Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or
sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they
have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
On January 25, 1959 Pope John the XXIII, less than three
months after being elected, announced his intention to call a new Council. The second Vatican Council led to sweeping
changes in the Roman Catholic Church.
The changes inspired by Vatican II also had profound affects on other
Christian Bodies. Vatican II gave
great-added strength to the ecumenical movement. One of the most lasting
influences of the ecumenical movement of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s has been on
worship. The many years of interaction
and dialogue between the various streams of the Christian tradition has led to
a process of convergence. The worship
of the various Christian bodies has become more similar as the result of the
cross-pollinations that have taken hold.
The historically more liturgically focused traditions
have begun to put a lot more emphasis on communicating the Gospel through
preaching while the more pulpit centered traditions have put more emphasis on
the symbolic aspects of worship including the Sacraments.
Presbyterians in the last forty years have recovered a
focus on the Christian year, worship centered in the Lectionary and more
frequent celebrations of Communion.
Whereas fifty years ago Presbyterians observed the Lord’s Supper three
or four times a year, today almost every Presbyterian congregation comes to the
Table at least once a month. Indeed St.
Gile’s Cathedral, the mother church of Presbyterians in Edinburgh, celebrates
communion every Sunday and several times during the week.
The changes in worship can best be demonstrated by the
difference in our Book of Common Worship.
This is the 1946 version of the Book of Common Worship, this is the
latest version published in 1993.
Of all the many changes
that have been made in Presbyterian worship the one addition that may have
caused the most consternation is the introduction of Passing of the Peace. Others have been controversial, but the
Passing of the Peace seems to inspire both positive and negative reactions in
every congregation. There are people
who think it is just great and others who believe it is a terrible interruption
to the service.
When you lead worship in different churches it is amazing
the variety of ways that the Passing of the Peace is observed. In some Churches people run all over the
Sanctuary. The first Church that I
served was in Attica. In that small
congregation it seemed the purpose of the peace was for everyone present to
greet every other person in the Sanctuary. People were running all over the place and speaking so loudly
that I was tempted to buy a whistle that would bring people back to paying
On the other extreme are Churches that seem cold and
distant. I have been in Presbyterian
Churches where the people never moved at all in their pews most did not shake
hands. It seemed the peace was passed
with a gentle nodding of the head in people’s direction.
So what is the Passing of the Peace all about and what is
its purpose? The genesis of this act of
worship is found in the New Testament.
In the writings of Paul there are several instances where he tells
people to greet one another with a holy kiss.
In I Corinthians 16:20 Paul writes: All the brothers and sisters send
greetings. Greet one another with a
In the worship
of the early church the kiss became a part of the worship service. It had the specific function to visibly
demonstrate to all who were present that they were one in the faith. It reminded each person present that since
they had been forgiven by God, that they must forgive one another.
Of course, over time, the actual kiss of peace has given
way to either a handshake or embrace.
The purpose however is the same: a visible demonstration that we are
members of one body of Christ. Because
we have been reconciled to the Father through the death of His Son, we
therefore are also reconciled to one another.
That is why we share it following our prayers of confession.
There are times this can seem like a very repetitive and
meaningless act. But if we take it
seriously it can sometimes be very difficult.
I remember talking to a member of a Church in our Presbytery that was
going through great conflict. This
conflict made the time of passing the Peace uncomfortable. It forced people on different sides of the
issues to come together and wish Christ’s peace on each other. It took faith and courage to reach out one’s
The sharing of peace, when done correctly, can be very
meaningful. Listen to the experience of
one Presbyterian minister:
I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church fourteen years ago, I inherited the
tradition of “Passing the Peace of Christ.”
At some point in the service a leader would say to the congregation,
“The peace of Christ be with you.” They
would respond “And also with you.” Then
everybody would be encouraged to share the same greeting with each other. I quickly worked to expunge that “empty
tradition” from our worship order, arguing that it made people uncomfortable
and that it was especially grueling for visitors. So, that was that, or so I thought.
But during the next few weeks I started
hearing from church members how much they missed passing the peace. People
weren't mean or demanding, just sad that a beloved tradition had been banished
from the kingdom. They shared stories of how much it had meant to them in the
past when they were going through difficult times and, for a few moments in a
worship service, people shared the peace of Christ with them. For them, this
"empty tradition" wasn't empty at all. It was full of deep meaning.
It was a channel through which they received and shared God's grace. This was
all new to me. I had never heard of such a thing. Nor had I ever imagined that
such a rudimentary and repetitious action could make such a difference in
people's lives. Frankly, I was stunned by what I learned.
After hearing from so many people, I finally
decided to give the passing of the peace another go. This time, however, I
tried to help myself and the others in the congregation who didn't get it. I
hoped we could invest this gesture with genuine meaning. So I spent a good
chunk of time one Sunday explaining the rationale behind the passing of the
peace. I talked about how it was a kind of a blessing or prayer. Though
speaking to a person, we’re really asking God to bless that person with the
peace that passes understanding. I shared a couple of the stories I had heard
about how much this gesture had meant to some of our members. I urged folks,
not just to rattle off the words, "The peace of Christ be with you,"
but to say it with meaning. Then we took a little longer than before to pass
I must say I was astounded by what
happened. It was as if the grace of God flooded that room. Even I, for the
first time in my life, actually passed the peace of Christ to people. I did
more than mouth the words. I sensed that I was a vehicle for the gift of God's
peace. The whole experience was amazing and transformational. For the first
time I tasted the richness of a longstanding Christian tradition that I had
formerly written off as stale.
I resolved from that time onward to make
the passing of the peace a regular feature of our worship.
I must admit, as if many you did not
already know, I am not a touchy feely person.
I too had a difficult time understanding why the passing of the peace
should be a part of our worship experience.
Yet I too have come to understand its value.
It is a great symbolic re-enforcement of our claim
of unity. God has called us to be one
in Christ. Thus when we share the peace
we are saying that we are one in Christ.
The passing of the peace also reminds us
that our faith is connected to our actions.
There are times we act as if the Christian faith only concerns our
relationship with God. The peace
reminds us that God’s love for us drives us to love our neighbor. Those
who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those
who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom
they have not seen.
The peace leads
us into mission in all its form as a response to the overwhelming love that God
has shown us in Jesus.
The passing of the peace is also an acted
prayer. We are praying for God’s peace
for the person we are addressing. No matter
what our station in life, no matter what we’re dealing with, we all need to
know more of Christ’s peace. That in
part is why we come to worship to find God’s peace.
If the passing of the peace is to be more Meaningful we must approach it in a positive way.
The passing of the peace is not just some churchy way
of saying hello.
It is not a time to decide where to go to lunch with
It is not an opportunity to ask someone to volunteer
for some task you are
responsible for in the Church.
The proper approach is one of prayer. When we participate in this part of the
service, we should slowly take the person’s hand and slowly say,”The peace of
Christ be with you.”
As we share the peace we remember these words from our
Book of Common worship:
been reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, the people are invited to share signs
of reconciliation and the peace of Christ.
In sharing the peace, we express the unity and love that come only from
God, and we open ourselves to the power of God’s love to heal our brokenness
and make us agents of that love in the world.