Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Passing the Peace

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 2:42-47; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

I trust you’ve noticed that Easter season has so far given us Gospel moments that feature the risen Jesus appearing to his friends, persuading them by intimate signs that death has not been able to hold him. He does this with Mary Magdalene by cutting through her tears and grief simply by calling her name, Mary, and this is enough to convince her that it is he himself, passed over from death to an entirely new dimension of life.

For Thomas, a more visceral approach: Go ahead, touch my wounds, let your fingers see who I am, honor your need to know that it is I who stand before you.

For Cleopas and an unnamed disciple in the village of Emmaus, the familiar action of Jesus taking bread in his hands, blessing it, breaking it, is enough to reveal, remind, recognize who he is.

And if there is one word and one action that best sums up the nature and purpose of these post-Easter appearances, it is his trademark greeting after making it through the locked doors to that upper room that served as sanctuary for Jesus’s followers. They have locked the doors, for fear that they too will be arrested. He makes it through those doors—we needn’t imagine ghostly teleportation: it would be in keeping with these stories for their fear to have locked him out as well, to have reduced him to having to knock to gain entry (“Lo, I stand at the door and knock… if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me,” says Jesus in the Book of Revelation.

And what he says, what gains him entry, what announces that it is he, is his old familiar greeting, “Peace be with you.”

I have noticed, in recent weeks, that our Passing of the Peace in worship has been getting mixed reviews. I sense some self-consciousness among us. Though we’ve been passing the peace vigorously for years, it seems that recently we’re noticing some discomfort, and in the ensuing conversation about this I’m noticing that it’s not clear to everyone what the Passing of the Peace means.

That’s like waving a red flag in front of a preacher, so I’d like to speak into that subject today. Our New Testament passages are rich with the image of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. This icon may help us see into the purpose and value of ensuring that our liturgy include an experience of passing the Peace of Christ. It is going to have a lot to do with fostering a sense, a visceral experience, of being enfolded in the flock. We may arrive singly, sit solitarily, taste solitude in the silence—but when the Peace of Christ is announced, we are invited to throw open our doors and step into the enfolding arms of our Lord, who calls us each by name into the fold. This is a moment for remembering the words of St. Theresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Our Passing of the Peace is meant to present personal evidence that we are collectively the Body of Christ. It is intended to renew our awareness that we are partakers in the new creation launched by his resurrection. And it comes where it does, right after we confess our sin and welcome God’s forgiveness, to make the statement that it is by God’s gift, God’s freeing action, God’s making us right, God’s reconciling love, that we have the Peace of Christ to share.

So there’s the theory. We need that theory to shape our practice. I have a hunch it’s our practice that requires fresh mindfulness. How can we do a better job being the hands of Christ, conveying the embrace of the Good Shepherd, renewing a communal sense of being the Body of Christ? I don’t have a list of answers, but I do have six questions for you to consider:

1. Is more always better than less? What if, rather than greeting many people in haste, we were to greet fewer people more intentionally, without rushing?

2. Why not follow directions? The Prayer Book calls us to a specific task: to greet each person we approach saying, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” and, if you’re on the receiving end, reply “And also with you.” Is that too starchy for you? There are plenty of good alternative words, but the call intends that we pass the Peace of Christ, and openly receive it.

3. Is this a moment for more conversation? Sure, if that’s how you’ll obey the call to embrace this person in the Peace of Christ. Otherwise, later. The Peace is not meant to be coffee hour minus the coffee. Believe me, I need reminding of this, too.

4. As you consider how to move at the Peace, what if you were to give priority to three categories of people: those you do not yet know, those you do not usually greet, and those with whom you need reconciliation?

5. Do we respect the choice that some may make to opt out from a vigorous passing of the Peace? Given the purposes of the Peace, I hope that everyone will take part in at least one or two exchanges, but when you come to a person who has resumed being seated—and you have no reason to think that’s because of physical impairment—let it be.

6. Don’t we need help remembering that the Peace is not an intermission. I am sometimes tempted to dim and raise the house lights… Be ready to move on with the liturgy. What happens next is missionary: announcements of events by which we hope to fulfill our mission, sometimes a farewell blessing of someone soon to move. Yet again, the Body of Christ moving as the hands and feet of Christ.

In the little vestibule, each person returning from communion at the altar rail comes face to face with the window of Christ the Good Shepherd. He has his shepherd’s crook, and he is holding bread and wine. Surrounding him are words of Psalm 23: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies. Taking-in this window can be your encounter with the post-Easter risen Christ who has promised to be with us always, to the close of the ages.

John’s Gospel tells us a lot about the Good Shepherd. He calls his own sheep by name: his care for us is person by person, intimate. At the same time, he is the gate to the sheepfold: he draws together all his people to hear that same welcoming voice that calls us into the fold call us next to our mission. I have tried to show that the Passing of the Peace is the Anglican liturgy’s time-honored way to express this transubstantiation of many individuals into one united body ready to embrace its mission, which begins in the call of God’s voice, draws us out of solitude into community to feed us at the table of new life, renewing in us the peace not given as the world gives—yet is given for making peace in the world.

Now, there’s another trait of the Good Shepherd not mentioned in today’s Gospel. In another chapter, St. John tells the parable of the Good Shepherd leaving the flock in order that he may find the one lamb that has strayed off.

I like the way Archbishop Desmond Tutu highlights the message in that story. Here’s what he says: “In this theology, we can never give up on anyone because our God was one who had a particularly soft spot for sinners. The Good Shepherd in the parable… had been quite ready to leave ninety-nine perfectly well-behaved sheep in the wilderness to look for, not an attractive, fluffy little lamb—fluffy little lambs do not usually stray from their mummies—but for the troublesome, obstreperous old ram. This was the one on which the Good Shepherd expended so much energy.”

Tutu’s message is that every person has a place of privilege and responsibility in the heart of God. Within the community of faith, no one is to lose their place in the fold because of having an opinion, a viewpoint, or an approach (such as for how to do the Passing of the Peace). My six questions are not asked in order to make of you a cookie cutter congregation of fluffy lambs self-consciously fearing arrest by the Peace Police. What I personally like about a rambunctious approach to the Peace is the vitality it can convey. But it appears to be time for us to be mindful that our liturgy is intended to be a purposeful experience in all its moving parts, time now for paying attention to those moments of sacramental touch when we all are called to be its ministers.

(Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words are quoted in Richard H. Schmidt’s Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.)