I wasn’t expecting it. One minute I was standing there with my head bowed and my eyes closed in prayer, and the next thing I knew I was being gathered up into the arms of a great big bearded man who was planting scratchy kisses on both of my cheeks, and right behind him stood a cluster of other big bearded men who were all waiting their turn to do the very same thing to me.
The Holy Kiss is something that my wife’s mother’s people – the Dunkards (Old German Brethren Baptists) – believe is a sacrament on par with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and they can show you the verses in the Bible that they say make it so (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; and I Peter 5:14). A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. The outward and visible sign of the sacrament of Baptism is water. The inward and invisible grace to which it points is forgiveness – being washed thoroughly from our wickedness and cleansed from our sin (Psalm 51:2). The outward and visible sign of Communion is the bread and cup. The inward and invisible grace to which they point is the saving work and presence of Christ. And the outward and visible sign of the Holy Kiss my Dunkard kin would tell you is the kiss itself, and the inward and invisible grace to which it points is the peace of reconciliation. This is the blessing of the seventh Beatitude, the blessing of being a peacemaker because you are a child of God.
Paul told the Ephesians that this is what Jesus Christ came to do. In Ephesians chapter 1:3-14 Paul blessed God the Father for all of the spiritual blessings with which He has blessed us in Christ (1:3). These 12 verses are one of the most detailed explorations in the Bible of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and right in the middle of the list is this stunning announcement –
With full wisdom and understanding God let us know his secret plan. This was what God wanted, and he planned to do it through Christ. God’s goal was to finish his plan when the right time came. He planned that all things in heaven and on earth be joined together with Christ as the head. [vs. 8-10 – ERV]
This is a staggering announcement. God has “let us in on” His secret plan. We know what God wants! We know what God’s doing! In this world where everything seems to be flying apart and everybody seems to be at ever-deepening and angry odds, God came to us in Jesus Christ to pull it all back together again.
The official Identity Statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) says –
We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.
That’s the mission statement of an Ephesians 1:8-10 church, and I became a Disciple of the basis of the promise that this is precisely the kind of church that we are – a seventh Beatitude kind of church, a blessed peacemaker church.
You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!” Well, I wasn’t born into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here as fast as I could. I like to tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own when I was teenager. I visited the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, and I found something in every one of these faith traditions that I could affirm, which only made my search that much more complicated.
Spiritually, I began to understand that I was not going to be an “easy fit” anywhere. I wanted the compassionate activism of the Methodists, the sense of community of the Mormons, the spiritual fervor of the Pentecostals, the deep thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the beautiful tradition of the Catholics, the personal freedom of the Congregationalists, the Biblical emphasis of the Baptists, and the blessed hope of the Adventists. I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart. I am just not wired for “my way or the highway” kind of thinking. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with people who are different from me and my way of believing. I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, and how they see. To be sure, I have my own settled convictions which I would argue I have learned from the Scriptures. I believe some things deeply, and I try to preach and teach those things just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can. But, I know that there are other ways of believing too, and equally committed believers who are just as passionate about what they’ve learned from their serious engagement with the Bible as well, conclusions which in some matters stand at wide variance with my own.
I experienced this during my search for a spiritual home when I was a young Christian. As I sojourned among the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, I quickly came to two conclusions: (1) That there were some defining issues and insights that were characteristic of each of the various churches I visited to which they were fully committed and about which they were very passionate, and (2) That they didn’t agree with each other about these things. And so at the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured both the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 48 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.” But 48 years ago all I knew was that what I was going to need in order to spiritually thrive was a faith community that was absolutely clear and crazy about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and one that also honored the rich variety of ways that different people have experienced and understood Him through the years.
The most helpful resource I found in those days to help me navigate this journey “home” was Leo Rosten’s book Religions in America (Simon & Schuster – 1963). This was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the faiths, churches and denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade. This book functioned as a spiritual Sears Roebuck catalogue for me. I’d read through the essays one after the other like a shopper eagerly searching for the perfect product to meet their needs, and it was when I got to James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that I caught my first glimpse of “home.” It was this one line from that essay that captured my heart’s imagination –
There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.
This is the kind of church that I went looking for 48 years ago, and this is the kind of church that I still want to be part of today – a church where “each person is responsible for his/her own believing according to the dictates of his/her own conscience,” and where they can “sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper.” But here 48 years later what I have learned is that it’s not easy to be and do church like this. The centripetal forces seem to be push harder these days than the centrifugal forces pull. It feels more like things are flying apart than that they are coming together. Maybe this is why Paul told the Ephesians that this unity that Jesus Christ came to establish was something that they were going to have to be “eager to maintain” (4:3). It was something that they were going to have to keep working on themselves.
The church in Ephesus was a divided church. There were people who had come to Christ out of Judaism who were members of it, as well as people who had come to Christ out of paganism. These were not people who naturally associated with each other before they found themselves standing side by side in Christian worship. Jewish men their whole lives long had prayed a prayer every morning upon rising that thanked God that they had not been born Gentiles, and then suddenly, because they embraced Jesus as the Christ, they found themselves in spiritual community with Gentiles. They didn’t understand this, and they didn’t like it. They felt spiritually superior to and more entitled than the Gentile Believers in the church. They were, after all, the chosen people. God had a special history and a special relationship with them that had found its fulfillment in Christ. What they didn’t know was that God had history and a relationship with the Gentiles too. God is “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:15) Paul told them. The Saving God does not delight in the death of any sinner. The Saving God desires everyone to repent and receive the free gift of eternal life (Ezekiel 33:11).
In Ephesians chapter 2:14 Paul told the Ephesian Christians that Jesus Christ was their peace. In Jesus Christ God broke down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles by reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to Himself through the same saving work that was done on the cross. As Billy Graham used to say, “The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” which is to say that it doesn’t matter who you are, a way to God has been opened for you in Christ. And since I get to God through Christ in exactly the same way that you get to God through Christ, then who am I to start acting spiritually superior to you now, or to start thinking that it’s my job to put you in your place, or even to try to kick you out of the pool of God’s grace altogether?
Right before Paul told the Christians in Rome to greet one another with a holy kiss (16:16), he told them to stop passing judgement on each other (14:4;10). God has welcomed the person with whom you disagree about something in exactly the same way that God has welcomed you (14:2-4), Paul told them, so stop building walls to keep these people away from you (14:13) and start tearing walls down instead. Welcome them, Paul told the Romans, just as Jesus Christ has welcomed you (15:7).
It’s easier to go to church with people who look like me, who think like me, who talk the way I talk, who believe the way that I believe, who like the hymns that I like, and who vote the way that I vote. But that kind of church is a flat contradiction of the work that Jesus Christ came to do according to the book of Ephesians.
I can still feel the scratchy beard on my cheeks. That holy kiss has become a powerful sacramental sign for me – the outward and visible of something that’s inward and invisible, and absolutely essential to the Gospel – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). DBS+