At the beginning of the summer Caroline and I had a super holiday in Bermuda – a beautiful historic British colony not far off the coast of North Carolina, with some of the most friendly people I have ever met. We discovered that when Bermudians get on the bus they not only greet the bus-driver, but also all the passengers – we did the same and received a smiling ‘good morning’ from everybody. Then, whenever a passenger got off the bus, the driver would call out ‘Have a great day!’
Whereas in England we sometimes wish one another a ‘good day’, and in the USA people often say to one another ‘have a nice day’, we found that in Bermuda people were much more enthusiastic in the way in which they greeted us. As we come down in the morning for breakfast or as we sat around the pool, the staff wished us “a really great day” or “a really wonderful day”, and as a result the day felt so much better. Life felt extraordinarily good.
I began to wonder whether we should introduce some of this positivity into English church life. What a difference it might make if all the members of the congregation were to wish one another ‘a really great day’! Surely we would feel so much better – or would we? As I thought about it, I realised how inappropriate and superficial such a greeting could be to many. It could, for instance, simply intensify the pain of those grieving the recent loss of a loved one or struggling with the ‘black dog’ of depression; it would not help a person in an unhappy marriage nor a person consumed with worry of one kind or another. Not only are songs to a heavy heart “like vinegar on a wound” (Prov 25.20 NRSV) – so too a hearty thoughtless greeting can be “like rubbing salt into their wounds” (Prov 25.20 The Message).
So how should we greet one another? My mind went to the way in which Paul greeted his readers: for in the opening ‘address’ of all his letters we find the words: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!” (e.g. Rom 1.7; 1 Cor 1.3; 2 Cor 1.2). At first sight it might seem that there was nothing special about such a greeting. Indeed, some commentators have suggested that Paul was simply combining the traditional Greek and Hebrew forms of greeting – and in effect saying little more than ‘Hello there!’. But this is not at all the case. Paul the ‘tweaks’ the traditional Greek word for ‘greetings’ (chairein – literally, ‘rejoice!’) and turns it into a related but very different word ‘grace’ (charis); and even the traditional Jewish greeting of ‘peace’ (shalom) is changed since Paul has in mind the peace – as also the grace – which comes “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Signficantly Paul appears to have been the first person to combine charis with shalom. In other words, this is no ordinary ‘greeting’. We have here a greeting in the form of a ‘wish prayer’; in effect Paul is saying, “I pray that you may be granted grace and peace from God”. God’s grace, writes New Zealand scholar Murray Harris, is “God’s unsought and unmerited favour in Christ which is sufficient for every need”; while God’s peace is “the spiritual tranquillity or serenity of Spirit that comes to the believer from God as a result of having peace with God”. Gordon Fee, an American Pentecostal scholar observes:
The one [peace] flows out of the other [grace] and both together flow from ‘God our Father’ and were made effective in human history through our ‘Lord Jesus Christ’.
Paul’s ‘wish prayer’ is a lovely greeting – and yet realistically in today’s culture such a greeting sounds a little unnatural. True, many Anglican services begin with a variant of this greeting: the leader of the service greets the congregation with the words ‘Grace, mercy, peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you’, to which the congregation replies: ‘and also with you’ – but this is very much a formal liturgical greeting. Less formal, is the giving of the peace before taking bread and wine, when people greet one another with the ‘the peace’ – “the peace of the Lord be always with you”, but it is often done so quickly and in such a perfunctory manner, that the greeting is in danger of losing its distinctively Christian inner content.
So how then do we greet one another? Ultimately what counts is surely not the form of words, but the tone, the warmth, and the integrity. In the Scriptures we find the injunction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (e.g. Rom 16.16; 1 Cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.12) – but I would suggest that we consider greeting one another “with our eyes”, and in this way give meaning and depth to our words. Like kissing, looking at one another demands a little more of us – but what a difference that can make! It could turn an ordinary day into a ‘great day’!