TEXT: Ephesians 2:14-18; 4:1-3
May the peace of Christ be with you! (And also with you.) Good job! You knew just what to do!
We continue today in a summer series called “Building Blocks of Worship.” We are looking at some of the different elements of our worship service, at their basis in scripture, and considering how to experience them more fully in and out of the worship service. And today we are looking at the “Passing of the Peace.”
This is an element found in many or most traditional worship services across denominations and cultures. It probably has its most ancient roots in the Jewish greeting of ‘Shalom’ (which broadly means ‘peace’ or ‘peace be with you’). We also see that same practice in almost all of the New Testament letters which begin with some form of “Grace and Peace to you in Jesus Christ.” And Jesus taught and practiced the passing of the peace, teaching his followers to speak peace when they entered a house (Luke 10:5) and bidding ‘shalom’ to people in the course of his ministry (cf. Mark 5:34, the woman who touched his robe). Jesus did say there would be conflict and opposition to his message, but broadly he came to proclaim God’s peace as the angels announced at his birth (cf. Luke 2:14).
What does it mean to pass the peace? As I said, it is rooted in the Hebrew word ‘shalom’. That is broader than peace between people. It refers to God’s peace: peace WITH God and the peace OF God. It is what was broken at the Fall when our first parents sinned and it is what God promised to restore out of faithful love (‘hesed’) for humanity. God did this in and through Jesus Christ, so it is fitting that the angels announced Peace at the birth of Jesus. It is fitting that Jesus proclaimed God’s peace in his teaching, healing, and ministry.
And because God has extended peace to us and we share in ministry and mission with Jesus, peace does include peace between people. It is fitting that we extend that peace to others in his name. So consider our sermon text for today:
For He Himself is our peace… to you who were far away, and… to those who were near.
14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:14-18)
Jesus is Himself our peace! And Ephesians 2 describes his peace-making work in breaking down the barrier between Jew and Gentile and reconciling both to God through the cross. Quoting Isaiah 57 (our call to worship), we read in Ephesians 2 that Jesus “came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.” This was God’s promise and intent from the beginning!
So when we speak of God’s peace and when we speak it over one another, we are telling one part of the gracious Gospel story over one another: that God has made peace for you, even if you came from a long way off spiritually; God’s grace and peace are for you!
If we grasp that, it’s more than just a nice thing to say in the middle of the service. It is an encouraging message to speak over each other – family, friends, children, and those who might be visiting with us in worship. It’s a word of welcome and of grace.
And if we really grasp how welcoming it is I think it can even shape our attitude of hospitality and welcome. If we really believe that God offers peace to those who are far from Him, we become less judgmental, more welcome, and eager to see who might be seeking or tentatively exploring God’s love for them.
It also might shape how we see one another. Had a fight with a family member on the way to church? Or a long-standing ‘beef’ with someone in the room? What would it mean to say “the peace of Christ be with you” to them and hear them say it back. If God can receive, forgive, and love me knowing everything about me, can I not offer peace to another person?
Place in the Service
That leads me to a short excursion to talk about when and how we “pass the peace” in the service. There is no one right place. We could have it at the beginning of the service, emulating the New Testament letters that begin with “Grace and peace to you in Jesus Christ.” In some sense, I do begin each service this way, usually saying something like “Greetings and welcome in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Maybe I’ll start incorporating the words ‘grace’ and ‘peace’!
We could have it at the end of the service, but that’s often where I offer a blessing or benediction. But, it is the Jewish practice to say ‘shalom’ coming and going, so that would be an appropriate place for us whether as part of the formal service or just in individual greetings.
And really, it could come anywhere in the service. We organize the service around the Word, so the first parts are gathering and fellowship oriented. That fits. And the parts after the scripture and sermon are more responsive to the message; that also could fit. And we end with being sent out; that would also fit.
So, again, there is no one right place. But here’s one basis for where we have it, early in the service. Jesus taught this during his “Sermon on the Mount”:
Leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother…
23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24)
If we are not at peace with God or another person, it can be a major distraction and hindrance from hearing the Word and responding faithfully. Here Jesus seems to indicate that one of our first tasks in living out our faith is to seek peace and reconciliation with those around us. So having a time set aside in the service to clear the air, to consider those around us and God’s own graciousness toward us helps set us in the right posture and frame of mind before God. And unlike other parts of the service where interaction with others might be harder, our practice of getting up and moving around affords the opportunity to speak and even step aside with someone for reconciliation, if need be.
And a word about the style of that. Some formal churches ask everyone to say the specific words to those around them: “The peace of Christ be with you” and the person responds “and also with you.” And you move on. To me, that is limiting and sometimes awkward. Who goes first? Am I allowed to say anything else? What do I do with my hands… throw a peace sign? On the other hand, it could be purely a meet and greet: welcome visitors, say hi to folks you haven’t seen, endure awkwardly for some. I think what we have is a hybrid, and certainly focusing on it has given me ideas about how to frame it better. But we use the traditional words: the worship leader says them to all of us, and we respond. And then we greet and have fellowship (which is also biblical). Some people may then extend peace individually. Others might just say hello. Others might shake hands or fist bump or wave. And some may even take the first step to mend a rift in an act of peace. It may feel like a free for all, but my hope is that it is unstructured enough to invite the Holy Spirit to work as we move around and interact within the formal time of worship. And maybe having focused in on it we will all experience it in some new and meaningful ways!
Finally, passing the peace is not just something to do in a worship service. If anything, passing the peace in the service is a jumping off point for when you walk out the door. Consider our second sermon text, a little bit later in Ephesians:
I implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling… diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
There are several spiritual traits mentioned there in the description of the Christian way of life: humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, and love. But they are all capped off with this: being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Be diligent; go be people known by the aroma of God’s shalom. And if you remember Jeremiah 29:7… in seeking the peace of those around you – even those opposed to you – you will come to know God’s peace yourself.
‘Seek the shalom/peace of the city
where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf;
for in its peace you will have peace.’
Some Music Used
- Prelude Music
- Come Praise and Glorify
- Wonderful, Merciful Savior
- Our Creed
- Cathy Youngblood, organ
- Come, People of the Risen King (Gettys)
- Jesus, Name Above All Names
- Blessed Assurance (arr. Austell)
- Hear the Call of the Kingdom (Gettys)