Scott Gunn has resurrected his blog and written a cogent explanation of why the passing of the peace during the Eucharist is not best served by turning it into a hugging-and-chatting marathon.
I’ve been a part of churches like that and it’s been fine. But he’s also right that the purpose of the peace is not to ask our friend how the weekend has been but to embody the reconciliation with one another that is ours in Christ. As he notes, it is Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “be reconciled” before bringing our gifts to the altar that provides the grounding for the act. Moreover, in the earliest recorded teaching on the Eucharist (I Corinthians 11) St. Paul lambasts the Corinthians for the divisions in their community when they celebrate the Eucharist—the rich eat well together and the poor stay separate and eat, well, not a lot presumably (v. 21). Paul says this amounts to showing “contempt for the church of God.” (v. 22) It’s no mistake that in the following chapter Paul offers his lengthy teaching on the body of Christ, a reminder of how we are all in this together. So if we’re not reconciled with one another before receiving the Eucharist, we’re kind of missing the point.
This raises a particular question, one that a commenter asks of Gunn in his post:
I am not aware of reconciling being possible at that time. If I need to reconcile it would require more than an smile and a handshake.
How are we supposed to resolve the pressing divisions in our community and in the world with a handshake, a hug, or—if we’re being properly Biblical—a kiss?
The answer? We’re not.
The passing of the peace is simultaneously both a handshake that reminds us of our need for reconciliation with our neighbour and an embodiment of the work of reconciliation that has already been wrought on the cross. The bread and wine that we use at the Eucharist is both “just” bread and wine and at the same time the mystical body and blood of Christ. When we enact the liturgy, we are both doing normal, everyday acts—reading, speaking, handshaking, giving, receiving, eating—and participating in the work of salvation and redemption—hearing the intertwining of our life with the Biblical narrative, embodying reconciliation, returning to God what has been given to us, receiving the body and blood of Christ.
The liturgy, therefore, prompts us to ask questions that help us gauge the rest of our lives. The passing of the peace, I find, raises some of the following questions for me:
- With whom in this congregation am I trying to avoid passing the peace? With whom do I genuinely need to seek reconciliation?
- Does it feel particularly false with anyone when I say, “Peace be with you”?
- Most importantly, who is not in this congregation? With whom am I missing opportunities for reconciliation because of their absence from this Eucharistic community? Whom should I be looking to invite into this community?
And that leads to a reminder that our liturgy is not just something we do to feel good about ourselves. It is not something we have to get through before we can get on to the important stuff. Our liturgy is mission(al). It is the enactment of our faith.
Indeed, my favourite definition of mission is simply this: expanding the Eucharistic community. When we draw more people into this community of people who are in right relationship with God (confession/absolution), with another another (passing the peace), and gathered around the crucified and risen Christ on the altar, then we are truly sharing the love of God in Christ with the world.