One of my all-time favorite Christian stories is about Karl Barth. Barth was, perhaps, the most important theologian of the 20th century. He stood up to Hitler and got himself kicked out of Europe. He came to the United States where he wrote his magnum opus, his masterwork, his systematic theology. It’s called Church Dogmatics, and it’s a 14-volume work that took him 35 years to complete. It’s one of the great works of Christian history, if you’re a really big nerd.
Anyway, he was on one of his various tours to promote some edition of his life’s work, and he was asked about it by a seminary student. The student pointed out that, with a work so long, it would be difficult for people to actually follow along with it. The student asked if there was a simple, brief, even elevator-pitch-style version of his theology. Barth thought about it for a moment, and he said, “Yes, there is.” This surprised the students in the room – after all, who can sum up something so long, so fast. “Yes, there is,” Barth said, “and I learned it at my mother’s knee. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
It’s a great moment in the history of the faith, because you realize that, so often, really complicated ideas can be boiled down to simple thoughts. I mean, when you think about it, this happens really often in Christian belief, doesn’t it? I mean, think of the complicated ideas we deal with all the time in church: Jesus being born without a human father; the idea of someone who is both fully human and fully God; the concept of the Trinity where one is three and three are one. We throw around these ideas because they’re so important… yet, at the heart, while they help us to understand God, they themselves are too complicated to really get the point of our faith across. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to have a good passage to preach with a simple, catchy hook. And other times, we have the reading from 1 Peter that we did today.
I’m going to read it again, just so we can hear it. See if it makes any more sense to you this time than it did last time:
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
In three long and fairly convoluted sentences, this reading says a lot of things about a lot of things, so I want to talk about some of the highlights. First this passage dives in deep talking about the flesh and the spirit. The letters of Peter are clearly composed with the sensibilities of someone who grew up knowing Greek philosophy. The Greeks were much more into the idea of the duality of the body and soul. To them, there was a real difference. Judaism, for its part, has traditionally been more interested in the idea of nephesh, which is perhaps best translated as “the self,” meaning that it includes the totality of you, body and soul.
But Greek philosophy has shaped Christian thought more completely, particularly because of passages like this, written in Greek by Greek-speakers and shared with Greek-speakers. This passage talks about how Jesus, though he died, continued to be alive in spirit; he continued to work through those who were “in prison.”
Now, not to get too technical here, but this passage is using “prison” as a metaphor. It’s really about people who are captive to sin – as all of us are. And then the first letter of Peter talks about our earlier reading from today, having to do with Noah and the ark.
I have this theory that Noah’s Ark is actually the best-known story in the Bible, other than maybe the Christmas story. It’s on a lot of artwork, in movies, and even people who have never set foot in a church seem to know at least a little about it. This passage from 1 Peter talks about how God was patient with Noah and his children and saved the whole earth through water.
Then, the passage makes an interesting connection: it connects the waters of the flood to the waters of baptism. The letter implies that the world was wicked, so God used water to wash away the wickedness; now, in today’s world, we have the waters of baptism to wash away sin.
Again, though, the letter wants to get really technical about the whole thing, because that’s what you do when you’re a letter about theology. It states that, of course, the baptism itself is not salvific; in other words, it’s not that the waters are doing something, but rather that they represent something: an appeal to God. We are baptized, this says, because it serves as sort of a phone call to God, reminding God that we’re here, and requesting to Jesus that we would receive the benefits of his resurrection, which is the actual thing that causes us to be saved.
Are you bored yet? You’re supposed to be bored. I tried to summarize quickly, because no one (myself included) wants to actually run down all the little details of this passage, at least not in a sermon. This is a hard teaching, perhaps because it’s only three sentences. But they’re long sentences, complicated sentences – sentences you have a be a linguist of the first degree to parse and diagram and figure out. The Bible is rarely easy reading, and this is as good an example as any as to why people are sometimes loath to crack it open – it’s complicated, and it’s just a whole lot easier to have a pastor explain something in church on Sunday than it is to read it.
But the truth is, while there are a lot of difficult details in the passage, the message at the heart of it is not difficult at all. Not only that, the message at the heart of the passage is not only quite simple, it’s central to the Christian faith. In fact, while we read it all in a very difficult and mentally-exhausting passage to read, the heart of this passage is the very heart of our lives in Christ.
At the beginning of this sermon, I talked about Karl Barth, who summarized a 14-volume set of theology – his life’s work – by reciting the first lines of “Jesus Loves Me,” a children’s song. Brothers and sisters, we were given a difficult passage from 1 Peter today; a passage that uses words like “prefigured;” a passage that uses confusing sentences to try to describe complicated theological concepts; a passage that says things like, “He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,” and then starts using literal words as metaphors and using metaphors concretely. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a heavy theological task to read and interpret it, and I thank you for indulging me in the time to go through each little portion of the reading.
Yet, this passage, in and of itself, in spite of the difficult language and syntax, breaks down pretty simply. You’re welcome to look at the passage in your Bible as I go through this; it might help. In the first portion, you can strip away that bit about the righteous and unrighteous. You can also take out the parts about the flesh, and the spirit, and the prison – not to mention the details about the ark.
In the latter portion of the reading, who cares about that “prefiguring” business; take it out. It was complicated anyway, and we removed the flood earlier, so now there’s no context for it here, so go ahead and remove it, too. Next, peel away the details about the dirt and the appeal, and forget for a moment the business about “angels, authorities, and powers.” If you strip that away, move a couple words around for clarity’s sake, and you’re left with this sentence:
“Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection.” That’s it. Complicated, full of allusions to other biblical texts and to complicated theology though it was, this text is simple. Christ suffered so you could be closer to God, and you are now saved by his suffering, death, and resurrection. In other, perhaps even simpler words, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
We can easily get bogged down in the difficult parts of our faith. We can (and we should!) question, discern, wrestle, and attempt to know more. But oftentimes in life, the simplest things are the truths we can hold onto. As you begin this Lenten journey this year, hold on to this: Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved through his resurrection. May you go forth, knowing that Christ suffered to bring you to God, and you are now saved you through his resurrection. Live in that redemption, praising God for your salvation, and sharing the love of God with everyone you meet. Amen.