Peter and Paul giving each other the holy kiss before their martyrdom.
(Alonzo Rodriguez, 16th century, Museo Regionale diMessina).
“Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss”
The request might strike modern, western readers as a bit odd. We are not accustomed to kissing everyone at church; such activity is normally restricted to a few people with whom we are close. But the exchange of a kiss seems to have been a natural expression between community members in the early church (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Pet 5:14). There is even some evidence from the writings of Justin Martyr that the exchange of a kiss was a normal part of the Eucharist celebration.
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. (I Apol.65.2).
While some people will be more comfortable with this expression than others, I don’t think we need to take Paul’s injunction here as a command that we kiss one another. His request here is no different than when we say to someone “say hi to Sally for me, and give Bob a hug.” Paul is merely communicating what was a culturally acceptable way of expressing friendship. What is significant, however, is how this action might have been observed by those outside of the community. Knowing that the Christian community often included people of various ethnic and social backgrounds, (Jew and Gentile, rich and Poor, slave and free), it would have been shocking to some to witness the blurring of social lines not only by joining together for worship, but also physically embracing and kissing each other. Such displays of Christian love would have been similar to those who crossed the color boundary under Jim Crow in the USA. What we can and should take away here is Christians having a visible, concrete way to express their love for one another. That may involve a hand shake, a hug, a kiss or even foot washing.
I suggested that we may not need to follow Paul’s words exactly since kissing in western culture is not normally something one does outside of family circles and a few close friends. But I wonder if a handshake or a hug is enough? I noted above that the kiss would have the blurred the social lines in the Greco-Roman world and would have gotten the attention of non-Christians. What is it that we do today, as believers, which makes us stand out? I am not talking about stands we take on issues, the charity we promote or the causes we support. What physical expression of love do we practice as Christians with other Christians?
I remember growing up in a church where it was the habit to “pass the peace” between the confession of sin and the beginning of the Eucharist. This seems to be a carryover of what Justin Martyr described as a normal part of the Eucharist celebration (I Apol. 65.2). What it looked like was a “break” in the service. For a few minutes everyone got out of their pew and greeted, shook hands with others and even took a brief moment to ask how someone was doing with a quick promise of “see you after the service.” It was like a mini fellowship session right in the middle. But it wasn’t always that way. For quite a while it was a dour occasion, people limply shaking hands, mumbling “peace” and maybe attempting a smile. Then one day we had someone who was excited about his faith and the chance to be in church. When it came time for passing the peace he would hug people, slap them on the back and show just how happy he was to be there. His greeting expressed his thanks to God and for the people in the church. It broke down barriers and anyone coming to the church as a visitor could not doubt that the people there loved each other.
There is a hymn from the 1960s in which the refrain says: “And they'll know we are Christians By our love, by our love, Yes, they'll know we are Christians By our love.” We might ask ourselves “does our love for one another reflect that we are Christian?” I am not referring to the way display love through charity and helping others. But is there something that we do that helps other around us to look and say “those are Christians, I can see it by their love.” It was this way for the Thessalonians. In 4:9-10 Paul recounts that the Thessalonians were well-known for their brotherly love. It’s possible that the kiss they offered to those who entered their assembly, regardless of social standing, was one of the things that got others attention. In the Brethren tradition it is common to combine foot-washing and Eucharist together. Many will find this to be an uncomfortable exercise. But it can also be a humble, loving thing to do for a brother or sister. It’s hard to think more highly of ourselves when we are looking at someone else’s feet. Greeting with a kiss, hugging, washing feet or serving one another communion are different ways we can express love physically to our brothers and sisters.
What expressions of love do you practice in your tradition that would clue others in that you are Christian?