I’ve been making kind of a stink about this the past few Sundays, but the Passing of the Peace is one of the most important parts of Christian worship to me, and I wanted to take some time to reflect on that today. Wherever you’re reading this, if you have a Bible handy, open it to 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. Let’s walk through this passage of Scripture together . . .
1 Thessalonians 5:1-3 says,
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you,for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
In the Old Testament, the Day of the Lord is a terrifying concept. Before the time of Christ, it was an event foretold by the prophets, and their words on the subject were bleak.
Malachi 4 describes it as a fiercely burning oven in which evildoers will be reduced to nothingness. Joel 2 says that the sun will go dark, and the moon will turn to blood. Zephaniah 1 calls it “a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry.” Isaiah says that the Day of the Lord will bring tumult and trampling and confusion. Walls will be battered down, and the cries of help will be loud enough to reach the mountains. Isaiah says the day of the Lord will be cruel, wrathful and fierce. It will desolate the earth and destroy every sinful heart. And then there’s Amos, who makes all the others look optimistic: “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light– pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?” (Amos 5:18-20)
The Day of the Lord connotes darkness and destruction, desolation and despair. Looking at these passages, it makes perfect sense that this concept has spawned an entire genre of Christian disaster books and movies. In fact, the End Times is big business these days: Left Behind, The Omega Code, Y2K, raptureready.com, and my personal favorite, Judgment Day, May 21, 2011. The number of End Times predictions has grown too numerous to count at this point, and much of that hysteria comes from selective readings of passages like 1 Thessalonians 5. Of course, though the day may come like a thief in the night and bring desolation for evil and sin, Paul continues with words of encouragement.
1 Thessalonians 5:4-7 says,
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.
The Day of the Lord probably would have been a recognizable image to Paul’s readers in Thessalonica, but he’s doing something different with it in his letter. While he doesn’t ignore the prophets’ words, he assures the church that they have nothing to fear from the fabled day of desolation foretold by the prophets. The Day of the Lord is not a threat here, but a promise and a reassurance. The day may be one of darkness, but we are children of the light, grafted into the House of Israel and sheltered in God’s embrace. Though the world still presents its obstacles, we walk in the valley of the shadow of life because Christ is at our side and protects us and carries us. The darkness is still just as real, but it no longer terrifies us; rather, we sit and fellowship and await the dawn together, keeping awake and aware as Paul has instructed. While others might yield to the forces and powers of this earth (which Paul describes here as sleep and drunkenness), we have answered a different call– to keep our minds focused on the glory of God and to await the day of Christ’s return, spreading God’s love around the world until that day arrives. This is our calling, and it was also the calling Paul delivered to the Thessalonians.
Paul speaks many loving words about the church at Thessalonica (perhaps more than any other early congregation). He calls them imitators of Christ and praises their faith and labor and steadfastness. The church still had its problems though, and the most immediate was the members’ concern about the Kingdom; Jesus had said that some standing with Him would not taste death before the arrival of the Kingdom of God. That meant that the Kingdom was getting ever closer and would come within their lifetimes, right? Well, people in the community at Thessalonica were getting old and dying, and yet the Kingdom still had not come. The Day of the Lord had not arrived. Where was the trumpet blast? Where was the whisking away of the righteous? This was supposed to happen in the church members’ lifetimes, and yet people were dying. With these believers absent, what should the Thessalonians do? Speaking calm in the confusion, Paul says that they should continue on as Children of Light and trust that, whether awake or asleep, God’s grace will extend to them.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10, Paul presents this charge:
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
And in verse 11, Paul tells the Thessalonians that all of this hinges on a single action:
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
The Greek word being translated here as “encourage” is parakaleo, and it is a combination of two other words: para (beside) and kaleo (to call). Parakaleo literally means to call someone to your side, but it has a more famous meaning in the Bible. Parakaleo is also where we get the word paraklete, and this word is crucially important in the New Testament. It’s a word that appears often in the Gospel of John, and it has two meanings for Christians, each involving persons of the Trinity.
The first meaning relies on an ancient courtroom metaphor, where the paraklete functions like a divine defense attorney and witness. Imagine our lives are on trial before God: God, a judge who sits on a throne and makes sentences (even if in a benevolent way). As the paraklete, Christ stands not with us, but with God, and whispers constantly into God’s ear, “It’s okay. I know this person. She’s with me. I have covered her debt. She is safe.” This is the first meaning of paraklete: the advocate on our behalf, and this is the image in 1 John 2:1, which reads “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father– Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” In this case, Jesus is the paraklete. Jesus is the advocate, our defender and protector and reconciler in a divine kangaroo court where the judge and witness are one and the same through a holy mystery, and our salvation and deliverance are always pleasing to the court. However, there is another meaning to the word that is hinted at strongly in the Gospel of John. Check out these verses about the paraklete:
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another paraklete,to help you and be with you forever.” (John 14:16)
“When the paraklete comes, whom I will send to you from the Father –the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father– he will testify about me.” (John 15:26)
“But the paraklete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)
This paraklete is the Holy Spirit! The Spirit, who encourages and restores and inspires. The source of creativity and expression, of steadfastness and virtue. The One who descended like a dove onto Christ at his baptism and fills our houses of worship with exuberance and revelry! The Holy Spirit! The Advocate! The Holy Spirit is the entity that calls us to the side of God and whispers into our ears, “The Peace of Christ be with you.” Paul tells us that we must parakaleo one another. We must encourage. We must advocate. We must imitate the Holy Spirit to one another, and that is what we do when we say to a brother or sister in Christ, “The Peace of Christ be with you.” And so we’re back to the original question: Why do we pass the peace?
Over the years, the holy passing of the peace has devolved into little more than a moderately spiritualized meet-and-greet. If you’re a minister, it’s a time for networking, for seeing church members and talking to them and making sure you remember all their names. If you’re a church member, it’s a time to check in quickly with friends and family or maybe make lunch plans. If you’re a visitor, it’s a time to stand still and be swarmed by friendly faces, make a new friend or two, and maybe even get a lunch invite. In many Baptist churches, the ritual has been reduced to “Everyone, take a moment to turn and greet your neighbor!” It’s a way of reminding visitors and members alike that the church should be friendly, casual, and hospitable.
Now, this is all good, and I don’t want to discourage these activities, but it’s not what the passing of the peace is supposed to be! In fact, it seems that fewer and fewer people still turn to each other and say those sacred words: “The Peace of Christ be with you.” It’s been replaced with the more innocuous and less holy “good morning,” and I think that’s tragic. The passing of the peace is not about good mornings. It is a sharing of the Peace of Christ in an increasingly distorted world. It is a reassurance and affirmation between Christian brothers and sisters that we are pursuing God’s will together and are bound in His peace as we do so. It is a time of encouragement and of lifting one another up. That is why we turn to our neighbors on Sunday mornings and greet them with a handshake or hug and the uttering of a one-sentence blessing: “The Peace of Christ be with you!”
Paul tells the church at Thessalonica (and the church at Tampa) the peace of the Lord be with you! Grace and peace! I thank you, brothers and sisters, for your faith and labor and steadfastness. Be imitators of Christ, filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit and attentive to his direction. Together now, we await the return of the Son, the one who died and rose again and ascended into the heavens. The Day of the Lord may come like a thief in the night, but for those who remain vigilant, it will hold no terror. Instead, faith and hope and love will act as our shield, our helmet, and our breastplate, and until that day, let us rejoice with one another, taking joy that whatever corruption exists in this world will one day be wiped away. We may dimly glimpse God’s Kingdom now, and the state of the world before its arrival should fill us with a holy discontent, but we know that a time is coming when all things broken will be made right, and all those downtrodden will be restored.
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up. Advocate for one another. Accept the call to your brother or sister’s side when you see one another ailing. Bring the Holy Spirit to one another! Let no challenge overwhelm us for we are one body with Christ as the head!
This is a crucial part of our calling as Christians, and we live it out every time that we turn to each other and say those words of blessing:
The Peace of Christ be with you.
Grace and Peace,