Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"With a Holy Kiss"

Message preached May 26, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Order of Worship

            For three summers, back in my college days, I was on summer staff at a Church of the Brethren camp in Pennsylvania. Over the weekends a group of us would often visit different churches for worship. Just down the road from Camp Swatara was a Dunkard Brethren congregation. No, I didnít say "drunkard" Brethren. Believe me, these were very sober people.

            Dunkard Brethren are an offshoot of our denomination, who broke away in the 1920's, believing the Church of the Brethren had become too "worldly." These folks are more conservative in their dress and practice. Those of us visiting from Camp Swatara that Sunday morning knew that as soon as we entered the meetinghouse. For one thing, in that church the women sat on one side of the sanctuary, and the men on the other. Furthermore, there were no short dresses or jeans. The females all wore prayer coverings. The men were in your basic black pants with suspenders over white shirts, no ties - many with a beard and no mustache.

            As far as worship was concerned, forget about any organ or piano. The hymns were all "lined" by the music leader. That is, he sang a "line" of the hymn and the congregation repeated it. When the time came for prayer everyone stood up, turned around, and kneeled with their elbows resting on the pews. Believe me, these were no short prayers. They were as long as the womenís dresses, and then some.

            One of the most peculiar things to me, however, was that when they came to church and met each another, and when The "kiss of peace," illustrated by G.W.  Peters. Scribner's Magazine (Nov. 1901) 525.they parted, they kissed. Mind you, the men didnít kiss the women or vice versa. Since I was seated on the male side of the congregation, I noticed the interactions between the men more than the women. They each warmly extended a right hand to the other person and, above the handshake, kissed each other on the lips or the cheek.

            Now, this was not totally foreign to me. In the first place, we didnít go to worship there unaware of the practice of these people. We tried to dress appropriately ourselves, wanting to be respectful. Furthermore, many of the things they did were somewhat similar to what many of us had grown up with. Take the kissing part. At my first Love Feast after I joined the Brethren, I had to deal with the feetwashing part, after which the man who washed my feet stood, extended his hand and kissed me - which I remember as being kind of neat and kind of gross at the same time.

            Here was a group of people, however, who didnít just do this only twice a year at Love Feast, but every Sunday, whenever they encountered a brother or sister in the faith. I donít know if this is still their practice. That was over twenty-five years ago, and sometimes things change - like they did in our own denomination. Once upon a time, that was what the Brethren in our church did every time they met. In the nineteenth century, Brethren greeted each other with such a kiss every time they encountered one another, whether at church or in the marketplace. You might guess that they gradually stopped such public displays, eventually reserving what was called the "right hand of fellowship" and the "holy kiss" for whenever they gathered as a church.

            Why did they do this? Why did they kiss? Why do we have that part in our own Love Feast today, even though we donít generally do it at any other time? Well, the first simple answer is - because the Bible says so. The instruction, repeated several times in the New Testament, canít be much plainer. "Greet one another with a holy kiss," the apostle Paul wrote to the folks in Rome (Romans 16:16), twice to the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12), and also to the church in Thessalonika (1 Thessalonians 5:26). Paul wasnít the only one, though. In his first letter, Peter wrote, "Greet one another with a kiss of love" (1 Peter 5:14).

            Taking my turn as a chaperone at a Middle School dance the other week, I noticed there were a lot of somewhat similar greetings going on, but I donít think they were quite along the lines of what Paul and Peter had in mind. It was, I saw, more common among the girls to extend a hug (not so much a kiss) to each other. As far as I could see, there were no guys hugging each other. There were some (probably only a handful, primarily 8th graders) practicing this kind of greeting between guys and girls, though this was probably more connected to the raging hormones in that room than to any sense of Christian fellowship - wouldnít you say?

            "Greet one another with a holy kiss." When we, today, first hear those words, our ears listen through the filter we have been given by our society. And what comes through into our brains is the three letter word, "sex." It begins early. "George and Martha sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g; first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage." Now, thereís nothing wrong with that little childís rhyme, but the filter of our culture censors out different interpretations of what happens between us. Did you hear what I just said? Often those who speak out about censorship fail to see that our culture censors out things without us being aware of it.

            For instance, we see two men kissing and what do we think? Okay, now provide a backdrop of an Arab society where it is not uncommon for men to hold hands or kiss. Sex is not in the equation. It is our perverted brains that insert it there, because our culture has so sexualized every aspect of human interaction that we are ignorant of anything else. If we are honest about ourselves and the Bible, this Arab backdrop is probably closer to the New Testament than we are.

            "Greet one another with a holy kiss," Paul wrote. The word "holy" should probably give us a clue that something Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. May our greeting be true - real love not betrayal.different is going on here, just like when Peter said, "Greet one another with a kiss of love," he had something other than an erotic interaction in mind - else wise he would not have used the Greek word "Agape," which has to do with the kind of love God has for us. A kiss that is "holy." A kiss that reveals "Godís love." That was what both Paul and Peter encouraged of those early believers. Greet one another in such a way that it is clear from the outset that your relationship is holy and grounded in Godís love. Thatís what those Dunkard Brethren in that congregation I visited long ago were conveying to one another. Thatís what we are trying to say to each other today during our Love Feast.

            Now, if a kiss is just too sexualized by the filter of our culture which is implanted in our brains, we need to find other ways of conveying this to each other. Our relationship to one another as part of Godís family is holy and centered in the love God has for us, a love made real to us in Jesus Christ. Think back, my friends, to your first kiss. No, Iím not talking about the first time you kissed someone of the opposite sex. It probably took place long before you were even aware. On the day of your birth, hopefully, someone who loved you deeply kissed you. And that began a connection which runs deep and wide.

            Of even greater import, though, is the "kiss" (if you will) of someone who loves you more than an earthly parent ever could. This is your true "first kiss," given before you knew how to kiss back. It could be said that everything we do as believers in and followers of Christ is our way of "kissing back" the One who first loved us. Discipleship is Godís love in action. And when disciples meet, they remind one another of who they are. They "greet one another with a holy kiss." Or they find some other way of expressing this holy connection, of grounding their relationship in the love of God.

            Though the Brethren were one of the first in this nation to refrain from owning slaves, that doesnít mean they didnít struggle with things like racism. Annual Conference, the highest authority in the church, stated in 1835, "Inasmuch as we receive our fellow members with the holy kiss, and there is repugnance in some of our white members to salute colored persons in this manner, the colored members should bear with that weakness, and not offer the kiss to such weak members until they become stronger, and make the first offer."  (Minutes of the Annual Meetings of the Church of the Brethren, 1778-1909, Elgin, IL, Brethren Publishing House, 1909, p. 60)

            While we still struggle with the fact that our denomination is not as multiethnic as it could be, that seems to be changing right along with our culture - a change I believe is for the better, a change happening simply because our society is more colorful, and a bit less resistant to the mixing of races. In many ways, we are becoming more like what the world Paul and Peter faced when they shared the good news. The Roman world was a smorgasbord of races and cultures.

            What the early church offered was a family of faith that transcended race and class. There was an undeniable warmth to these people that was contagious. Even when they were not related to each other by birth or marriage, they really loved each other - across all boundaries. Persons who were at the "supposed" bottom of things - slaves, servants - they were connected in Christ to, they loved and were loved by those who were at a very different station in life - upper-class folks, slave owners. There was no distinction in Christ.

            Thatís what this "holy kiss" was all about. If someone who was at one income level, of one ethnic group, of whatever boundary that society sought to insert; if this person was unable to cross over and step onto the common, holy ground of Godís love in Christ with another brother or sister, and seal it with a kiss, then something was wrong. Refraining from the kiss was a sign among our Brethren forebears that a relationship needed attention, that a brother was wandering from the faith, that a sister was in danger, that reconciliation in Christ was necessary. Sharing the "right hand of fellowship" and the "kiss of peace" indicated that "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit" were "with" them all (2 Corinthians 13:13). It still does.

            Now, to be honest, Iím not sure we can go "back" to this practice. We may need to find other ways of expressing the same thing. Like when my brother-in-Christ, Jeff Wolf - who is new to the Brethren - pulls me into a bear hug for no other reason than to express that in our relationship in Jesus, we are standing on holy ground, and Godís love in Christ is at the center of who we are in this family of faith... So, finally, my brothers and sisters, along with the apostles Peter and Paul, I urge you - no matter what form it takes - "Greet one another with a holy kiss."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see 2 Corinthians.

see also:

         "On the Holy Kiss," from Texts in Transit II, by Graydon F. Snyder and Kenneth Shaffer, ©1991, Brethren Press, Elgin, IL, pp. 149-157.
         "Kiss, Holy," by L. Herman Shuman, from The Brethren Encyclopedia, ©1983, The Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc., p. 698-699.

©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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