Pastoral LetterApril 2013
Dear Christ URC,
Most of us probably do not give much thought to the closing words in each of the New Testament epistles. They are usually filled with personal greetings and a few final exhortations. On the surface, they do not seem to carry the same weight as the body of the letter. If we are honest, we probably find ourselves at times tempted to read over those words quickly without much thought, taking about as much interest in them as we would the closing credits of a movie. However, if “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3.16), then the concluding remarks at the end of the epistles are important.
One remark that we find in many of the epistles is the command to the members of a particular church to greet one another. In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul tells the members to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16.16). He says virtually the same thing in at least four other letters (1 Cor 16.20; 2 Cor 13.12; Phil 4.21; 1 Thes 5.26), as do the writer to the Hebrews (Heb 13.24), Peter (1 Pet 5.14), and John (3 Jn 15). Given the number of times this appears in the New Testament, it is clear that God wants us to greet each other frequently.
God wants us to do this because he has made us members of his family. By his grace, we have the same Father in heaven, the same Elder Brother who gave his life for us, and the same Spirit who indwells us. He has not only called us into fellowship with himself, but with one another. That fellowship, which we call the communion of saints, is experienced first and foremost in the local congregation to which we belong. The local church – not the internet, schools, political action groups, para-church organizations, or our circle of friends – is God’s revealed and ordained community of faith. This is where the gospel is preached, sacraments are administered, and church discipline is exercised. It is specifically in the local church where we are receiving Christ in the means of grace and being conformed into his image. The gospel creates this new and living community where people who are very different in looks, personal tastes, and backgrounds are being knit together as one. In effect, God says to us, “You grow into the image of my Son only as you grow together” (Eph 4.1-16).
Greeting every saint in the local church to which we belong plays an important role in this. But what does that look like, practically speaking? How do we obey this command in our modern day setting and circumstances? And do we actually need to (gulp) kiss each other?
Greeting every saint in the local church to which we belong begins by going out of our way to greet visitors to our congregation. When we see someone whom we do not recognize, we should introduce ourselves. It can be easy for us to forget what it was like when we first visited Christ URC. Why not make the person feel welcome? Remember, we are not fellow customers loyal to the same store. God has made us members of his family (Eph 2.19). The gospel has made and the New Testament calls us “brothers [and sisters].” Every week we experience a family reunion. But it can be awkward visiting a family reunion if you don’t belong to that family. Why not make a visitor and/or outsider feel welcome? God may be calling that person into his spiritual family as it is manifested at Christ URC. And he might use you in the process!
Greeting every saint in the local church also begins by extending the right hand of fellowship when someone is added to the family. When a new member takes vows and places himself in covenant with Christ’s church, we are to greet that new member face to face. This is why we get in that long line after a worship service and welcome the person formally. We should not think of this as a superficial or perfunctory act; rather, it is a genuine expression of our bond in Jesus Christ.
Greeting every saint in the local church continues long after the handshake line. It is part of our life together under the Word. Again, think of a family reunion. It is common courtesy to go out of our way to greet our aunts, uncles, cousins, etc, when we see each other on holidays or other gatherings. Why would it be any different with our spiritual family? In fact, our spiritual family has a deeper bond than blood. We have a real union with each other by the blood of Christ and the truth we confess. We share in common something far more vital than the same DNA or last name; we share the same faith and same hope. We should strive to greet and be acquainted with everyone in our spiritual family. It is not only the pastor, elders, and deacons who should know all the sheep in the flock. Each of us should seek to know everyone with whom we fellowship.
Of course, as one writer put it, “The higher we value our personal privacy and freedom from commitments, the shallower our grasp of fellowship will be – reduced to moments of idle chitchat over steaming coffee before or after a worship service.” Greeting every saint in the local church goes further than simply smiling and saying “hello,” though that is important. It implies receiving each other as those to whom we are obligated.
This does not mean that we are forced to have close friendships with every person in the congregation, any more than we must be close friends with every person in our biological family. It is a misconception to think that we must have lots of friends at the church to which we belong. But it does mean that we are obligated to one another as family. We are to love one another with brotherly affection (Rom 12.10; Heb 13.1), contribute to each other’s needs (Acts 2.45; Rom 12.13), show hospitality (Rom 12.13), rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom 12.15; Luke 6.31), and live in harmony with one another (Rom 12.16). We do these things with the members of our biological family. Yet, God specifically commands us to do these things with the members of our spiritual family in the local church.
Greeting one another is part of our fellowship in Christ. To that end, let us resist the temptation to keep to ourselves at church or only speak with our friends. We don’t have to greet one another with a holy kiss (as in the Mediterranean and near Eastern custom), but we must greet one another. Let us greet every saint in love and sincerity as we experience life together under the Word and travel together to our heavenly home.
Yours always in Christ,