(Appeared first in October 2010, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
“Shalom!” I can still hear this customary greeting from Raymond Charles, once my overseer. He nearly always began his sermons with this word of greeting, beckoning his hearers to respond with a hearty “Shalom!” The ancient Hebrew greeting best expressed Raymond’s desire for peace embodied in holistic wellbeing.
Raymond may well have been pursuing the same goal that Jesus had in mind when he sent his disciples two by two ahead of him to announce the coming reign of God. Among other words of instruction, he said to them, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If the head of the house loves peace, your peace will rest on that house; if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5-6).
I have been meditating on the significance of this instruction of Jesus to his disciples. Was he simply endorsing ancient customs applicable only to his day? Or should this saying provide guidance for greetings in our day? What might prompt us to begin a conversation or social exchange with words of peace?
In some cultures, it is common courtesy to exchange words of peace with the people you meet. Jews use the words “shalom aleichem.” Muslims use a phrase that sounds similar—”salaam alaikum.” Both phrases may be translated “Peace to you” in English.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus greeted his frightened disciples with the words, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36). In a sermon at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., on April 11, pastor Phil Kniss expounded on this Lucan text. He compared the troubled disciples hiding behind closed doors to a game huddle at half time. He then introduced the ritual of “passing the peace.” In each Sunday service, we now turn to two or three people near us—whether they are dear friends or unknown visitors—and greet them with the words, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and they respond, “and also with you.” (See http://www.pvmcsermons.com/2010/04/phil-kniss-jesus-at-half-time.html for a fuller explanation. Pastor Kniss explained the greeting of peace near the end of the sermon.) In a reflection later on, Phil explained to me that “daily conversations at home, at work or in the public are often laced with sharp, competitive or even hostile words in which the speaker seeks the advantage and sets the stage for deeper alienation or violence.” Together we wonder how Christians might change this atmosphere by first saying words of peace in every human encounter.
One can apply this teaching in written communication as well. Jennifer Davis Sensenig, lead pastor at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, prefaces her emails—even brief requests for information—with the words, “Peace be with you.” She explains her practice this way:
“High tech, high touch” is now a cliché, but a greeting of peace is my humble attempt to yield even electronic communication to the touch of the gospel. We never know what situations the recipient of our email may be facing. ‘Peace be with you’ may be the only words of Jesus that he or she hears that day. More than once, this habit has helped me modify not only an email but my attitude of complaint, obstinacy or self-importance. Greetings of peace are also appreciated by people who do not identify with any faith tradition. I agree with Jesus that a gesture of peace is a great way to begin.”
Having reflected on Jesus’ teaching and the examples of respected leaders, I now believe that Jesus’ instruction to his disciples has much to say about social practices today. I invite you to take a journey with me, experimenting with new ways of greeting those we meet—strangers as well as friends. Who knows what new vistas of healing and hope may emerge through our heartfelt announcements of God’s shalom?