Passing the Peace


A sermon preached on June 3rd, 2018 based upon Mark 2:23- 3:6. For this Sunday, the order of worship was changed so that the “Passing of the Peace” occurred after the sermon and before Holy Communion. 

When we hear about the Pharisees in the Gospels and their conflicts with Jesus, we tend see them as the “bad guys”.  Why did they have to give Jesus such a hard time? 

But truth be told the Pharisees get a bad rap.  All of us tend to be a lot more like the Pharisees than like Jesus.  They were people who worked really hard to do their duty, to live what they understood to be a “moral life”.  Like you and me, they recognized that the forces of chaos in this world are powerful expending a lot of energy trying to keep those forces at bay.  When things started to feel like their lives were getting out of control and when their turf seemed threatened, their instinct was to harden their hearts, shutting down their capacity to feel empathy and compassion.

Who among us can’t identify with that?

 Our reading this morning takes place on the Sabbath with the Pharisees twice taking a posture of criticizing – of passing judgment towards Jesus in what they considered a defense of the traditions of the Sabbath.  Jesus and his disciples walk through a farmer’s fields and in their hunger his disciples pluck off a few grains to eat.  Hey, that’s work! say the Pharisees.  Later in the synagogue they watch Jesus as he is about to bring healing to a man with a withered hand.  Again, healing is a form of work.  There are six other days when such work can be done.  Jesus is displeasing God by playing fast and loose with the rules God gave us. Jesus is a threat to order and tradition.  

 In response Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  He reminds the Pharisees of why God commanded the people to keep the Sabbath in the first place.  God wasn’t giving us something we had to do in order to please God.  No, God gave us this commandment as a blessing, not a burden. In Deuteronomy God reminds the people that once upon a time they were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.  Pharaoh routinely worked them to the bone, never giving them a day off, sucking the very life and humanity out of them. No, says God.  Moving forward you will always have a day of rest, a day to lay your burdens down, a day to have body and spirit restored.   

The Sabbath is a gift of grace.  When we can experience life as a gift before it is a duty, gratitude and compassion naturally rise up inside us. We recognize that all of us are carrying around heavy burdens — that we are all in this together — connected deep down at the roots.

The Pharisees see themselves as the defenders of the Sabbath, but they are in fact the ones who aren’t keeping Sabbath because criticizing passing judgment is a kind of work.  Again, it’s not hard to identify with this tendency of the Pharisees because we too find it hard to enter into Sabbath rest.  Try and sit in silence, letting our minds rest, emptying our minds of all thoughts and what happens?  Our brains compulsively try to keep working.  Thoughts rush in to fill the vacuum that are basically various kinds of criticisms and judgments:  problems that either we ourselves or somebody else haven’t solved.  Our minds are like Pharaoh, the mighty taskmaster.

There are times and places in life when we are obliged to make criticisms and pass judgments of ourselves and others, but the Sabbath isn’t one of them, and we are called to recognize that ultimately all our criticisms and judgments are flawed, that in the end this work is God’s burden, not ours.

The Sabbath is a time to lay that burden down.  Life in this world has a way of hardening our hearts – creating walls between ourselves and others.  When we are able to enter into Sabbath rest we give the Holy Spirit opportunity to begin softening our hardened hearts.

Consequently, the Sabbath is a time to experience reconciliation and this is doubly so when Jesus is understood to be, as he declares, the Lord of the Sabbath.

So why did I change the order of worship this morning?  I did so that I might talk how all this applies to what we do in worship every Sunday.

Typically at the beginning of our worship I stand up here and I declare to you the Good News of Jesus Christ.  I’m not just giving you my opinion.  I’m telling you the Gospel message.  I’m telling it not just to you; I’m telling it to me as well, because I too need to hear it.

I declare that although we have all messed up, that the powers of darkness have held each of us in bondage, that we’ve all had our hearts hardened and in various ways lost our way — this moment is a new beginning because we have gathered in Jesus’ name and he is here with his great love to set us free.    We can lay our burdens down.

Charlie Kinsley, bless his heart, said to me once, “Jeff, you know that time in the service where you stand up in front of us and tell us that God loves us and we’re all God’s children?” “Yes?” I said.  “Don’t ever get tired of saying that.” Charlie loves to hear it, he needs to hear it, and so do we all.

We all need a fresh beginning.

So we sing Alleluia – all together in one voice from 3 year old Ryan to 91 year old Doris — and then I remind us that God has given us a gift of peace that sets us free from fear and hostility — that Christ has brought down the walls that divide us.

And then we start our passing of the peace and in our church this goes on for quite some time, and that’s great.  But the point I’m making is that the passing of the peace is more than just an opportunity to greet our friends, as nice as that is.  It is about embracing this new reality that God in Jesus has made possible — this fresh beginning where our hard hearts are softened.

Hopefully we’re looking into the eyes of everybody we greet. As the saying goes, “the eyes are the doorway to the soul.”  As we do we think to ourselves, “this person before me is God’s beloved child, who carries burdens unknown to me.  Let me open my heart to this person.”

We do this with the people we feel friendly with, but if we’re entering the true spirit of the passing of the peace, then we will also seek out people we’re maybe not feeling so friendly towards – the people with whom perhaps we feel some hard feelings – and look them in the eyes and claim God’s peace with them – a fresh beginning.

May wife and I have been married for almost 25 years.  Believe it or not, on occasion we have “disagreements”.  In other words, “fights.” Our feelings get hurt.  Instinctively, we harden our hearts to one another. There have been times when this wall remains between us through to Sunday morning.

Over the years, there have been quite a few times when the moment when the wall came down was when we greeted one another in the passing of the peace.

If we are entering the true spirit of the passing of the peace, then we will also seek out the stranger among us, look into that person’s eyes, and recognize a brother or a sister in God’s family.  The Good News we are claiming makes all the invisible people visible.

So I moved the parts of the service around today so we could do it after I talked about it, but it also is doubly important as a lead up to Holy Communion.  In the sermon on the mount Jesus said that if we are offering our gift at the altar and remember that there is somebody that we aren’t reconciled with, then we are to go back and make peace with that person before returning to the altar.

When we come to the altar to receive gift of the bread and the cup that remind us of Jesus’ great love, we are offering our very selves to God.

Our passage this morning concludes with those Pharisees leaving the synagogue with their hearts hardened against Jesus.  Instead of seeking out the reconciliation that would soften their hearts, they go out and conspire with the Herodians – a group they usually had no alliances with – regarding how they could destroy Jesus.

So it was hardened hearts that led to Jesus getting nailed to the cross.

We all have had a hand in this.  We come to the altar humbled, aware that we are all in this together, ready with great gratitude to receive the gift of grace that sets us free to live, to love, to know joy even as we live in this broken world, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s new creation.