...With a Holy Kiss – Lent Sermon Series 6 – Passion Sunday

 When I was an undergraduate I spent half of an academic year in Rome studying the literature, history and archaeology of the ancient city. In the course of the months we visited countless sites around the city; each of us had to make a presentation to the group about the history and significance of the site. I vividly remember one visit, where an ancient structure was enclosed within the compound of a community of priests known as the Passionist fathers.

Dear Diane, who was presenting on the site, and who was herself a rather voluptuous young woman who could have successfully modelled for the artist Rubens, introduced the modern-day assemblage of buildings as the home of the passionate fathers! You might think I'm making a similar mistake today, on Passion Sunday, entitling this sermon '...with a holy kiss'. I've no intention, though, to talk about any passionate kisses.

In fact, today's title is just a continuation of last week's title, taken from the end of St Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, where he encourages his readers, "Embrace one another, with a holy kiss".

Kisses are of many kinds, of course. The 'human relations' section of my library in the rectory includes a small paperback entitled The Art of Kissing. It lists some 32 sorts of kisses, including the electric kiss, the candy kiss, the sliding kiss, and the butterfly kiss.[1]

When we turn to the New Testament we find at least two sorts of kisses. The first we come across is very apt for today, as we begin our meditation on the passion of Christ. The kiss I mean is the kiss of betrayal with which Jesus' passion really begins. That was surely one of the most ironic of kisses in the history of human kind: a 'wounding with the pledge of love', as St Ambrose described it.[2]

But the followers of Jesus weren't dissuaded by Judas' misuse of so natural and good an expression of human relationship.

That's why when we read the New Testament we realise how often the Christians were encouraged to practice the holy kiss when they gathered together. The letters of the New Testament contain thirteen references to the holy kiss as a sign of relationship between believers.[3]

Such a holy kiss, it's clear, was more than just a spontaneous expression of affection. The holy kiss, or the kiss of peace, was special to those who'd been baptised. Among the earliest accounts of a Christian gathering for baptism and the Eucharist we read: 'When we have finished praying'--the writer refers to what we call the Intercessions--'we greet another with a kiss'.[4] That was in the year 150.

The Eucharist included the holy kiss thenceforth. But it wasn't exchanged with those who hadn't yet baptized. And that custom tells us something important: the holy kiss of the Christians was not just an expression of welcome or natural human warmth. The holy kiss carried a weightier message. It signalled a human life lived in the spirit and power of the special love of Jesus, which St Paul calls agapē, and which our Latin-speaking forebears translated as caritas, or, in English, charity.

So, the holy kiss, or the kiss of peace, was understood by Christians to be the body's expression of the grace of Christ-like love, agapé. That's what made it not just any kiss, but a holy kiss. And to exchange the holy kiss with other believers was to recognize and affirm within them the same agapē love.

Why did, and does, that matter? Well, to express that kind of shared love was to declare the basis of Christian fellowship. The Christian community wasn't founded and united around common or comfortable social ties. The basis of relationship among its radically diverse membership was Jesus Christ himself. He bound people together through the energy of his love which he shared with them through the Spirit. The name of that energy of love is agapē.

That's not an easy basis of connection and fellowship, so we can readily see why Christians were constantly struggling to stick together. Far easier to come together and have to do with one another on the basis of income parity, the bonding experience of school, or university, or neighbourhood, or language, or accept, or politics, or social habits, or a very precise shared vision of faith. But the Christians, when they were true to their founding vision, wouldn't have any of that! Their one basis of relationship with one another was agapé. They reminded themselves f that, and expressed that, when they exchanged the holy kiss, or what later became known as the kiss of peace.

Just what is agapē?

Well, every Christian would start with St Paul, and his well-known description of agapē in the thirteenth chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians. The love that is patient and kind, neither envious, nor arrogant, nor boastful; a love that doesn't insist on its own way, is neither irritable nor does it nurture resentment; such love rejoices in truth, not in falsehood in word or deed. It 'bears all things, believers all things, hopes all things, endures all things'.

In his book The Four Loves C. S. Lewis calls agapē a special kind of 'Gift-love'. Such love flows like clear cool water from the spring which is God's own love-giving self, the primal love, which is God. God is agapē, 'Gift-love', for, he explains, '[I]n God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give'.[5]

All of us are able naturally to experience and enact Gift-love. But it always has at least a smattering of self-interest in it. Our natural expressions of Gift-love 'never quite seek simply the good of the loved object for the object's own sake'.[6]

Lewis describes an experience of this natural Gift-love which we all know well:


                  ...natural Gift-love is always directed to

                  objects which the lover finds in some way

                  intrinsically lovable--objects to which Affection

                  or Eros or a shared point of view attracts him...[7]


Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and through Christ's sending of the Spirit, though, the Father shares his pure Gift-love with humankind. And this divine Gift-love given to us by the Holy Spirit--Love himself working within us--is wholly disinterested; it 'desires what is simply best for the beloved'.

What's most important about this agapē, or Gift-love, is this: it enables a person to love what is not naturally or comfortably lovable. God's love for us is like that, of course; God loves us despite all that's unlovable about us! We see that sort of love in Jesus, don't we? We have to suppose, for instance, that he loved Judas, even as he betrayed him with that kiss.

Through the life of grace we're gifted with such a love too, and can use and grow it, if we choose: loving those we don't actually like, or for whatever reason find hard to be and share with. Lewis' sample of such folks includes the diseased, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior, the sneering.[8] Each of us has got a 'little list'. It's easy to see, I think, why that sort of love is necessary for the Church to exist as a universal fellowship, and, indeed, for individual congregations in the Church to exist as places where all are welcome.

From the early centuries the exchange of the holy kiss took place before the Eucharist itself began.[9]

The exchange of the holy kiss before we offer the bread and wine of the Eucharist is an apt reminder that God, through Christ, accepts joyfully that which is, in fact, unworthy of God; accepts it in the spirit of his Gift-love, that as, as an expression of his agapē toward us who are in Christ.

Usually, I fear, little of this theological weight or spiritual sensitivity informs what a recent Church Times article entitled 'the holy handshake'. Having reduced the beautiful and gentle action of the holy kiss to a handshake, it then lends itself to whatever a person wants to make of the occasion: a ritual greeting, 'pastiming' (when you exchange some news), a moment to get something done (fish out a coin for the collection, for instance), or calculating (how many people can I give a barely meaningful gesture to?).[10] What we call 'the Peace' is so easily overtaken as a statement about ourselves rather than as a declaration of the basis of our relationship to God in Christ through his Spirit.

Our bodies can as easily misrepresent our Christian identity as they can present it.

In the course of our lives different kinds of love germinate, grow and blossom. These loves, mostly loves of desire, can make us, and they can break us. It's our Christian belief, though, that all our loves need the healing and transforming touch of God's very own agapē. For agapē alone purifies our other loves of their selfishness, and binds all loves together in the giving love of Jesus Christ.[11]

It may well be the case, an early Christian saint warns us, that such a love, so broad and high, can't be expressed in words.[12] Maybe that's why Christians have always resorted to body language instead.

The 'holy kiss' proclaims that 'God is love' (1 John 4.13), God is agapē. As his own people, therefore, we greet one another with a holy kiss.



Preached by the Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen's Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

Passion Sunday, April 2nd 2017


[1] William Kane, The Art of Kissing, revised ed. (New York: St Martin's Press, 1995), passim.

[2] On Luke 22,47-8; in the ACCS series, New Testament, III, Luke  ( Downers Grove, USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003)  , p. 345.

[3] Marion Hatchet, Commentary on the American Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1981), p. 345.

[4] Justin Martyr's First Apology, ch. 65; in Willy Rordorf et al., The Eucharist of the Early Christians (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1978), p. 71.

[5] p. 126; emphasis mine.

[6] p. 128.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] In the fifth century the Roman rite transferred the Kiss of Peace to a point just before Communion (Hatchett, ibid., p. 345).

[10] Matthew Caminer's article in the Church Times (9 December 2016): 20-21.

[11] '...[T]here grows up a Church which knows of a love that does not desire but gives'; so Stauffer in his article in the TDNT, vol. I, p. 55 (s.v. αγαπάω).

[12] St Clement of Rome, First Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 49.