As I write this, my husband and I are actively searching for a church to call home. Again.
In the nearly six years we’ve been married, we’ve moved around quite a bit, and with each move we get to find a new church home. I say “get to” because I try to look at this task as an opportunity rather than a chore. But this past weekend, as we sat among sixty or so worshipers scattered throughout a large beautiful sanctuary, I caught myself cringing when the pastor encouraged us to stand up and greet one another in the name of the Lord.
I realize cringing should not be my first reaction to such an invitation—for it’s a time when strangers greet one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and loved ones greet loved ones in the name of their Savior. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s at this time in the worship service when I, as a visitor, often make a crucial decision: to visit or not to visit again.
While the pastor made his way past us and down the long center aisle, my husband and I turned to shake hands with the family of three sitting behind us and shared God’s peace, which, in reality, was a mixture of polite smiles and mumbled greetings of “Good morning” and “Peace be with you.” We then began that all-too familiar and awkward dance—the one where we shuffle toward the aisle, look up and realize everyone else is in the back, stop, turn around, and scooch back to our seats. And wait.
Is it safe to say that an awkward and prolonged sharing of God’s peace often leaves a strong and somewhat negative impression on visitors? It does on this visitor!
But if there’s anything I know about the Divine Service, it’s that it’s nothing if not rooted in Scripture, rich with history, and incredibly intentional. So as I stood in the pew, awkwardly thumbing through my bulletin while waiting for the pastor to return to the front, I decided I’d do some homework to better understand why we share God’s peace and how it’s different from what has become more of a “Holy Howdy” in many churches.
Thanks to some wonderfully resourceful co-workers and the insight of Dr. Kent Burreson, Professor of Systematic Theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I found the answers to my questions about the history, meaning, and reasons for the sharing of God’s peace. Hope you find them as interesting as I did. (Professor Burreson’s replies in italics)
First, the basics: How and why do we share God’s peace?
We share God’s peace by saying, “Peace be with you,” and we do so as “a sign of reconciliation and of the unity of the Sprit in the bond of peace” (Lutheran Service Book, p. 159).
What are we really saying when we say “Peace be with you”?
On the basis of John 20:19–23, Jesus’ appearance to His disciples after His resurrection, we are saying that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we, His followers, are reconciled to God and so reconciled to one another. There is no hatred within the Body of Christ, but only the peace of God in Christ that overcomes all human hostility, conflict, and aggression. We cannot perceive a sister or brother in Christ from a position of hostility or anger when we have spoken “peace be with you,” for we are speaking the very words that Christ spoke to His disciples who had betrayed and abandoned Him during His passion. If Christ was at peace with them, so He is at peace with us, and we likewise are at peace with one another. The sharing of the peace is, finally, a call to reconcile with anyone in the Body of Christ with whom you are in conflict or against whom you are hostile. In order to pray in unity and to receive the Supper of the Lord as one, we should be fully reconciled with one another and share the peace accordingly with one another.
Where in Scripture does God teach us about the sharing of peace?
In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (vv. 22–24). And, later, Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1–3). (From The Lutheran Study Bible, study notes)
The sharing of the peace is the way that the church has historically, ritually enacted Christ’s command to be reconciled to one another. In Mark 9:50, Jesus calls the disciples to be at peace with one another. This is no idle desire on the Lord’s part. Paul recognized that the rule and reign of God was one of peace in Jesus, as he says in Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Concerning the passage from Matthew 5, is it saying I should refrain from partaking in Holy Communion if I have a strained relationship with a fellow believer? Is the sharing of God’s peace the time in which to reconcile a bad relationship?
It could be. As we currently practice the sharing of the peace ritually in most congregations it wouldn’t allow for that possibility. The task of reconciliation takes time and the sharing of the peace is usually only several minutes long, which wouldn’t allow for such reconciliation to take place. In order for it to be the place where such reconciliation could happen, the sharing of the peace would have to be considerably longer, other things would have to take place at that time [not everyone would need space to reconcile], the congregation would have to be formed to make use of that space to reconcile, and it probably presumes more of a household model of worship in which how long things take is simply the way the household operates. With our current time restrictions on worship, we don’t practice that kind of worship model. But our current ritual practice amid its time constraints could allow the baptized to indicate to another member of the assembly that something is amiss in their relationship and they’d like to take the time to bring healing to their relationship through Christ’s peace. Such a gesture would initiate the process for reconciliation that could be guided by the pastor or another equipped member of the congregation outside of worship.
When did the practice of sharing God’s peace—in general and in the worship service—originate?
It is one of the earliest elements of Christian worship in both the eastern and western churches. Paul refers to greeting one another with a holy kiss. It appears that this holy kiss was translated into the church’s practice of the kiss of peace in the divine service. Justin Martyr, around 150 AD, refers to the greeting with a kiss following the prayers and before preparation for the Lord’s Supper. Tertullian and other church fathers prior to the fourth century refer to the kiss of peace, Tertullian referring to it as a seal of the church’s prayers and as an expression of the joy of life.
How was the sharing of God’s peace originally practiced?
“In the early Christian communities . . . the faithful who would partake of the Sacrament exchanged the kiss of peace, a full-bodied kiss on the mouth, men to men and women to women. This was an outward sign of the love and reconciliation that now existed among the faithful before the Liturgy of the Sacrament, a kiss the faithful were able to give because of the freedom of the Gospel. This was not a cultural phenomenon . . . for even in this culture this would have seemed unusual, but the Gospel gave them the freedom to do this” (From Heaven on Earth, pp. 25, 204).
Eventually the kiss on the mouth, which was most likely shared only with those standing immediately in one’s vicinity (men and women/children on opposite sides of the nave), became a stylized thing, probably at the instigation of cultural norms. For example, in the Coptic church today people touch their fingers to their lips and then touch their fingertips to another’s fingertips. In this way the “kiss” of peace is exchanged.
In what other ways have you seen the sharing of God’s peace practiced in today’s churches? Do you have thoughts on the proper way to share God’s peace in twenty-first century America?
In some Byzantine Orthodox churches the kiss is exchanged on the cheeks. In some churches the hand is kissed or people merely bow to one another. In most Protestant churches in the United States a handshake or hug is the most common way to physically express the exchange of peace. In today’s world one needs to respect the personal space of another. Yet, there should be some physical gesture that communicates the peace we share with one another in Christ, a peace that includes our bodily interactions. The stylized approaches of the Orthodox churches allow for retaining evocations of the Kiss without actually kissing another baptized person on the mouth.
How would you respond to people who often feel uncomfortable during the sharing of God’s peace— that it resembles more of a drawn-out Holy Howdy? (It’s okay if you say, “You gotta get over it.” I’d understand!)
This would not have been an issue in the earliest periods of the church’s life, as any visitors would have left the divine service before this point. That is probably not possible nor necessarily desirable in today’s unchurched world. For visitors, two things are important. I think it is important to make them aware of the fact that in many ways the remainder of the service is “family time,” that is, the celebration of the meal of the family of the church and the exchange of the peace is a time to express to one another the peace that we share as a family in Christ. Baptized visitors can and ought to be included in that sharing as much as possible since they are part of the extended family, even if not a part of the immediate local family. Second, unchurched visitors should be shepherded through the entire service from the beginning by a member of the congregational family. By being shepherded through the service from the beginning they can be prepared for the exchange of peace and hopefully some of the uncomfortableness of being an outsider can be mitigated, even though it won’t entirely disappear.
What else would you like us to know about the sharing of God’s peace?
The sharing of the peace expresses the bond among believers that is shared in the Lord’s Supper. We eat and drink the same food and drink and often from the same plate and cup (1 Corinthians 10). This is a bond worked by the Spirit of Christ. When we eat and drink together we proclaim together the Lord’s death until He comes (I Corinthians 11:26). It is a bond we should seek to maintain and express as fully as possible. As Paul says in Ephesians 4, “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Some concluding thoughts . . .
I think it’s amazing that the depth of Holy Scripture encourages us to forever be students of God’s Word and history. I hope, after reading this post, you can say you’ve learned something new. I know I sure did while doing my research.
That said, next Sunday, when my husband and I continue our quest to find our new church home, I am determined to approach the sharing of God’s peace with an open mind and an open heart. More important, I will participate in the sharing of God’s peace with a better understanding of why we greet one another and say, “Peace be with you.”
For the time being, however, I can’t promise I’ll be able to ignore my Shakespearean tendencies. After all, at some point, a visitor must ask themselves: to visit or not to visit again? But that’s a topic for another time.
. . . And because I can’t help myself, I have to ask: What do you think would happen in today’s churches if we reinstated the kiss of peace?!