The Peace of the Lord be always with you – and also with you…we say these words every time we celebrate the Eucharist, whether on Sunday or at a mid-week service. And we turn to the people in the pew next to us and shake hands, maybe give a hug or a kiss, and more often than not we come out of our pews to greet friends or loved ones or fellow parishioners who are sitting in another part of the Church. A clergy friend from another denomination says that for her, as a card-carrying introvert, this is a nightmare; and I suspect that there are some of you who are less than comfortable with it, too. So what’s the point of doing it?
The Exchange of Peace comes from the earliest centuries of Christian worship and, depending where you lived and how liturgy and theology were developing in your area, it could show up in several different places in the service. The reason to bid one another peace, and to extend some greeting of peace – a kiss, a bow, an embrace – was to recognize that when we come to the altar not only are we forgiven by God for our sins, but we are also “in love and charity with our neighbor”, that we are reconciled with one another, and that we do not stand at the altar alone but with our sisters and brothers in Christ – all together being part of Christ’s Body.
Now, there were many years after the Protestant Reformation when the practice disappeared; while it was included in the original Book of Common Prayer in 1549, by 1552 it had been edited out, and didn’t make a reappearance until the late 1960s and 70s in the church’s trial-use liturgies in the run-up to the 1979 edition of the Prayer Book. And it has been an important element of our worship ever since.
Now here at All Saints’ (and at many Episcopal parishes) the Peace can get a little enthusiastic; hearty greetings are fine, but it is important for us to remember what we are about – sharing an expression of Christ’s peace with one another. That’s actually a hard thing to do sometimes; maybe we don’t feel so peaceful, or forgiven, or reconciled, and so it’s easier to chat briefly to a friend, enquire after someone else’s health, arrange an after-church play-date for your child, and generally have the Peace become a prelude to coffee hour than it is to bid one another “The Peace of the Lord,” receive that gift of peace from another, and really mean it.
Why is it important for us to be thinking about this? The Gospel for today is all about peace.
The disciples are huddled together in a locked room on the evening of the day of resurrection; Jesus is risen and has appeared to some of the disciples, but not all of them, and they are still fearful about what steps the religious authorities might take against them.
It is into this mixture of fear, confusion, hope, and general upheaval comes the Risen Christ, and he bids them to be at peace; he actually says it a couple of times, and then breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. They need the peace that Jesus offers them in order to be open to receiving the Spirit, but the gift of the Spirit also enables them to go out into the world and share that peace with others.
Of course, when Jesus bids the disciples “Peace” he is not just talking about calmness or lack of strife, but the Hebrew concept of shalom – wholeness, well-being, a manifestation of divine grace, peace. At the end of the Gospel passage, the author John says: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus and that through believing you may have life in his name. And “life in Jesus’ Name” is precisely what shalom, the Peace of the Lord, is all about.
The disciples are to share the Peace that they have received from the Risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit with the world at large; to call forth and create the Kingdom of God, the shalom of God where ever they go, where ever it will be received. That is our task, as well; the Risen Christ breaks through into all the places that we withdraw to in fear, the places where we huddle and hide out, sure that we can’t face life or what God is asking us to do. As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to receive the Peace of Christ and, in turn, to carry it to the places and people that most need God’s shalom. It’s a big part of the Easter message – not just that Christ is risen, that Christ has destroyed death, and (in the words of St. John Chrysostom) that hell is in an uproar; but that the world around us is to be transformed, to become shalom, the Peace of Christ.
And so every time we come together to celebrate the Eucharist we practice shalom, we share Christ’s peace with one another, we not only say the words and make the gesture but we make it an intention of our mind and heart. We practice and claim the reality of peace here in worship, and then we are better equipped to be shalom-makers in our relationships and in the world, to be signs of God’s grace.
Let us pray.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ, of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you. Amen. ~ Gaelic blessing
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Easter
April 12, 2015