In the many traditions, passing the peace is an established element of worship. Despite my congregation’s attention to liturgy, this particular part of the liturgy is not yet something that has been included in our worship services.
I don’t know the actual background for this practice, but today’s gospel reading was from Matthew 5:21-24. Here Jesus is giving instruction about murder. It is one of the “antithesis” statements of Jesus. You know, those statements where Jesus says “you have heard it said…..but I say…” Generally, Jesus broadens the law he is dealing with in ways that can make nearly anyone uncomfortable.
In this particular antithesis, Jesus broadens the prohibition against murder to include anger against another person. Anger against a brother or sister leaves one “subject to judgment.”
Note that Jesus does not say “anger against a brother or sister for no good reason but if you have a good reason – e.g., that person has wronged you in some way – go ahead and be angry.” Nope. Jesus simply says anger against your brother or sister.
Just after explaining this prohibition Jesus says, “Therefore…” – which is always a word we should pay attention to – “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.”
Part of worship is offering our gifts (praise, offerings, etc.) in response to God’s gift of salvation. It seems like Jesus is saying, if you are not reconciled to your brother or sister, get that taken care of first or your gift doesn’t mean much. Or another way to put it might be ‘don’t bring your gifts to me until you have taken the gift of reconciliation that I have offered to you, and offered that gift to your brother or sister.’
So what does passing the peace have to do with this? When we offer those around us the peace of Christ, we are giving them the gift Christ has given us – peace. And that is probably a good enough reason to do it.
But let me tell a story. Some years ago, I happened to be sitting near someone who had done a great wrong to a close family member who I loved very much. This wrong was fresh, only a week or so old. When asked to pass the peace, I turned around only to see this person. I didn’t want to offer him Christ’s peace. I wanted to slap him. What I found, however, was that as I looked him in the eye and reached out my hand to him and said, “the peace of Christ be with you,” something inside me started to melt.
I realized that whatever wrong he had done, he was no less deserving of Christ’s peace than I was. He was God’s child the same as me. And that little tiny gesture, allowed healing to begin in my heart.
When we offer someone the peace of Christ, we are offering them life. And isn’t that exactly the right thing to do in every worship service?