God and rules over the creation. This is why the Psalmist can have God cry out:
“Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him [David]/and my covenant with him will stand firm. I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure” (89.28-29).
The baptism of Jesus concludes with the heavens opening and the voice of the Father bellowing out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luk 3.22). From a literary perspective, this marks a transition point in Luke’s gospel away from the early narratives of Jesus’ early life and toward his public ministry. I say this is a literary marker because the next time the heavens open and we hear the voice of the Father (at the Transfiguration), this marks the point where Jesus starts heading toward Jerusalem.
Most believe that the words the Father speaks are a combination of Ps 2.7 (“you are my Son”) and Isa 42.1 (“with whom I am well pleased”). Since Isa 42 is our OT text this week, this deserves some comment. The following is the text:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42.1-2).
This reading represents the first of the so-called servant songs in Isaiah. As usual, with the servant songs, there’s a huge debate on who the servant is. I’ll keep it simple and just say that Christians have always read the servant as Jesus.
In fact, Christians read a Trinitarian understanding of God into the text. After all, the “I” of the text can be read as the Father, the servant as Jesus and the “spirit” that the Father puts on Jesus as the Holy Spirit. Thus it’s obvious why this text is always the OT text for the first Sunday after Epiphany.
But, is the Christian reading valid? After all, the Greek Septuagint’s translation of Isa 42.1 explicitly names “Jacob” as the servant. Augustine cleverly dances around this problem by saying that the servant still must be Jesus because “he took the flesh of the line of Jacob” (City of God, 20.30). I think that's a bit of stretch, personally, but it's well-established in the tradition.
The middle of the reading includes one of the really pivotal texts in the Hebrew Bible:
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42.6-7).
This defines what Israel’s vocation was. God didn’t choose Israel as his elect nation because they were bigger or better than other nations. He chose them to be a light to other nations, that by their faithfulness to Torah, all nations would be drawn to the one true God.
God embeds their vocation in a covenant, which is a kind of legal agreement. If Israel would be faithful and keep Torah, God would bless them beyond what they could imagine. Unfortunately, Israel was not faithful to Torah and suffered the deprivations of the exile as a result.
Thus, as the public ministry of Jesus commences at his baptism, what he’s doing is renewing the covenant with his people and broadening it out to include the Gentiles. He’ll open the eyes of the blind and free those chained to sin. Now, the covenant will be open to whomever believes.
As a result, baptism quickly came to be associated with the New Covenant in a Christian context. We, of course, practice this by rehearsing together our own baptismal covenant every time someone is baptized. When the newly baptized join the Christian community, they’re joining a covenant community
So, this week, we’ve seen how easy it is to co-opt the text of the Bible to support one’s own purposes. As countless interpreters through the years have shown, you can often make the Bible say whatever you want it say. And, without experience in spotting the tricks interpreters make, it often can sound very convincing.
This is why the body of apostolic teaching is so important. It's not enough to have the Bible - the trick is reading is correctly, which is not always easy to do. Yet I also don’t think that we should just regurgitate what the church fathers taught. We live in a very different world than they do and thus interpretation has to fit our own times. And, presumably, we’ve learned a thing or two since the fourth century. Our understandings change and deepen - this is what makes interpretation difficult.
Thus we must take care, as our baptismal covenant puts it, “to continue in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” (BCP, P. 417). This means making a commitment to teaching what the apostles did (summarized in the creed), to living in community as the apostles did (sharing our goods and looking out for each other), to the sacraments and to the liturgy.
This is what living the Christian life entails. Jesus’ baptism and the ministry that follows make it all possible.