Over the next three weeks we will be talking in this short series for the Easter Season about Awakening: Awaking to our ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ. Awakening to the nourishment we receive for this ongoing work through the sacrament of Holy Communion. And Awakening to what it means to live fully as baptized members of Christian community.
Are we fully awake in our practice of Christian discipleship? Or are there some things we still need to work on?
It’s a pattern I have observed in United Methodist congregations across the connection. Somewhere near the start of worship, perhaps after the prelude, the pastor or another worship leader stands and greets the gathered worshiping community with an enthusiastic “Good Morning!” Then he or she invites those in the congregation to greet their neighbors, welcome their visitors, and “pass the peace of Christ.”
Passing the peace of Christ is part of the weekly worship ritual in many United Methodist congregations. Discipleship Ministries has even created a short video from the “Chuck Knows Church” series on passing the peace in worship.
In some churches, the invitation to pass the peace functions primarily as an extended time of congregational greeting. In one church, people turn to the people seated immediately around them and say “Good Morning,” shake hands, or even embrace their neighbors. In another church, people leave their pews and wander around the sanctuary greeting their fellow worshipers with handshakes and hugs until the pastor or another worship leader is able to regain control of the service. And in many churches, the people actually do greet one another with words specifically about peace:
Peace be with you.
And also with you.
But as we begin the work of Easter Awakening it is important for us to be reminded that sharing the peace of Christ is not just a fancy way to invite people to greet one another in worship.
Sharing the peace is part of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.
To use the title of a Debbie Reynolds movie, as followers of Jesus Christ we might say of our ritual of passing the peace that “It Started with a Kiss.” We’ve all observed our European brothers and sisters greeting one another with kisses on each cheek, right? And we’ve witnessed the French performing the “faire la bise,” in which the two people quickly touch cheeks on each side, but actually kiss the air, not the cheeks. Our neighbors across the pond all do this, although it is more common in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, and especially Mediterranean cultures, than in northern Europe.
This practice of greeting with a kiss to each cheek is not only widespread and common in many cultures in our day and time. It is a practice that goes very far back in human history.
Cheek kissing was a common form of greeting in the ancient Mediterranean world, including among our Jewish and Christian forebears. The New Testament attests to the early Christian community taking this common practice and giving it new meaning, much in the way they took objects common to daily life (wine, bread, water) and attaching ritual meaning to them, rendering the sacramental out of what once was profane. The kiss of peace or passing of peace fits into this category. It is not a sacrament. But neither is it simply a form of ordinary secular greeting when it is shared in the context of Christian community.
In the New Testament writings of Paul, we read these familiar words: “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12) or “Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss (1 Thessalonians 5:6). In I Peter 5:14, it is phrased in a slightly different way: “Greet one another with a kiss of love.”
Candler School of Theology professor Ed Phillips is perhaps the world’s foremost authority on the subject of holy kissing. It was the focus of his doctoral dissertation. Under the topic “Holy Kiss” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, 267-268), Dr. Phillips shares the history of this ritual act, which I will here summarize.
The ritual kiss actually functions in many different religious groups, from the ancient world to the modern day. Artwork throughout human recorded history has included scenes of people blowing kisses to the gods. Icons in the Eastern orthodox tradition show enormous wear from the generations of worshipers who expressed adoration by kissing these holy objects.
The practice of kissing was likely initiated by the disciples of Jesus, who offered their ritual sign of peace and reconciliation not to the gods, but to one another. Phillips says that in the Jewish world, male kissing was normally limited to family members. The fact that the disciples adopted this practice among persons, both male and female, who were not related by blood signified a new kind of family made by the covenant with Christ. Likewise, Judas’s use of the kiss as a sign of betrayal suggests that the kiss of peace was an expected greeting in the burgeoning community of Christ. Similarly, Phillips notes in his article that the greeting of “Peace be with you,” combined with “breathing on them” in today’s text from the Gospel of John, may in fact allude to this same practice. Was the “breathing” actually an air kiss? An ancient “faire la bise” from Jesus to his frightened disciples?
By the second and third centuries, the kiss of peace had evolved from being a way of greeting brothers and sisters in Christ to a ritual act of worship. At this point in history, the kiss was offered in conclusion to a time of prayer. But by the fourth and fifth centuries the practice had become associated with the ritual of the Eucharist. This continued until the end of the first millennium, by which time the practice had declined as a congregational act, and was instead picked up as a form of adoration by individuals by the kissing of objects: altars, statues, church doors, special tablets. While the kissing of holy objects, especially icons, continues in the eastern tradition even today, in the west, the practice of holy kissing was dropped entirely by the sixteenth century. It never emerged as a practice among Protestant Reformers.
It was not until the twentieth century, after Vatican II, that this ancient ritual practice began to re-awakened. But it emerged in a new form. In most churches today there is no kissing involved. Rather, we exchange handshakes or hugs instead of kisses. And we call it an “exchange of peace.”
In the United Methodist tradition, the passing of peace serves as a reminder that those who came to the table are called to be reconciled with their neighbors. We retain this language in our current eucharistic prayer in the United Methodist Church, for example, in the invitation to the table for "A Service of Word and Table I": “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.” After we offer our corporate prayer of confession and are pardoned, we are invited to immediately turn and express signs of God’s peace to those around us.
I wonder, though, how many of our congregations take this call to be at peace with our neighbors seriously. Especially since in many congregations, the sharing of God’s peace has been eliminated from the service of Holy Communion and reassigned to the time of greeting at the opening of the service. And to make matters even more complicated, this newer practice of greeting one another with words of peace at the start of worship has become a matter of dispute, especially among congregational developers. Why? It has become an issue of hospitality, because it can make visitors feel left out. Further, it is viewed by some as an unwanted invasion on people’s personal space.
But if we can back up to the beginning, when “It Started with a Kiss,” and for the moment put these other matters aside, what is critical about the lesson for today is to realize that offering peace is our first commission from Jesus regarding what it means to be his disciples. Sharing the peace is an act of ministry. It is not a sacrament, but it is sacramental. And unlike the sacraments, it is something that all followers of Jesus are given the authority to do and are commissioned by Jesus to do. Unlike in the Roman Catholic tradition, it isn’t up to the ordained priest to give absolution. United Methodists believe it is incumbent upon us ALL to give absolution. And Jesus has given every single one of us not just a mandate to forgive, but the authority to offer forgiveness.
Consider the story for today. What do we see? People hiding. People who are literally locked in a closet, like you do when a tornado is headed your way. People who are hiding because they are afraid to live in the light of day.
It is into this scene of fear and hiding that Jesus appears and offers a Holy Kiss:
“Peace be with you.”
The good news is that Jesus Christ appears. He rises from the dead and walks directly into this place of hiding and terror as one who has not just been wounded (as he shows them his hands and side), but as one who had just literally been murdered by the very people from whom the disciples are hiding. He strolls right into their hiding place and speaks love directly into the face of their terror and hatred and fear.
And it is from this place that he gives them, and all of us, the authority to do exactly what he is doing: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
He gives us authority to offer forgiveness. He gives us a mandate to offer peace to others. He commissions us all for this work of ministry. And in doing these things, he awakens us more fully to the ministry of discipleship to which he is calling us.
Peace be with you. I am sending you as God has sent me, to go forth and minister into the midst of the fearful, the hiders, the closeted, the condemned, the ostracized, the haters and the hated. I am sending you, as God has sent me, to breathe peace into these places of darkness.
Jesus sends God’s people out into the world to do what he has done. He sets us up here to have great responsibility for one another’s care and for one another’s very lives.
So let us hear Jesus speaking his words of comfort and commission to us when he says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Let us be awakened to a renewed understanding of what it means to share the peace of Christ. Let us understand that when we offer peace to someone, it is not the same as saying “Good Morning.” It isn’t the same thing as greeting people or welcoming a visitor to worship.
This is the good news offered to us directly from Jesus! He is proclaiming power and blessing us for its distribution to the world. And he is showing us that when we do this, when we extend the hand of peace and reconciliation in Christ’s name, we offer God’s peace out of our own places of woundedness and brokenness.
We offer ourselves as part of Christ’s risen body, yes.
But we must not forget that are also a part of Christ’s wounded body. We are willing to bear the wounds of Christ not as a sign of dishonor or shame, but as a sign of who we are in the risen Lord. We have been wounded, but we have been renewed—born again—to be victorious in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is why it is so critical that we don’t come into the community of faith holding grudges. We don’t come to the table holding grudges. And we don’t go to our graves holding grudges.
No. We let all things go in the name of Jesus Christ. We speak the saving power of forgiveness through our words and actions. We come to all of these spaces and to all of God’s people, bearing the wounds of our Savior and responding not with anger, fear, and judgment, but rather, by reaching out with open hands, open hearts, and open minds to offer God’s invitation of peace and reconciliation.
As we awaken to our ministry of discipleship, let us hear Jesus speaking to us. Let us hear him calling us and commissioning us, everywhere and always, to breathe God’s reconciling love into this world.