Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Are We Still Passing the Peace? - Chasing Francis Series





An important part of every Christian worship service is what we call “passing the peace.”

You may think your church doesn’t do this. That is unlikely. In your church the worship leader may say something like, “please shake hands with the person beside you” or, “lets take a moment to greet the folks around us.” These are remnants of a vital part of ancient Christian worship.

“Pax vobiscum.”

“Et con spiritu tuo.”

Christians have used these Latin phrases for nearly two thousand years. Greek-speaking believers have used other words, as ancient, or even more so. Both the Latin and Greek phrases are based on one Hebrew word: Shalom.

That’s what the Lord first said to His disciples after he resurrected, “peace be unto you.”

“Shalom.”

Shalom does indeed mean peace. But it means much more.  To English speakers, peace is the absence of conflict. It is the state of calm or serenity. Shalom however is “well being,” “health,” or “flourishing.” It is much more active than the English word, 'peace', implies.

In Chasing Francis, the pastor’s Franciscan friends tell him that God calls us not only to pursue personal righteousness but to pursue justice for our communities. Justice is righteousness applied to a group. In political terms it means that a Christian believes it is wrong for individuals to commit adultery but also believes it is wrong for communities to ignore the poverty and suffering of the people on' the bottom'. Christians may differ about how to deal with large-scale issues that affect the health and finances of individuals within our communities. However, none of us are free to ignore them.

I live in a Bible-soaked part of the country. Our barns are covered with scripture. Our radio stations are filled with preachers huffing their way through warnings about ungodly living and the mark of the beast. We have been hearing Bible stories in camp meetings and tent revivals for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, our education levels are abysmal. Crystal meth controls entire counties.  Violence is not only excused; it is largely ignored.

Where is the shalom?

Some are doing very well. Some are barely surviving. The people of this area increasingly live in two different realities. They view the world through two different sets of lenses. This division is as evident in the churches as among the unbelievers. That is because the wealthy and the poor go to different churches. And, as George Barna warns us, our poor are quickly becoming unchurched. They no longer believe there is anything in church for them.

Few of our churches seem to think the gospel has much to say about the social infrastructure that used to give people a common platform upon which to interact with one another. Our streetcars are long gone. So, without a car, you can’t get to work. If you have a car though, you must have insurance. You must also pass emissions control. You must also be able to afford gas. If you have a child you must also pay for childcare. If your company does not provide health insurance, you may have to do without health coverage. If you get sick you will have to go to work anyway because you can’t afford to get off the hamster wheel.

Is this shalom?


Yes, eternal issues are more important than temporal ones. However, shouldn’t the gospel affect our hunger to learn, beautify our surroundings and help others out of poverty and despair?

Millions of our fellow citizens are becoming little more than indentured servants. Others are giving up altogether. In the past, this situation created an environment for spiritual renewal and societal reform.

We need that. Our ‘gospel’ is basically a type of fire insurance, get-out-of-Hell-free card; if indeed it is still even that serious. Our churches are defenders of the status quo. We shout about it not being the government’s place to care for the poor while ignoring the fact that our churches rarely dedicate any significant part of their budgets to care for even their own poor, much less for the poor of society.  So in the end, we are saying that the poor are on their own. The government is not responsible. The churches are not responsible. No one is responsible. 

Churches have gotten dangerously close to preaching what the apostle James said some were preaching in his day: saying to the poor “go on your way; be clothed and fed.” This is the gospel of Ayn Rand and not the gospel of Jesus.

I happen to be a Republican.  I have always believed that private structures, formed by concerned citizens, are more effective ways to lift people out of poverty than government programs. I still believe that. But what happens if we all buy into a form of social Darwinism that teaches us to no longer care about those who suffer?

If we accept that doctrine, we will be committing a form of apostasy more repulsive to our Lord than any of the liberal theologies we have been rightly opposing.

Replacing the passing of the peace with a hearty handshake may be an acceptable modern equivalent for worship. However, if we are replacing our Lord’s charge to establish shalom in the world around us with the empty advice to “be clothed and be fed,” then we have replaced what used to be meaningful deeds with meaningless words.

Chasing Francis poses all sorts of questions. It doesn’t answer them, though.  Perhaps it is enough that the questions bite and awaken us. The state of denial that churches have been in have encouraged us to praise Jesus while ignoring the plight of those for whom he died. That can’t continue. It is a false peace, a cheap serenity we maintain by withdrawing ourselves from the struggle to establish shalom for all of God’s children.

May God’s Peace Be With You.

Now please pass his peace on to all those in your world.

2 comments:

Phillip Michael Garner said...

Perhaps a handshake is but a token, a ritual for avoiding the complication of developing a relationship with a person whose Shalom is suffering the disruption of a world where the illusion of 'fine' is expected civility and the truth is left unspoken. Perhaps people prefer the peace of non involvement with the poor, the troubled, the victims of sin's presence in the world. Sometimes Shalom must be profaned in the face of need and we must allow our world to be disrupted like the suffering. Sometimes we just do church so fast on our busy schedule that the human element of ministry is reduced to a roller coaster program that allows for no human interruption. However the divine always seeks to connect us with one another and God always seems to side with some person whom we would prefer to avoid.

Phillip Michael Garner said...

Perhaps a handshake is but a token, a ritual for avoiding the complication of developing a relationship with a person whose Shalom is suffering the disruption of a world where the illusion of 'fine' is expected civility and the truth is left unspoken. Perhaps people prefer the peace of non involvement with the poor, the troubled, the victims of sin's presence in the world. Sometimes Shalom must be profaned in the face of need and we must allow our world to be disrupted like the suffering. Sometimes we just do church so fast on our busy schedule that the human element of ministry is reduced to a roller coaster program that allows for no human interruption. However the divine always seeks to connect us with one another and God always seems to side with some person whom we would prefer to avoid.