Will You Please Pass the Peace?
I recently read a blog post titled, “Top Ten Ways Churches Drive Away First Time Guests”…
Number one on the list was not unfriendly church members (that was actually number two), or even a boring service (number eight), but “Having a stand up and greet one another time in the worship service”. Since we began North Park Presbyterian Church, we have made it a point to include a time in our liturgy for the “Passing of the Peace”. During this section of the liturgy members are able to greet one another by saying, “Peace be with you”. This could be considered by some solely as a “stand up and greet one another time,” so I’d like to talk about why I think it is an important part of our worship service that we do not want to dispense with.
Before I talk about its role in our worship service, some of you might be wondering about the origination of this practice. Where’d we get the idea? In the ancient church, as the faithful were preparing to partake of the Eucharist, they would greet one another with a kiss of peace. This was in line with the apostolic imperative given by Sts. Paul, and Peter. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” (Romans 16:16; 2 Corinthians 13:13), and “Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” (1 Peter 5:14) This kiss of peace (or love) was the first part of the liturgy of communion, and it served as a way for those present in the church to reconcile with other members who they might have offended. Reconciliation with other Christians at this point was seen as very important, since our participation in the Sacrament of communion was a sign of our unity as a church. One of the earliest Christian documents we have, The Didache, puts it like this, “On every Lord’s Day – his special day – come together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you, until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled…” (Did. Xiv.2) Dom Gregory Dix wrote concerning the kiss of peace,
It is a striking instance – one among many – of the way in which the liturgy was regarded as the solemn putting into act before God of the whole Christian living of the church’s members, that all this care for the interior charity and good living of those members.
[Here Dix was writing about the pastoral care which the flock received so that members would be at peace with one another] found its expression and test week by week in the giving of the liturgical kiss of peace among the faithful before the Eucharist. (Shape of the Liturgy, 106)
This extension of peace among the members of the church was a sign of their union and communion with each other. A way in which they showed by liturgical movement the peace they shared as the body of Christ, a peace which was important for participating in the Sacrament of communion.
Reflecting on this is helpful for understanding the role that the “Passing of the Peace” plays in our worship. It is much more than a time for greeting. It is also a time for reconciliation, for reflecting on our relationships with others in the church. We “Pass the Peace” prior to partaking of communion (which we also do every week), as a sign of the peace we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ because of Jesus’ forgiveness. We are reminded that the forgiveness of our sins does not simply grant us communion with God, but that it also grants us communion with his people (there is a vertical andhorizontal benefit to God’s pardon)! This is what John was getting at when he wrote, “…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 Jn. 1:7) 
Therefore, we extend to one another the peace that God has granted us as his children. Perhaps with a hug, maybe with a handshake, and maybe even with a kiss! Might some find this family like gathering awkward? Well, if they view the church as a bunch of disconnected individuals, strangers, then they certainly will. But if they understand that we are God’s family, at peace with one another because of the work of our older brother, Jesus, then they might just feel right at home.
 This is also why we “Pass the Peace” after the declaration of pardon, which is the point in our liturgy where after having silently confessed our sins, and then prayed the Lord’s Prayer together, we hear the promise of God’s forgiveness over those who repent.