Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th May 2013
5 May 2013 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
One of the developments that has happened in the way the Church of England does its liturgy over the past thirty odd years is that it is now commonplace in the midst of the service to exchange the peace, normally by the simple shaking of hands. The introduction of it in some places years ago was not without controversy. I well remember when I was a University Chaplain the then Dean of Chapel introduced it into the College’s Sunday Eucharist and an undergraduate rather courageously advanced towards an elderly Fellow of the College with outstretched hands saying ‘the peace of the Lord be with you’ and got the reply ‘I don’t want it!’ And I also remember when I was a parish priest being involved in much discussion of the matter in my church, and a regular member of the congregation said that he thought that if we were going to do it at all we should do it right at the start of the service because you normally shook hands with someone when you met them. Both those reactions, I fear, misunderstood the point.
For the exchange of the peace is about something far more fundamental than simply saying hello to a stranger or even greeting a friend. And it is not an accident that it comes at the point where it does in the service. For what have we done beforehand?
Well, we have listened to the Word of God, both read from the Bible and, hopefully, expounded in the address; by the time of the peace we have prayed for the world as well as for the church; and on that basis we move to the central act of the Eucharist, the prayer of thanksgiving and the sharing of the bread and wine. But, most importantly, we have also confessed our sins and been assured of God's forgiveness. And that changes everything. Because that means that all that we do, even all that is there in our friendships if we shake hands with those we know here, we have placed under the judgement of God. Now I know, and I expect it is true for many of you as well, that in my friendships there is bad as well as good. I don't mean bad in the sense of improper relationships or anything like that, but bad in the sense of shared prejudices, shared dislikes, shared negative judgements of others, may be even a shared sense of being part of a group that excludes those who do not share our core values. Friendship is a wonderful thing, and I am glad to be able to count many in this Abbey community as, I hope, my friends, but we mustn't be blind or blinkered about it, friendship is as much contaminated by original sin as any of the other things we do, and as the basis for Christian fellowship it can be profoundly flawed.
And what we do in the confession, or should be doing, is noting that, and confessing it. Original sin doesn't mean some event long ago in the past from which all bad flowed, but it does mean that everything we do, even the good things we do, are often at least partly flawed by the dishonesty, evasion, self-deception that is part of all of our make-up as people. And among other things it is that which we confess in the confession. It is not a process of grubbing around in our memories to find the particular peccadilloes which we may have indulged since we last said the confession, it is rather an honest recognition that we are all far from perfect people, and when we come before God we must come first as penitent sinners, needing his love and his grace. And that, of course, is what is then offered by God, forgiveness, grace and love. The incredible privilege and responsibility of priesthood is to be able to pronounce on God's behalf the assurance of sins forgiven. But the priest does that not from any position of superiority, but because he or she knows that they are there in the same place, at the foot of the cross, needing God's love and grace and forgiveness as much as anyone else.
And it is only after that when we exchange the peace. It is not a sign of friendship, it is not a mark of being part of a rather peculiar club of those who happen to enjoy liturgy, still less is it any sign of being superior about being a Christian. But it is a sign that here, whatever may be true outside this building, here we meet in a particular place, at the bottom of the pile, with all our worldly pretensions stripped away, as sinners needing God's forgiveness and grace, and knowing that we have received it at the foot of the cross. That is the peace that Jesus was talking about in the Gospel passage for today, the peace he leaves us, ‘the peace he gives us that is not as the world gives.’ And it is on that basis and on that basis alone, that we find our peace with one another.
In this period after Easter we use a special introduction to the peace, but one of the ones that is used regularly through the rest of the year simply says 'Christ is our peace. He has reconciled us to God in one body by the cross. We meet in his name and share his peace.’ It is not friendship, not shared values, not liking or agreeing with one another, but Christ and his offer of forgiveness that is the basis of our peace. Perhaps if we all really knew that in our hearts then our fellowship, and even our friendships, might be more mature.