This is the third installment in what was originally intended to be a four-part series on the four sections of our weekly worship service. As of this month it has now turned into at least five parts because I had so much to say about the Peace. My intention for this series is to help you better understand not only what we do in our worship service, but also why we do it.
If you have an ELW hymnal handy, you can find a detailed list of everything I’m discussing in these articles on pages 92-93. Last Month I ended by saying that I would wait to talk about the sharing of the Peace until this month, even though it appears in the “Word” section in the hymnal and our bulletins. That because I think it really belongs in the “Meal” section of the liturgy. Likewise, I think the offering should be seen as a part the “Word” section (as a response to the gospel) even though it appears in the “Meal” section of our liturgy, and that’s why I covered it last month.
The sharing of the Peace as we do it now made its way back into our liturgy in the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW – the green hymnal). Before this it was simply a verbal greeting between the pastor and the congregation that came after the Words of Institution, so that it was scarcely noticeable as a discrete part of the service. But in the early church this was a greeting shared among all those gathered. And it was a kiss, not a handshake! In spite of the fact that we have been sharing the Peace now for 40 years in North American Lutheran circles, not all of us are quite sure about what’s going on here.
First let me say what the sharing of the Peace is not. It is not the seventh-inning stretch. It is not a preview of the coffee hour. It is not the time socialize, to welcome visitors, or to strike up a conversation. I’m not trying to be a grouch here, and I love that the people of Grace are so friendly. But I do want you to appreciate what is supposed to be going on here. Sharing the Peace has a very specific function in the service. It is a sharing of God’s peace with one another for the important purpose of being reconciled and at peace with one another before receiving Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. It expresses the profound commitment that our relationship with God is deeply entwined with our relationships with one another. In the 5th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, soon after the Beatitudes, Jesus says this to his disciples: “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.” (Mt. 5:23-24). This is why the Peace comes before the offering in our order of service. But it is also a recognition of the communal nature of our worship as we draw near to what is for many people the most deeply personal part of the service. We are reminded that the Christian faith does not allow for an exclusively private relationship with God that ignores other people.
One last thing on the Peace. I emphasized above that we are first and foremost sharing God’s peace in this part of the service, and only secondarily our own peace. It’s important to know that our ability to forgive one another is rooted in God’s forgiveness of us. On a given Sunday you might not be pals with everyone in the room. In fact you might be having difficulties with someone there. Share the Peace of the Lord no matter how you are feeling about them. In doing so you are proclaiming the gospel to yourself and to them, declaring that God’s reconciling love is at work in the church and in each of us. You are making the claim that though we might not be able or inclined to forgive and care for one another if it were left up to us alone, it is God’s intention that we do so, and God can make it happen.
Did you know that the Peace was such a profoundly meaningful part of the service? You do now! Stay tuned next month for more on the Meal section of our weekly worship service.