These two words, “grace” and “peace,” contain a summary of all of Christianity.Martin Luther (Luther’s works, vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535)
It probably started with Paul. He began most of his New Testament letters with the greeting, “Grace to you and peace” (Romans 1:7, etc.). John of Patmos picked up on this when he wrote the Book of Revelation: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” (Revelation 1:4). These two simple words say so much about what we believe as Christians that Martin Luther would eventually make the claim that they contain a summary of our faith. But how do they manage to do that?
First, I simply want to say that I love this greeting, “Grace to you and peace.” When I am leading worship, I almost always begin with these same words. To me, this greeting signals right away that something different is taking place when we gather for worship. When we go out to eat, or go to a store to shop, we might hear a greeting like “good morning” or “how are you?” But chances are we won’t hear the words, “grace to you and peace.” So, I use this greeting on Sunday mornings to remind us that when we enter the church, we are entering a “holy” place that is “set apart” (the literal meaning of the word, “holy”) from the world. But I also use this greeting on Sunday mornings because it connects us to Christian communities all around the world and all across time. It connects us to those very congregations who first received Paul’s letters, and it connects us to the persecuted community who first received John’s Revelation. It reminds us that we are part of that same community, the holy catholic church, wherever (and whenever) we are.
But, again, what exactly does it mean to say “grace” and “peace”? These two simple words can not only teach us a lot about our Christian faith, but can serve to remind us of the two greatest gifts that God offers to us through Jesus.
Think first about the word, “grace.” Grace is from the Greek word, “Charis,” which is a word that is similar, but not identical, to a traditional greeting that Greeks used in the time of the New Testament. They would typically say, “Chairei” rather than “Charis.” So the New Testament authors used this traditional Greek greeting, but transformed it slightly. Just enough to catch the attention of the person they were greeting. “Charis.” “Grace.” A wonderful word that would call to their mind – and ours – God’s unconditional gift of salvation, offered to us all through God’s son, Jesus Christ.
A popular acronym for the English word, “grace,” is: “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” This can be a simple way to remember what grace is all about. Every time we hear the word, “grace,” we can think of God’s wonderful gift, given to us freely and unconditionally, through the sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus. God’s riches at Christ’s expense. Grace.
But what about the other word, “peace”? Why is the greeting, “Grace to you and peace”? Well, just as “grace” is a form of the traditional greeting in Greek and Roman culture, “peace” is the traditional greeting in Hebrew culture. “Shalom aleichem” – “Peace be with you.” In fact, Jesus often greeted people in that way: Peace be with you. One of my favorite examples of him doing this is when he greets his disciples in the Upper Room after being raised from the dead. They have denied knowing him and deserted him in his time of need, so what does he do? Offers them peace:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”John 20:19
It is a traditional Jewish greeting, but it is so much more than that. Because, when you think about it, peace is also one of the greatest gifts that we receive from God, along with our salvation. God’s gift of peace is the peace that surpasses all understanding, as Paul describes it. The peace that guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. And the peace that only Jesus can give, as he tells us in John 14.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.John 14:27
This peace cannot be bought, no matter how much money we have. This peace cannot be discovered, no matter how hard we look. This peace cannot be achieved, no matter how hard we try. This peace can only be received. And it comes only from God’s son, Jesus. But once received, it cannot be lost. Jesus continues to come through our locked doors to offers this precious gift. Over and over again. The gift of this peace.
What priceless gifts these are! “Grace” and “peace.” Both priceless gifts offered by the one who is and who was and who is to come. And whenever we hear these words, or read these words, they serve to remind us that there is nothing more precious in all this world than the gifts of God’s grace and God’s peace. May these gifts accompany you all the days of your life.