The practice of the “Passing of the Peace” is foreign to most Presbyterians, because it is not traditionally a part of our worship. I can find no evidence that John Calvin included shaking someone’s hand and saying, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and that person’s responding, “And also with you,” in his liturgy.
But there is plenty of Scriptural mandate for sharing the peace of Christ with one another. One of Jesus’ beatitudes tells us “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called sons of God.” If we are children of God, then peacemaking should be in our spiritual DNA.
Jesus used the greeting “Peace be with you” several times with His disciples after His resurrection. And Paul greeted each of the churches he wrote to with “Grace and peace to you.”
The more liturgical churches – Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and such – have incorporated the Passing of the Peace into the celebration of the Eucharist. It is done before the congregation comes forward to take Communion, remembering what Jesus taught at the same time as the Beatitudes:
If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
In recent years, churches like ours have picked up on the practice. But our rationale is a little different from that of our more liturgical sisters and brothers. Presbyterians and others in the Reformed Tradition usually include it in the time of Confession, and almost always after the Assurance of God’s Forgiveness and the Gloria Patri.
The thinking is that we, having been assured that we have been reconciled to God, should either go and be reconciled with one another or celebrate the fact that we have been reconciled with one another. And so, starting next Lord’s Day, we are going to try – and I emphasize the word try – to move up the Passing of the Peace before the Time with our Children.
This will allow the children to be both givers and recipients of this blessing, and will call attention to what we read this morning in Psalm 85: “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” Peace is the companion of righteousness: when we are right with God, we have peace. We cannot be righteous by ourselves, but Jesus gives us His righteousness and establishes peace between God and us. Only then we can be at peace with each other.
Isaiah said much the same in our passage today: “the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.” Peace. Peace with God and peace with each other.
That is also Paul’s message toward the end of II Corinthians 5:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.
Once we have been reconciled with God, then we can be reconciled with each other – and this truth is reinforced when we offer each other the sign of peace. This is an important part of our ministry of reconciliation.
Paul Ryan of the Calvin Institute for Reformed Worship took a slightly different view of it in an article he wrote for Reformed Worship magazine:
“When we extend our hand to another, we identify with Jesus, who extended his life to the point of death to make peace with humanity.”
Ryan goes on to write that Passing the Peace is part of our spiritual formation, like teaching our children to say “please” and “thank you:”
Though at the beginning the toddler mechanically repeats the words, eventually her heart fills the words with grace and gratitude; indeed, her heart is shaped in the form of “please” and “thank you.” In the same way, passing the peace gives us the vocabulary for expressing peace as we mature in faith and, in fact, shapes our hearts and minds in the form of peace.
Whatever meaning we attach to this ritual, it is much more than a simple handshake or hug or kiss – with the other person’s consent, of course. It disarms us and it draws us closer together.
What it is not, however, is a time for getting caught up with people or telling one of the Trustees that the security light outside isn’t working. There is plenty of time after worship for that. And if there isn’t, we will make time for it.
It is also a time for quality of interaction, not quantity. The goal is not to shake every hand in the sanctuary, either because you want to or you feel obligated to do so. And it is certainly not a time to be offended if a particular person doesn’t shake your hand this Sunday. After all, this is supposed to be an exercise in peace and peacemaking.
To that end, we are going to try – and again, I emphasize the word try – to limit ourselves to greeting three people. Three is a meaningful number in the Church. Any three people. They can be right around us, or on the other side of the building. There is no limit, though, to responding to other people’s greetings – since we need all the peace we can get.
This should allow us to look deeply into the other person’s eyes and think about what we are saying: “The peace of Christ be with you.” We will have time to think about how God has reconciled us to Himself through the work of Jesus on the cross, and how that enables us to be reconciled to each other. And then we can respond to others with full and peace-filled hearts, “and also with you.”
The peace of Christ be with you.