The Rev. Anne Largent Smith

Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Anne, Stockton, California

June 15, 2014: Trinity Sunday, Year A

Texts: Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

 
“Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
 
Years ago I worked for a massive corporation that periodically got employees together for training events. One of them be sexual harassment training. And one of the first questions we were asked in the training was: “Are you a hugger?” To my surprise, about half the room self-identified as huggers. The rest of us did not.
 
That was an enlightening moment for me. I hadn’t particularly thought before about how varied people’s comfort levels are with physical proximity and contact in spaces like the office where I worked. I hadn’t particularly realized how much clearance I liked to give people and how hesitant I was to use touch in the workplace. It made a lot of sense upon reflection. All our different contexts and experiences meant our comfort levels were widely various, and we all had different ideas about what a touch might mean.
 
So in the Episcopal church when we gather for worship, there is always a moment when we are invited to exchange the peace. This community has its particular way of passing the peace, and other church communities have their way. Some people move around, some stay in place. People say different things—just “peace,” or “The peace of Christ,” or “God’s peace,” or even “Good morning”—and they may shake hands or offer a hug or not touch at all. And I have known some people to kiss, on the mouth or the cheek or even in the air.
 
I myself have come a long way from identifying as “not a hugger.” As far as touch goes, I try to do whatever is comfortable for others when passing the peace. We’ve all been on one side or the other of an unequal exchange where one person expects a hug and the other doesn’t, right? I just do my best not to invade people’s space.
 
And that’s just hugging. I have had some surprises where kissing is concerned, too. I have a friend who always kisses on the cheek, but I always forget and am just trying to give her a hug. And then like many children I was made to kiss my grandparents when we greeted them. I remember not liking my grandfather’s tickly mustache. But I also remember that gesture becoming a special way of expressing love for my grandparents, and later for my mother too. And I have even on occasion given a kiss to a parishioner who proffered one, and to people over whom I have prayed.
 
So it turns out that negotiating touch and communicating through it is pretty complicated. No one would argue with me on that, and yet here, smack in the middle of the liturgy, we issue an invitation to do just that. To negotiate a greeting of some kind, and to communicate something through it. And one of the reasons we do that has to do with ancient instructions like the one Paul gives at the end of this letter to the church at Corinth, to “greet one another with a holy kiss.”
 
I suspect that we all have different ideas about what we’re communicating.  A lot of us will have stories about mishaps. And a few of us will have been really thoughtful about what the exchange of peace represents.
 
I once was part a congregation in which certain members were angry with certain others. One person there began avoiding certain people at the exchange of peace because, as he explained to me, he believed if he was angry with them he couldn’t be sincere in wishing them peace. He thought it was disingenuous of him to make such a gesture of friendship when he did not feel friendship for these other people. Needless to say, his relationship to them did not improve.
 
I’m glad he told me his thoughts on not extending the peace, though, because I realized that for me, passing the peace in the liturgy, whether verbally or with a handshake or a hug, doesn’t actually have very much to do with me at all. When I offer the peace, what I mean to do is pray that God’s peace would be upon each person that I greet. And that means I can sincerely exchange the peace with anyone, friend or enemy, because I truly do wish for everyone to know God’s peace.
 
In fact the holy kiss Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthian church has very little to do with reflecting any individual’s positive feelings about the others in that congregation. The church at Corinth was fraught with conflict. Various factions in the church claimed to have more authority than others; their divisions placed their unity as a community at risk. And Paul wants very much for these Christians to realize how central their unity is to their identity as followers of Christ. He exhorts them to love each other, to be patient with each other, and to be humble. He wants them to model themselves after Jesus, who never forgot that he belonged to and relied upon God.
 
And Paul isn’t asking the Corinthians simply to change their minds and their behavior. This is not an exhortation to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get the job done through sheer will and effort. It’s not an admonition to “Don’t worry, be happy.” What Paul wants the Corinthians to realize is that they have been made a new creation! That they are something different now because the Holy Spirit is in their midst, and the Holy Spirit will bring about transformation among them that they cannot accomplish on their own. The Christian community is a miracle, and for Christians to behave as if it isn’t is for Christians to deny the very power that gives us our identity.
 
Several times in his letters, Paul uses the analogy of the body to describe the miracle of our unity in Christ. He emphasizes that we’re all different—unity doesn’t mean uniformity. We’re not all eyes, or ears, or hands, or feet. Everyone has a part to play. But when Paul describes the Christian church as being like a body, we must understand that we are uniquely connected. That what happens to the eye matters even if you’re a foot; that an injured hand matters even to a healthy ear. And that no part is better than the others, and no part can say it doesn’t need the rest.
 
The body, with all its various parts, is a whole, a unit, and in Christ, so are we, the church. It may seem like we can choose at any moment to disassociate ourselves and choose not to be a part of the community anymore, but in fact we can no more separate ourselves from the body of Christ than our ears can jump down onto our shoulders, slide down our arms, and run away down the street.
 
We often think about our membership in the body of Christ in terms of whether we go to church, or how much a part of the community we feel, but the fact is that there’s something far bigger happening within this body. Whether we choose to participate matters, but even if we don’t, we are still bound together. We are bound together by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit present among us, linking us inextricably to one another. And we need one another. We need the gifts of the Spirit that each person brings into this body. We need to be a place where those gifts can find expression for the sake of God’s purposes for the world.
That’s wholeness for us.
 
 
This is what Paul wants the church to realize: that they are as mutually dependent upon and connected to one another as the various parts of the human body are. That miraculously in this world where relationships are broken and estranged so easily, we are united in Christ. We are in relationship even when we need healing, and we move forward by God’s grace with mutual love because that is how our brokenness is redeemed and repaired.
 
Maybe on this Trinity Sunday the church’s understanding of the triune God can help us understand how deeply connected we are in Christ; how close the relationship is that we’re invited into. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three persons; they are individual and complete. And God is one, and so the three are also one. There is unity within the trinity, and mutual indwelling, and yet God is three and yet one.
 
We who are made in God’s image and formed into the body of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit are also joined together so that though many persons we are one. And that moment when we turn to one another to pass the peace is a moment when we recall this profound connection. Whether we’re greeting a spouse of forty years or a stranger we’ve never laid eyes on before, our offering of peace is in a way an acknowledgment of our unity with each other.
 
So while we bring all our human emotions and the tendencies and habits that we’ve developed with each other, yet in Christ, by God’s grace, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we enter a radical new relationship with each other where we recognize ourselves in each person we greet and pray that the God of love and peace be with every person just as we hope that the God of love and peace will be with us ourselves.
 
There’s a mystery to being the body of Christ just as there’s a mystery to God’s Trinitarian nature. We may not understand it or feel it, and we may still be learning how to inhabit this space together, how to know whether to hug or shake hands, how to understand our unity, but we are still in it. We are in the mystery of God’s love here, if only we knew how much. Remember this profound love we share, and our profound connection, as you encounter each other today, and always.
 
Amen.

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