†††††††† Kissing has great significance for philosophy and theology. Once early in our marriage, I was going on about the merits of the philosophy of Leibniz, who regarded the physical world as a mere appearance generated by the interactions of spiritual entities. Beth silenced me with a hearty kiss, as her proof that the material world does indeed have some substance to it. Pretty good philosophy.
†††††††† In the final words of his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul suggests a kiss to make a theological point. In verse 12, a kiss of greeting between Christians is a tangible sign of the truth he wants to communicate. In verse 11, Paul approaches the end of a long difficult, harsh letter with a call for the practice of unity and renewal. In verse 14 (or 13 in some versions), he reaches the end by blessing them in the names of the triune God. Itís a kiss that ties it together. Exhortation and benediction. Practice and doctrine. Love and faith. Community and Trinity.
†††††††† Paul reminds us of the Trinity, because our community is so often a mess. He reminds us of our doctrine in order to straighten out our practice. He blesses us with a benediction so that he can encourage us with an exhortation. Thatís what he was doing for the Corinthians. Go through both the letters to this congregation and you will discover a community as messed up as any church is today. They were divided into factions. They were condoning sin. They majoring on the minor spiritual gifts and ignoring the major ones. And they were questioning Paulís motives and rebelling against his authority.
†††††††† In fact, some biblical scholars think these verses canít really be the ending to this letter. In the NIV and TNIV, this last section is titled ďFinal Greetings,Ē but the section before, verses 1-10, is titled ďFinal Warnings.Ē Just prior to the more or less gentle words we read today, Paul is talking about what will happen when he visits again. Heís not going to spare those who are still sinning. Heís going to prove his authority. Though Christ and Christians live in humble weakness, he says in verse 4, heís going to show them Godís power. Heís telling them to shape up. Heís being harsh, says verse 10, in the hope he wonít have to harsh when he arrives. But then, at the start of our text with verse 11, he says, ďFinally, brothers and sisters, rejoice!Ē
†††††††† Whatís up with that? Paul has just majorly applied his foot to the Corinthian posterior and now he wants them to rejoice about it? Itís not too surprising that a few scholars think this closing came from somewhere else. But notice how he speaks of his authority in verse 10. Itís ďthe authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.Ē These warnings have a purpose. Paul aims for that purpose here at the end. He wants to build them up, to make them into the community God means them to be.
†††††††† God means the same for us, for Valley Covenant Church. He means for us to rejoice. He means for us to be fully restored, to be of one mind, to live in peace as Paul asks in verse 11. In the language of Veritas, one of the marks of a healthy, missional church is ďcompelling Christian community.Ē Thatís what Paul wanted for Corinth. Itís what God wants for us.
†††††††† Thatís why Paul was a little harsh. He wanted the Corinthians to get it, to get the great vision Jesus had when He said in John 15:17, ďThis is my command: Love each other.Ē Itís a huge vision of a community, a congregation of men, women and children who live with each other in a new and different way, the way of love, the way of peace.
†††††††† The end of verse 11 is why we need this kind of compelling community. ďBe fully restored, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.Ē When we have that community, when we are that community, God shows up. God is a God of love and peace and when we live in love and peace, Heís here.
†††††††† Thatís where kissing comes in. In verse 12, Paul says ďGreet one another with a holy kiss.Ē He says the same thing at the end of three other epistles, and Peter says it at the end of his first letter. The tangible, visible sign of compelling community is a kiss. A holy kiss is a sign of Incarnation, of being like Jesus. You canít kiss someone without being there. You canít kiss each other without letting your guard down and making yourself vulnerable. To offer or receive a kiss is to make yourself, at least for a moment, truly present for another person. Jesus came to us from heaven, let down His guard, and made Himself vulnerable to us. By becoming human, He showed us what it really means to be human, to be present for each other. Jesus stooped down to kiss the whole human race, to make us His brothers and sisters, to make us Godís children. The kiss is our visible sign of Jesusí presence with us and our presence with each other.
†††††††† Kissing raises problems for you and me. In two thousand years, in America, the normal meaning of a kiss has flip-flopped from what it meant in the ancient world. For us, the first thing that comes to our minds with a kiss is romance. Itís intimate. Itís erotic. Itís something you exchange with a lover. Thatís not at all how Paul or the Corinthians saw it.
†††††††† In ancient times kissing was first and foremost an exchange of affection between relatives and close friends. It was on the cheek or the head or the shoulders. Some suggest that early Christians kissed each other on the forehead and then to the side, on either shoulder, making the sign of the Cross. Imagine Frenchmen greeting each other with a kiss to each cheek and you have something like what this holy kiss was like back then. Imagine parents and children or brothers and sisters exchanging kisses. Thatís the sort of kiss Paul had in mind.
†††††††† To do what Paul asks, to be restored, to encourage each other, to live in unity and love and peace, there has to be a sign, there has to be a kiss. But even when we understand, itís tough for us. Kissing carries so much baggage now. Even then, in the second century, just a hundred years after Paul, all that kissing in the church raised suspicions and caused nasty gossip among people outside the church. So Iím not about to ask you all to pucker up and launch a kiss-fest here this morning.
†††††††† When I was a teenager, my pastor asserted with absolute confidence that the true meaning of ďholy kissĒ is a handshake. Itís not great biblical exegesis, but itís not a bad cultural compromise. You canít shake hands without being here. If you look someone in the eye and smile as you do it, it offers warmth and affection. And itís actually a little more intimate and riskier than kissing if youíre worried about catching a bug. You exchange more bacteria by grasping hands than by giving or receiving a peck on the cheek. For contemporary Christians, a round of greeting handshakes like we do here in worship is a pretty fair way to express community.
†††††††† Yet making like an old mouthwash commercial and offering each other ďa handshake instead of a kiss,Ē is not all there is to learn from a command that was important enough to show up five times in the New Testament. The intimacy and vulnerability of kissing should make us think about the depth of the community we wish to have and express.
†††††††† Tiny little verse 13 seems like one of those throwaway phrases we toss into our own conversations, ďAll the saints greet you.Ē It seems so unimportant that several Bible versions just combine it into verse 12, make the benediction into verse 13. Itís like, ďeveryone here sends their love,Ē or ďweíre all thinking about you.Ē It feels like meaningless filler, a pleasant sentiment at the end of a letter or when saying goodbye. But it expresses important truth about the way in which you and I greet each other and express compelling community.
†††††††† Let me put it this way: We greet each other as people who have first been greeted. Paul asked the Corinthians to greet each other with this holy kiss weíve been talking about. Some people think he may have meant them to do so as soon this letter was finished being read aloud. But before they even had that chance to offer their own greetings, they are greeted, greeted by other Christians far away. That greeting from ďall the saintsĒ is initiated and given without any action in Corinth. They havenít yet shaped up. Theyíre still sinning and fighting and giving Paul fits. But they are greeted, greeted as fellow saints, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Itís not a greeting they deserve. Itís a greeting of grace.
†††††††† Thatís what the holy kiss means for us. To have compelling community in Christ, we are meant to extend ourselves to each other in grace. Whether itís a kiss or a handshake or a hug or an invitation to lunch, we reach out to one another in gestures that offer grace. We donít offer these ďkissesĒ just to people we really like or who are nice to us. We graciously give ourselves to one another in grace, knowing that all may not yet be right between us, knowing that we may not understand each other, knowing that we have a long way to go before our community is whole and completely at peace. Itís a holy kiss. That means itís full of grace.
†††††††† So Paul goes on beyond that gracious greeting from all the saints to the very source of grace from which compelling Christian community flows. Later formulations of the Trinity are usually expressed in hierarchical order: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But Paul begins his blessing of the Corinthians with ďthe grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.Ē Then he moves to ďthe love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.Ē
†††††††† Verse 14 (or 13) is what theologians refer to as a description of the ďeconomic Trinity.Ē It shows us how the three persons of God each function in the ďeconomyĒ of our salvation. The grace of Jesus Christ reaches out to us in forgiveness, opening us up to the love of God the Father, while the fellowship of the Holy Spirit draws us into unity with God and with each other. This is God as He reveals Himself as Trinity, with each person having a particular function in relation to us and our salvation. Grace, love, and fellowship.
†††††††† Yet this revelation of God as three persons is not just three different roles God takes on. God does not just play the part of the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit, like one actor playing three different characters in a movie. The Christian faith is that God actually is three persons in one God. When God comes to us in grace, love and fellowship, He is communicating and drawing us into the kind of community that exists in Him. God wants us to have a life of compelling community because thatís the kind of life He enjoys. Community and Trinity fit together because the divine Trinity is the original, perfect, eternal, most compelling Community there is.
†††††††† We have trouble forming strong, healthy community because we are so different. Our differences trouble us and divide us. But in God we find a community where the differences unite in a perfect blend of grace, love and fellowship. Thatís the kind of community we are meant to experience in the Christian Church. A combination of differences that is held together by grace, love and fellowship. And it all begins with grace. As we extend grace toward each other, we learn to love each other, and we then begin to enjoy our fellowship.
†††††††† Thatís where the kiss comes in again. Greet one other with a holy kiss. Itís a gesture of grace offered at the very beginning of our interaction with each other. Itís a symbol of love and fellowship extended in grace before anything we might do to deserve it from each other. Holy kisses are always first kisses, offered tenderly and shyly and a bit fearfully, in the hope that love will grow from them.
†††††††† I donít know. We might manage to get over all our American, especially male American, hang-ups about kissing and make a literal holy kiss part of church life again. But thatís not truly necessary. Thatís not the point. To practice this holy kissing Paul is after, we merely need to see that little tokens of grace toward each other really matter. Handshakes and smiles and seemingly trivial conversation during our greeting time really are acts of worship, acts of holiness and Christian community.
†††††††† A holy kiss could also be a dish of food, a sympathy card, a little cash for rent, a hand moving a refrigerator, an hour babysitting. It could be a trip together to the movies or to the coast or to a concert or to a game. Holy kissing is whatever ways you and I find to extend love graciously and freely. Itís not a transaction. Itís not you invited me, so Iíll invite you now. Itís a greeting. Itís the way we start with each other. Itís grace.
†††††††† My daughter Susan is going to school in Toronto this fall, so Iím a little more interested in Canada than I used to be. I recently read about a fascinating friendship between a Canadian town and an American town. St. Stephen, New Brunswick and Calais, Maine sit across the St. Croix River from each other, separated by our northern border. From colonial times, these communities have enjoyed community with each other. It was Christian community.
†††††††† After the Revolutionary War, a church was founded in St. Stephen by Duncan McColl, a British soldier who became a minister. He was alive to start that church because during the war he was spared by an American officer who commanded, ďHold your fire. That man has work to do for God.Ē Both British and Americans, people from St. Stephen and Calais, attended that church.
†††††††† Then the War of 1812 started. The British distributed to St. Stephen a large shipment of gunpowder for their protection against invading Americans. But McColl told his flock that they were brothers and sisters in Christ. So when July Fourth came around, the citizens of St. Stephen gave the gunpowder to their friends in Calais for fireworks. To this day the two towns enjoy friendly community. Americans still go to church in Canada. They share a volunteer fire department. Canadian Mounties march in Fourth of July parades, and American bands cross over to play ďGod Save the Queen.Ē
†††††††† Thatís the kind of compelling community that faith in the divine community of the Holy Trinity produces. Little gestures of grace knit us together. Because the different persons of God exist eternally in love and fellowship with each other, we practice grace and seek to be a community of love and fellowship, bridging the differences between us.
†††††††† May you, may we enjoy such community here. And the God of love and peace will be with us. Greet one another with a holy kiss.
†††††††† Valley Covenant Church
†††††††† Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
†††††††† Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj