First be reconciled to your brother or sister. . .
For some people, the moments in the liturgy following the prayers of the church are awkward ones. The presiding minister offers these words: "The peace of Christ be with you always." The congregation responds "And also with you." The members of the congregation are then invited to "share the peace" with one another. What does that really mean?
Sharing God’s peace is not simply offering a friendly hello to those sitting around you. Sharing God’s peace is not a time for catching up on news with your neighbor or for reminding someone about an upcoming meeting. Sharing God’s peace does not require each worshiper to offer a sign of God’s peace to every other worshiper present.
Sharing God’s peace with one another is an act of reconciliation. It is an opportunity for God’s people to be reconciled with one another as they offer their gifts to God and before they receive the gift of Holy Communion.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, lays a foundation for the practice of sharing God’s peace. "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24).
Other sources from the early church confirm the practice of sharing the gift of peace. In the Didache, an early Christian writing nearly as old as many of the New Testament writings, the Christian community is encouraged to "come together on the Lord’s day, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. Anyone who has a quarrel with his fellow should not gather with you until he has been reconciled, lest your sacrifice be profaned."
This passage from the Didache confirms that the pattern Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount became a regular weekly occurrence in the early Christians’ practice of Holy Communion.
Over centuries, the exchange of peace sometimes came later in the service, after the Lord’s Prayer and before the distribution of Communion. Some congregations still exchange the peace at this point, though the preferred placement in Evangelical Lutheran Worship is following the intercessory prayers and before the offering (quite likely the more ancient pattern).
That the sharing of the peace follows the prayers of the church is not accidental. Having been forged into a common people in Holy Baptism, the congregation prays for peace in the Church, peace in the world, and peace for all those in need. Then the congregation follows through with the people offering peace and reconciliation to one another. This is not human peace alone, but the peace which is possible only through Christ. Then, after the exchange of peace, material gifts are offered to God, for the well-being and peace of the Church, the world, and its people. Finally, having prayed for and enacted the peace, we receive the Holy Communion.
Seen in context, it is clear why the exchange of Christ’s peace is not a time for saying "Good morning," or for commenting on a neighbor’s new outfit, or for reminding someone about next week’s potluck supper. It is, rather, a time to set aside our human differences and to recognize and enact our baptismal unity as children of God.
What can the exchange of peace teach us for daily living? Christians are a people who seek reconciliation with one another. Making peace is a daily action in our lives. We do not need to wait to come to church on Sunday morning in order to make peace with our neighbors and our family members. Sharing God’s peace is a daily opportunity.
- Van Loon, Ralph R. and S. Anita Stauffer. Worship Wordbook. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995. This "worship dictionary" offers historical information and practical guidance regarding the rites and rubrics of Lutheran Book of Worship and Occasional Services. An important reference volume for use by pastors, worship committees, and altar guilds. ISBN: 0806605480.