There is a moment which arrives in the middle of every service that, I know, gives some people a real sense of dread. It's a relatively new innovation. Those of us who are over 40 remember only too well when the idea of Sharing the Peace was first introduced into our services. Before that, the priest would say "May the peace of the Lord be always with you". Everyone would reply "and also with you" - and the priest would announce the offertory hymn. Simple as that.
But back in the 1970s and 1980s, someone - I don't know who - decided that it would be a good idea to 'share the peace' in a more tangible way. For many of the older generation - this was truly an awful thing to do. For many, it completely disrupted the solemnity of the service.
As a response to this new innovation, those masters of the comedy song, Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern, wrote the following words, about a fictional character, called Mrs Beamish...
Mrs Beamish stands in church,
expression calm and holy...
(the remainder of the song is withheld out of copyright respect for the authors). Please go to this link to obtain them)
The whole song underlines that sense of uneasiness which some people have at sharing 'the Peace'. In my last parish, there were people who would routinely ask me whether I was going to make them share the peace at the next Sunday's service. If I said that I planned to, they would simply not come.
Now I do understand something of the nervousness. I confess to not finding it the easiest experience myself...especially when I'm not leading from the front. You know what it's like - you turn around and look for someone's hand to shake...but there's no-one there...'cause they are all shaking hands with other people! So you stand there like Billy No-mates, waking for a hand to become available. And then, when you do find an available victim, what should you do...a polite handshake, a 'holy kiss' on the cheek, or a charismatic bear-hug?! And if I shake one person's hand, and exchange a kiss with another - what does that communicate to the person who only got a handshake...do they feel less loved or valuable?
So, let me be frank. I have some grave reservations about the Peace...but...but...I do think that it has an important place within church life.
Does anyone know what a liturgical action is? Sharing of the peace is a 'liturgical' action...its an action which has deeper meaning. There's a real danger sometimes - especially in Anglican churches, that so much of the service is conducted from the front of the church - by the priest - that congregations can become more like audiences. I think it is vitally important that people have the opportunity to engage in liturgical action - and that's for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is a visible sign that worship is something we do together. Those of us in the congregation are not passive recipients of worship - having worship done to us! We are also participants. By singing, standing together, reading and praying together, sharing the peace together - we live out the practical reality that we are the body of Christ - called to be the people of Jesus in this place.
The second reason that sharing the peace is a good thing - is because things that we act out tend to be much more memorable than things we merely observe. You might watch 100 episodes of Top Gear - but until you've sat behind the wheel of a car, you can never be a driver. By touching and doing things together, we help them to become rooted with us. Things we do together are important. They are what help to define us - and they help to give us shared memories...memories which become the heart of our community.
One of the complaints that I've often heard about sharing the Peace is the one that goes: "It's not very peaceful is it?!" And people who say that are right, of course. The Peace is anything but peaceful. In fact, around here its quite often total chaos - and I have to shout to make myself heard when it is time to announce the next hymn.
But in fact, we shouldn't be surprised about this. Jesus quite clearly told his disciples that the kind of peace he was offering was 'a peace which the world cannot give' (cf John 14:27). When we share peace, we are not sharing silence, but peace. This is peace in terms of a lack of conflict...not the peace of a period of silence. As the standard words of introduction have it..."let us therefore make for peace, and for all that builds up our common life". This peace we share is a liturgical demonstration of our one-ness, of our peace with our neighbours, through Christ. It is the "peace of God which passes all understanding" - an expression of the peace of our souls granted to us through Jesus, which we share with one another.
This peace that we share is the kind of peace that exists between people who 'love Jesus, and keep Jesus' word' - to paraphrase another section of today's gospel reading. Jesus is quite unequivocal in what he says in verse 23. "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them". This statement was actually made in response to a question...from a disciple called Judas. He had asked Jesus, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world". By his reply, Jesus teaches that he will be revealed in the lives of his followers - in those who love him, and who keep his word.
Jesus' word - or, as he calls his word a few verses earlier, his commandments - are pretty simple. Love God, and love your neighbour. "On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets." (Mt 22:40). In other words, it is only people who are living lives of love - for God and for those around them - who can ever really know what God's peace is like. We could sit in silence for a whole hour - but never know peace...if inside our minds we are filled with resentment, or hatred, or if we are lacking forgiveness towards one another. God's peace is not silence - in fact God's peace cries out from the Cross with a loud shout "It is finished". God's peace is a kind of peace that passes all human understanding - because it is peace between God and humans, and peace between people whose normal instinct is to make war with one another.
One more thought about sharing the peace - which I wonder whether you've ever considered. As we grasp each other's hands, we say the words "peace be with you". What we are doing, in fact, is praying for one another. As I take hold of your hand, I pray that you will know the real peace of God. You pray for me too - that I also may know God's peace. We are praying for each other in a real, tangible way. At the moment of sharing peace, prayer is rising above the whole congregation. Arguments and even hurt feelings over some previous slight or other is put aside while we pray for each other's peace.
It is for that reason that I want to encourage you to learn to see the sharing of the Peace in a new light. Sharing the Peace is a time of prayer. Its a holy moment of real significance....as we make this liturgical action together. By our action, we demonstrate with our bodies what we pray for with our souls - that each one of us may know God's peace. We do it together, as the body of Christ, finding healing and reconciliation between us.
So, to Mrs Beamish, and all who share her opinion, I would urge a re-evaluation of this important gesture. There, just before we gather together around the Lord's Table, we have an opportunity to pray for one another. We have the chance to make peace with our sister or brother - and come, as one body, united in peace, to share the Supper of our Lord.