Pastoral Perspectives

More than just a handshake

For many observers, the recent Trump-Kim summit held in Singapore is undoubtedly a significant turning point in history. After all, this is the first meeting ever to take place between a leader of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and an incumbent US president. For almost 70 years, the two nations have technically been in a state of war with each other even though there has been no overt armed conflict between them. Furthermore, it was just a few months ago that North Korea was still testing their nuclear abilities and both side had engaged in rather bellicose rhetoric.

With that in mind, one can understand why a mere handshake between two men would garner so much international attention. More than just a massive media spectacle, many do sincerely hope that this ordinary gesture (along with the signing of a joint statement) would mark an end to decades of hostility and pave the way forward for peace. As much as some may feel that whatever these two leaders sought to achieve during their time in the posh premises of Capella Singapore could have been accomplished at a much lower financial cost and less manpower given today’s technology in video-conferencing, nothing beats a face to face interaction. Besides, when it comes to matters of international diplomacy, there are often other considerations in mind.

If you think about it, it is rather interesting how this simple gesture of a handshake would come to symbolise so much. For example, soccer teams during the World Cup will give their utmost in “battle” to triumph over their opponents and can sometimes ruffle the other players with their rough play. Yet, regardless of the outcome of that match, the players are expected to shake the other team player’s hands after the game. Indeed, post-game handshakes are a time-honoured tradition and a refusal to do so would be deemed as poor sportsmanship.

Likewise, in some Christian liturgical tradition, there is this segment known as the “Exchange of peace” or “Passing the peace” which involves the shaking of hands. Usually, this is done after the Words of Assurance, when the congregation has confessed their sins to God and received the assurance about God’s forgiveness from the worship leader or officiating priest. Another time could be just prior to celebrating the Lord’s Supper. At these times, worshippers would leave the comfort of their seat, turn to shake their neighbour’s hand and speak the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you” and receive the words in turn, “And also with you.”

Although the gesture is simple, the meaning is profound. When one extends his hand to another, he is also identifying with Jesus, who extended his life to the point of death to make peace with humanity (Col 1:20-21). Indeed, it is because of the gift of peace that Christians have received through faith in Christ that we can go forth to extend peace to others. Through a handshake, we seek to practice God’s call to be peace-makers and make every effort to maintain the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).

Put simply, passing the peace goes beyond being polite and giving time to extroverts for their friendly hellos. Instead, it is meant to be a time when followers of Christ participate in the reconciling love of God. Even though the gesture is symbolic and only lasts a few seconds, we can still be sincere in our intent. Furthermore, in the same way that a toddler is trained to say “please” and “thank you” with the hope that he will learn to do so on his own one day, the cumulative impact of regularly passing the peace is meant to shape worshippers into becoming peace-makers.

Although we do not practice this at True Way, I believe there are other meaningful opportunities where we can extend Christian love and point others to God’s peace even through a warm handshake. For example, at the start of the service, we need not shy away from greeting the usher, welcome team and pastors with “Hello, God’s peace be with you”. As much as the phrase may feel awkward initially, our handshake would be so much richer in meaning than when it is accompanied with “Hi, Good morning”.

Undoubtedly, it can go a long way when we extend a heartfelt encouragement or offer a kind smile as we shake the hands of the worship leader and speaker at the end of the service. Unless one is trying to avoid the other person, we do not need to worry about holding up others from leaving the sanctuary. Moreover, if most of us are learning to be intentional about slowing down our pace or taking time to mingle after the service, there is less likely to be a bottleneck at the exit.

As God’s people, we understand that making peace is to be a daily action in our lives. We cannot say that we love God if we are unwilling to be at peace with each other within the faith community. In addition, we need not wait until Sundays before we make peace with those around us. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his disciples that before they go to God in worship, they are to seek reconciliation with others (Matt 5:23-24).

In a world where there is much division and hostility, our simple gesture of a handshake is like an act of resistance against all the forces of pride and bitterness that seek to overwhelm our hearts and minds. While peace is often brought to the negotiating table by world leaders as if it is something to be traded, God’s people knows that true peace can only be found through the cross. So, if making peace and shaking another person’s hand may sometimes feel like a death sentence to us, it may not necessarily be a bad thing. Unless of course, a fist-bump would suffice.

Rev Edwin Wong

June 24, 2018