8th Sunday after Pentecost
August 7, 2011
The Dance of the Liturgy: The Breakout of Peace
“I hate the passing of the peace,” he said. “Just when I am really deep into the liturgy, suddenly everything comes to a screeching halt while everyone breaks into smiles and handshakes and wanders all over the sanctuary. It’s hard to get back into that quiet place again.”
Oooops. I always enjoyed the ‘break’ in the movement from sitting and listening to sliding into the intensity of the communion liturgy. I think that’s my ADD self that always feels relieved when I get to move around after having to sit still. And then there’s the extrovert in me that welcomes that smile and contact with others in church, too instead of having to keep my eyes forward and my mouth shut.
Those differences are an important consideration, I think. As we come together, our styles and needs collide. It’s as hard for the introverts to step out in the middle of worship to smile and greet others, as it is for us wiggle-worms to sit still through the whole thing without a break. This ‘peace’ is our acknowledgement that we bring our whole selves to worship and become something unique to this moment only in Christ.
We didn’t pass the peace when I was growing up. It has been re-introduced into our worship in the liturgical reforms which came out of the 1960’s and 70’s. But Justin Martyr in his description of what Christians do in worship, says, “at the conclusion of the prayers we greet one another with a kiss. Paul exhorts the church at Rome to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and in 1 Peter we read, “greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.”
“The Peace is no mere gesture, however, for it embodies that reconciliation one with another that Jesus taught was a prerequisite of our eligibility to offer worship. The command is about as explicit a liturgical rubric as you can get: ‘so when you are offering your gift at the altar, if your remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leaver your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift (Matt 5:23-24),’” This comes from Richard Giles, in his volume about worship (Creating Uncommon Worship, Liturgical Press, 2004).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to your as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid,” (14:27) and, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”(16:33).
When we offer a sign of Christ’s peace to each other we say physically what we believe: that we all hold dear the One who is our peace and that the barriers between us have been broken down. We are pledging to take Christ’s peace with us into our real work in the world.
However, Giles warns, the Peace has often become too enthusiastic for its own good, obscuring its purpose if everyone uses the time to catch up, and meet and greet everyone they haven’t seen for awhile. He cautions that the passing of the peace is not meant to substitute for the coffee hour – which serves its own liturgical function.
In the Anglican tradition, the presiding minister introduces the peace as a way to set the scene for its reconciling purpose, for example, using Ephesians 2 : “Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. Let his peace be shared among us, that we may be built together into a dwelling place for God. The peace of Christ be with you all.”
The peace which we share is such a gift and so counter to what the world around us gives. We remember that we are welcomed because of what God has done for us, not because we are so wonderful. Success, wealth, beauty, all of the qualities that are prerequisite for approval in the world are unimportant here. We are loved as we are. We remember that we come together by God’s invitation, not because we deserved to come to God’s house. We remember that our invitation comes at the cost of God’s own life, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. He came as a gift to claim us through his death and resurrection, guaranteeing our life forever. Our imperfections, our sins, our guilt are erased through God’s love, and the power of evil is buried forever. That is the source of our peace – that in this life and the next we are never alone, we are always in the loving presence of God. No matter what we do, or don’t do, our place in God’s household is certain now and forever. It is in John’s Gospel again that we hear the story: on the day of his resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, who are gathered in terror, and says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them his hands and side, and says again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And so in our own declaration of the Peace of Christ, he says the same to us. This peace is our gift and our mission, given by the only one who can give the peace we need. May you carry it with you this morning as you go forth, and come to share it with us again.
Now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds and keep them in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.