Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday of the Epiphany + January 31, 2016
This week I spent a couple of days at Lutheranch, a Lutheran retreat center about an hour west of Atlanta. I was there with a handful of other new pastors as part of our First Call Theological Education program. This is a program for all new pastors; we are required to meet a few times a year for the first three years of our ministry. It’s an opportunity to continue learning more about ministry, to ask questions that come up in our first calls, and to support one another. Bishop Julian Gordy and an assistant to the Bishop, Ben Moravitz, lead the retreats.
The main topic for this retreat was worship. (I should let you know that Bishop Gordy mentioned St. Andrew quite a few times during our class sessions, since we are a congregation that puts a lot of consideration into how we worship, creating beautiful and meaningful services.)
One part of the worship service that kept coming up over and over, even in our free time conversations, was the Exchange of Peace. Here at St. Andrew, we do a pretty good job of maintaining a sense of worship as we shake hands and tell our neighbors “peace be with you.” But in a lot of congregations, this moment drags on for a long time, and people start talking about the game or the party. Bishop Gordy told enough stories about that kind of sharing of the peace to make me sure it’s one of his special pet peeves. When passing the peace becomes a social hour, it takes away from its true, historical, and religious purpose.
The Exchange of Peace has been a part of Christian worship since the time when the New Testament was being written. The idea behind the practice can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave 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). The Exchange of Peace was built into worship as an opportunity to go and make peace with someone you need to make peace with before joining with them in Holy Communion. This helps to keep the whole community strong and united.
And for those of you who are not a fan of shaking hands or hugging: you should be glad we’re not asked to kiss each other anymore. There are five places in the New Testament where Christians are encouraged to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). In the ancient church this instruction was folded into the Exchange of Peace. In fact, if you want to research the Exchange of Peace, you’ll probably find more information by searching for the “kiss of peace” — even on Wikipedia.
There’s a sermon from the late 4th/early 5th century (just to name drop: it was written by St. Augustine) that describes where the Holy Kiss fit into worship: the priest would bless the wine and the bread, the people would say the Lord’s Prayer together, and then they would say “Peace be with you” and kiss one another on the lips. Augustine explained the point of this: “When your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.”
This practice was from a time and culture where kissing people on the lips as a greeting was common. The way the Exchange of Peace is practiced has changed as those cultural norms have changed.
The ELCA worship guidelines recommend that the Exchange of Peace occur between the Prayers of Intercession and Holy Communion; this can also be traced back to the ancient church. One ELCA resource explains how meaningfully this fits into the flow of our worship:
…the congregation prays for peace in the Church, peace in the world, and peace for all those in need. Then the congregation follows through [on their part in fulfilling these prayers] with the people offering peace and reconciliation to one another. This is not human peace alone, but the peace which is possible only through Christ. Then, after the exchange of peace, we receive the gift of Christ’s peace in our sharing Holy Communion.
The Exchange of Peace has been part of Christian worship for thousands of years, and it is meant to help us live with one another in the spirit of the peace Christ gives to us not only as individuals, but as the Church. It is meant to help us sustain our life together as a community united in Christ.
This is also the purpose behind the letter we know as First Corinthians. The church in Corinth was having trouble acting as a community that was truly united Christ. In the course of the letter Paul touched on a number of places where the Corinthians divided themselves: they divided themselves based on which apostle they followed; some claimed Peter, some Paul, some a man named Apollos (1:10-17). They divided themselves by accusing one another in a court of law (6:1-8). They divided themselves over whether it was alright for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (10:23-11:1). They divided themselves when they celebrated Holy Communion, as wealthier members gathered together for a feast while the poor members were left hungry (11:17-34). They divided themselves over which spiritual gifts were more impressive and important than the others (12:1-11).
As he addressed each issue, Paul worked to help the Corinthians see the importance of doing everything for the good of the community. Quit boasting about who brought you to Christ; you are all in Christ (3:5-9). Quit bringing each other to court, and forgive each other (6:7-8). Quit feasting while others get weak and sick; wait for one another before celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:27-34).
Paul dedicated a large chunk of this letter (ch. 12-14) to advising the Corinthians on how to use their spiritual gifts for building up the community rather than dividing it (14:26). And as part of that instruction Paul wrote the beautiful words of 1 Cor. 13. These are some of the most well-known and well-loved words in all of literature. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. […] Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. […] Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”
We often place Paul’s words in the same category as love poetry, as if Paul’s words would fit neatly with a Robert Burns poem…
O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
…or with a Shakespeare sonnet…
…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.
But really, Paul’s beautiful words might fit better with some more everyday phrases: “I don’t care who started it. Don’t hit your sister! Love your sister!”
Paul was writing to a community that was being broken apart from within. People were holding on tight to ideas of who was “worthy” or important in the church based on social status, on wealth, or on talents. But here in chapter thirteen Paul said: Look, the only thing that really matters, that is truly important, is that you love one another. In the end all these worldly things will end and fade away. In the end, even faith won’t be needed anymore, because we will see and know fully. In the end, even hope won’t be needed, because it will be fulfilled. But in the end, love will remain. So make love your priority now.
All this brings me back to something else that Bishop Gordy said about St. Andrew this week. He talked a lot about our attention to worship, but he also lifted us up because we care about one another. We don’t agree on all issues, we don’t all believe in exactly the same way, but we are committed to loving one another. We know how to disagree and then share the peace with one another.
That is possible because it is not a peace that comes from within us; it is a peace that comes from Christ, who has intentionally gathered us together — with all our differences — in order to be his church here in this place.
Christ has gathered us to love one another with the love of Christ, and to welcome others into that love. This is our first and greatest calling.
May God continue to give us the love we need to truly love one another: to be patient and kind; to not be irritable or resentful; to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. Amen.
 St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 227, The Fathers of the Church, (1959), Sermons on Liturgical Seasons vol. 38, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, p. 197. Admittedly, I found the quote on the Wikipedia article “Kiss of Peace.”
 “What is the ‘Exchange of Peace’?” Worship Formation & Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (January 2013). Available online at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/What_is_the_Exchange_of_Peace.pdf
 Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose,” (1796).
 William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.
 Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” Working Preacher, Jan. 31, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734