Peace on Earth

Cuba Gooding Jr.'s acceptance speech
Cuba Gooding Jr.’s acceptance speech

The hugger, the bone-crusher, the avoider.

Have you met these people in worship? If you’ve ever done the “passing of the peace” in worship you probably have. If you’re not sure what the “passing of the peace” is, it’s a time during the service where we stand up and greet the people around us by simply saying, “Peace be with you” or “The peace of Christ be with you” and then shaking their hand. You can respond by saying, “And also with you.” Let’s try it. Everyone stand up and turn to your neighbor and say “Peace be with you” or you can respond by saying, “And also with you.” (a moment while people shake the hands of others around them). This tradition actually goes back to the early days of the church and is embedded with deep meaning and importance. The problem is we’ve kind of forgotten that deep meaning and importance and instead some congregations have turned the “passing of the peace” into a general free-for-all. That’s where the hugger, the bone-crusher, and the avoider come in. The Hugger is the guy who can’t keep his hands to himself. He hugs with impunity! He doesn’t care if you want a hug or not, you’re getting one. The Bone-Crusher is the guy who thinks it’s a contest of strength and he grips your hand like he’s trying to turn coal into diamonds. Then there’s the Avoider. He’s the one who doesn’t look around, maybe doesn’t even get up and just as you’re about to extend your hand to him, he turns away as if he didn’t see you. There are others, too. For instance, there’s Quota Man who makes it his job to try and greet everyone in the place before the pastor calls for the next hymn. And Academy Award guy who tries to fit in as much as he can about his life until he gets cut off by the music. Think Cuba Gooding, Jr. The thing is, the passing of the peace is supposed to be a deep, meaningful act of reconciliation instead of a free-for-all. The passing of the peace is supposed to be a deep, meaningful act of reconciliation instead of a free-for-all.

It goes back to something that Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount.

He said in Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” This act of reconciliation was important to Jesus and important in the life of faith for all believers. It’s hard to come and give your full self to a God of love when you’re harboring hateful or hurtful thoughts toward someone. It’s hard to really open yourself up to the Holy Spirit if you’re concentrating on that person who hurt you. So Christ tells us to make peace as we enter into his presence. That’s part of the reason we pass the peace in worship, to offer reconciliation, if not between us and the person we’re shaking hands with, but to offer the peace that only Christ can bring to our hearts. It’s a gentle reminder of why we’re here in worship and that Christ is always open to our hurt and pain.

But what is the peace of Christ?

That’s something Paul addresses in the letter he wrote to the church at Ephesus. If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please go to Ephesians 2:14-22. Ephesians 2:14-22. We often throw around terms in worship and the church in general that to the average person would make no sense at all. That is probably true of this term, “passing of the peace.” For most of us, we think of “peace” as a state of being but it sounds more like some kind of physical object when we talk about it this way. If you had never been to church and saw this term, you might think we passed a peace pipe around in worship or there was some physical object we all had to touch. But when we read Paul’s description it makes more sense.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Christ is our peace.

That’s how Paul describes it. Christ is our peace. Because of Christ, the wall between Gentiles and Jews was torn down. Christ opened up the way to salvation for all people, not just the Jewish people. He offered the Holy Spirit to all those who believed in God. As Paul said, Christ created one new humanity out of two, bringing together both the Jews and the Gentiles, “thus making peace.” When we pass the peace in worship, we aren’t passing a physical object. We are indeed offering a state of being. We are saying to one another, whether I know you or not, whether we have a lot in common or very little, I stand with you as a brother or sister in Christ. I offer to you the gift of peace that was offered to me through the sacrifice of Jesus. That’s what it means to pass the peace. It’s a gesture of solidarity and reconciliation. It’s a gesture of solidarity and reconciliation.

Kari (the blond girl) at my 6th birthday party
Kari (the blond girl) at my 6th birthday party

There is also something very powerful about the sense of touch.

Passing the peace is more than simply a greeting, it’s a connection between people. Passing the peace is more than a greeting, it’s a connection between people. Touch shapes us and forms us in vital ways. We are literally people built for community and we bond with one another through the power of touch. It binds us and connects us in ways nothing else can. It’s why we don’t like creepy people touching us and why we seek out the touch of someone we want to be near. It’s why holding hands is one of the most intimate things two people can do. When I was around six or so, we used to play “Red Rover” for PE and if you know the rules for Red Rover you stand in two long lines opposite each other and one side at a time chants, “Red rover, red rover send someone right over” and whoever that someone is has to try to break the line. I can’t believe more kids didn’t have broken fingers from playing that game. Well, when I got to pick, I’d always choose Kari Covey, a cute, blond-haired girl in my class. I always had a little crush on her and she would come and try to break the line right next to me. She never did. The rules state (as if there was some national organization that made up playground rules) that you have to get in line where you tried to break through, so for the rest of recess, I would get to hold hands with Kari Covey. Pretty sneaky, right? Thinking back on it though, she never tried very hard to break the line. Maybe I wasn’t as sneaky as I thought I was. There is something about physical contact that is significant though. I’d never think of randomly giving a high five to some guy passing me down the street, but at a ball game when your guy just hit the ball over the fence or scored a goal or sank a vital three pointer? People are giving each other high fives all over the place. Just watch any sports game on television and notice how much physicality there is. Players jumping on each other, patting each other’s rear ends, hugging, giving each other chest bumps. It’s part of the need to build community and bond with one another. That’s why when we pass the peace we shake hands – to build a physical connection with others in worship. We are literally “joined together” as Paul says in the passage by our unity in Christ which is made stronger by our touching one another.

Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun
Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun

In our society today we have withdrawn more and more from the people around us.

The early church used to sit in circles, facing each other and sharing together in the Word of God. Today we face forward, often not even acknowledging the people around us except for a short “Hello.” At least that is more than we get from one another when we are out in the world. People don’t talk to one another. We don’t even bother to look up any more. Our heads are so often buried in our phones. You see kids texting one another when they are right next to each other. Instead of just looking at the person, we’d rather send them a text! Isaac Asimov wrote about a society just like this in one of his books. Asimov was a famous science fiction writer and in one of his books, The Naked Sun, he centers it on Solarian society. Solarian society has become so isolated that they never see other human beings with the exception of their spouse, and human contact is considered abhorrent on the planet. I sometimes wonder if we are headed in that direction where we prefer to communicate by video or audio instead of face-to-face. Where we isolate ourselves in solitude instead of forming relationships in community. Part of the ritual of “passing the peace” helps us to form that community. It makes us realize in a very straight-forward way that the church is built not of bricks and mortar, but of flesh and blood, specifically the flesh and blood of Christ who binds us together in unity.

Turtle in shell
Turtle in shell

We need to resist the temptation to pull into our shells.

I have to admit there are times when I would rather hole myself away. It makes it easier sometimes to just not deal with the world. But when we do that, we are missing out on something vital, something we can’t get from a video screen or a chat room or a text. It’s the human experience. I know that something like “Passing the Peace” is a challenge for some of you, and there might be some of you that would be happy if we never did it, but I want to encourage you to look at it from a Christ perspective and realize that when we do these things, it’s not to pull people out of their comfort zone, but to help us all be reminded of the subtle and powerful idea that we stand together, united in Christ. It’s too easy for worship to become our own little bubble where we sit facing the front, singing quietly to ourselves or not at all, and simply listening to the prayer or the sermon without really ever engaging with the people around us. But that’s not the Christian life God calls on us to lead. We need to be reminded that the worship of God is not a solitary affair. We are God’s people and we stand united. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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