Gospel in a Handshake

After a worship service a couple of years ago, a staff person (a delightful Peruvian woman who greets everyone, both first time attendees and dearly loved regulars, with a warm South American hug) was handed a note,

“Dear Friends,
on Sunday during the Passing of the Peace, we wonder:
How do we pass the peace?
What do we say?
What do we need to do?
May I suggest that verbally showing an example would be helpful? Maybe modeling something like, ‘The peace of the Lord be with you,’ and in reply, ‘And also with you.’
Your thoughts and ideas are appreciated on how to explain what to do and say in the Passing of the Peace. Thanks! And God bless you!

The note won points for its congeniality. You might even say the note about passing the peace was itself a kind of passing the peace.

Like with many of the classic worship elements, we retrofitted our worship service to include the “passing of the peace.” For twenty years, our church simply invited people to participate in what we called the “meet and greet” time. It was the moment in the service we sent students to age appropriate classes. There was efficiency to it. An extended greeting time gave parents a moment to walk children to their classes, take a quick bathroom break, or get the blood flowing so they could endure a sermon. If there was going to be a noisy interlude anyway, why not leverage it to make relational connections, letting the ushers and greeters work their hospitality magic?

But eventually we reconsidered. We were increasing the frequency of Eucharist; why not reconsider the Eucharistic elements as well? Why merely shake hands when you can pass God’s peace?

The early church placed this in the liturgy for wise theological reasons. Passing the peace of Christ was a way to concretely live the Sermon on the Mount. We extend forgiveness and grace to members of the community around us. In the third century, Eastern Orthodox congregations had a deacon call aloud at this point in the service, “Is there any one that keepeth aught against his fellow?”

Can you imagine?

Imagine a married couple fighting on the way to church. Arguing in the car, they’re not really arguing about what they’re arguing about. They’re not really angry about a bookkeeping dispute or yet another meal of leftovers. They’re actually giving voice to their anxiety about their children’s well-being in an increasingly unsafe world, or the haunting fear that their wedding day dreams are indiscernibly fading into the same tedium they regularly witness in the dreary reality of their aging parents. So, they grumble about a curt remark from yesterday or a look from this morning. And then they come to church. And someone invites them, in an ancient practice, to pass each other the peace of Christ.

On certain Sundays, there is nothing more essential for a church to do than to exercise this worship treasure. A few months ago, after someone in another state walked onto a high school campus and opened fire, killing dozens of teenagers and staff, one of our worship leaders used the following frame to invite us to pass the peace:

We learned again this week that the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. This weekend we had a seminar about refugees who live in United Nations camps for years with little hope of getting free. This week a gunman walked into a school and started shooting. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. Students are supposed to worry about algebra and grammar, not bullets. Teachers are supposed to worry about lesson plans and after school events, not gunmen terrorizing hallways.

The Bible promises us a day is coming. It will be a day when things are the way they’re supposed to be. Gunmen will no longer threaten students and teachers. Refugees will no longer rot in forgotten camps. On that day, the peace of God will cover the cosmos. In longing for that day, in hope for that day, in a pledge to speed that day, let us do what Christians have done for centuries and say to each other, “The Peace of Christ be with you.”

As you can imagine, to participate that morning in this simplest act of worship was to know we were doing something holy. We all felt a stab of grief. And grace. And then we passed the peace as if our lives depended on it.

In one way, this practice is a kind of prayer. For us and the entire world. We are praying that Christ would be our peace. Knowing after all, we don’t make peace; we receive it. My friend Neal once framed this ancient practice in his typically thoughtful way:

All through his ministry Jesus encountered storms, storms of anxiety and relational chaos or scary winds and waves. Each time he said one word that brought healing and calm. “Peace.” Today each of us is experiencing a kind of storm inside. In the face of such storms, and because of Jesus, would you turn to one another and say “Peace. The peace of Christ be with you.”

I was overwhelmed when I heard it. How did he know? How did he know that just then I needed to experience the entire gospel in a handshake?

Perhaps passing the peace seems a quaint, overly simplistic relic from a bygone era.

The actual practice of passing the peace, ironically, is often chaotic. People wander. Or make impromptu adaptations of the practice, turning to each other and saying, “What’s up?” Some make awkward comments; others stand in self-conscious silence. But at other times, in the aftermath of a school shooting or a sermon on welcoming refugees, passing the peace embodies the entire gospel. It is the gospel in a handshake.

(Note, this blog is based on excerpts from an upcoming book by the author tentatively titled Framing Worship for Mission.)

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