Wilbur jumped to his feet. “Salu-what?”
“Salutations!” repeated the voice.
What are they and where are you? screamed Wilbur.
Please, please tell me where you are. And what are salutations?
“Salutations are greetings,” said the voice. “When I say ‘salutations’ it is just my fancy way of saying ‘hello’or ‘good morning.”
(Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White, p. 34)
So began one of the most unlikely friendships in literary history: Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider.
How do we begin? Stranger meets stranger, child greets parent after a day at school, teenager walks in the house, the Pope comes to the United States, friends meet after a long separation with much to catch up with one another, a meeting begins. We meet one another at Easter, at church, during the Christmas season. We post facebook memes about “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas.” As you picture these scenes, it might occur to you how complex greetings really are. Context (location, location, loctation) is all important to understanding what is going on, and you know how often we read into context! Salutations–a fancy way of saying hello–aren’t supposed to come from a spider regarding a pig, in a barn. Charlotte’s greeting lifts a corner of the pages still to come.
Let’s start with the handshake. We coach the upstart, “Always use a firm handshake.” A handshake was originally shorthand for ” I come without a weapon in my hand, and here’s proof,” It became a sign of trustworthiness between those who may or may not come in goodwill. A handshake became the visible sign that whatever uncertainty or ill will exists, weapons have been set aside. No one hardly thinks a thing of it these days, as politicians glad hand a crowd and people experience a rush of intimacy, saying “I shook hands with…” Touching hands, we become connected in our stories. I doubt that any celebrity or politician can possibly remember every moment of contact, but I do not doubt that we always remember our brush with their hands.
Biblical greetings have no handshakes. Kisses sometimes. Every being who brings a message from God has to say, “Do not be afraid.” Our encounters with the Holy begin with fear, and the fear has to be disarmed so that we can even hear what the messenger of the Holy One has to say. I think that counts as a verbal handshake. Paul’s letters always begin with a greeting to set the stage for the words to come. He presents his credentials to the recipients, and says whatever is needed to make them ready to hear: a scolding in the case of the Galatians, or tender words to his friends the Philippians.
“Peace to you.” Jesus greets the disciples after the resurrection. Jesus’ words and presence bring about the peace his greeting promises. Guilty consciences are relieved, denials forgiven, fears set aside. Something is about to happen in the space between Jesus and the disciples, and it begins with peace. Peace that Jesus creates just by showing up. Peace is not passivity. It is conceived, like ovum and sperm, in the junction between Christ and the world. It instills a swelling and indwelling, that like pregnancy does not end without change and pain. We wait for what feels like a very long time. We know that something has happened, but not all that will happen. Nor will we fully understand what is happening, maybe never, or maybe only when we look back over our shoulder. Trusting, we wait. The disciples are told to wait for the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine waiting for the Holy Spirit without anxiety, doubt, irritability, questioning, or prayer. Did we hear that right? Is that the Holy Spirit? You’ll know it when you see it. What did you see? I didn’t see anything. Peace comes none the less, overcoming anxiety and fear as it opens the space between us to be filled by a spirit that is Holy. Peace is what Jesus leaves with his followers, “not as the world gives.” He isn’t just trying to make them feel warm and comfortable. This is the peace they need in order to fulfill the mission Jesus entrusts to them. Jesus’ peace overcomes fear. Peace to face what is not warm and comfortable. Peace to endure in the face of affliction and persecution. The peace that Jesus brings is God’s love made visible (1 John 4) between us and by us and for us.
“The Lord be with you.” Lutherans know that greeting from the liturgy, not always
connecting it to Jesus’ own greeting . The common joke is that if you say “The Force be with you” (Star Wars) all the Lutherans present will reply “And also with you.” To be fair, Catholics will reply too–“And with your Spirit.” Our Muslim neighbors greet one another “Alasalaam Aleikum” or one of its seasonal variants. “Peace be upon you.” The Jewish greeting is close to it: shalom aleichem . Peace be upon you.
What does this mean? (the good Lutheran question) Shalom/salaam isn’t just a variant on “Keep calm and carry on.” It is the declaration of good between two people, and their people. It is the prayer that sets aside hostilities and desires all that is needful and good for the other: food, shelter, healing, safety, water, and so much more. To say “Peace” to another is to commit one’s self to making that peace. The word lifts the corner of the page on which is written and drawn the kingdom of God and the world made whole and well.
That’s a lot to pack into a handshake. Haven’t these words become so commonplace in our rituals that they have lost their meaning? We just reply like a knee jerk. You might say the opposite too. “These words are too churchy and they don’t mean anything to people outside.” We substitute “Good morning” for our Sunday morning greetings. Anyone knows what that means. It’s common. It’s automatic. No one thinks too much about it either. All these things are true.
I like to greet people at the beginning of church meetings and gatherings with “The Lord be with you.” I like it better than hollering “Listen up!” or “Be quiet!” I think it helpfully declares the purpose and meaning of our gathering in shorthand. It says “Jesus is present here, between us. Jesus’ peace is coming upon us here. What we doing here happens in the presence of Jesus. What we are here to do are the works that make for Shalom/Peace. Yes, they are churchy words because they ARE about the church. If we leave them at church, or if our lives as individuals or community are inconsistent and incongruous with peace and the presence of Jesus, then they become bankrupt words. Our very lives, our daily words and deeds make the greeting creditworthy. Those are the things that happen in our lives, where Jesus is daily present in the sanctuary of our bodies, time, and powers. With these hands, with these words, with these feet, with this broken and contrite spirit, with this heart filled with joy….with these the promise of “The Lord be with you.” will be fulfilled.
The Lord be with ya’ll. Shalom aleichem. Assalaam Aleikum. What God intends between us is good–for us, for the kingdom, for the peace of the whole world. My prayer for you is that our work together will make Christ known in our community and in one another’s presence. With these words we declare the space between us as holy–dedicated for the works of God. We won’t always be perfect, or even good enough at it. We might fail along the way. When Jesus met those disciples in the upper room after his resurrection, There were enough mistakes and failures among those disciples in the upper room to go around for everyone. Still he declared peace. First. And again. And again.
His peace created the peace for which they yearned: forgiveness, mercy, hope, restoration of purpose and vision. That’s how it is when Jesus shows up. That’s what happens when the Lord be with us. That’s what happens when Jesus says “Peace.” That’s what happens when Jesus’ people say yes, amen, make it so.