All the brothers and sisters here send greetings to you. Greet each other with a sacred kiss. [1 Corinthians 16:20 (NLT)]
Greet each other with a kiss of love. Peace be with all of you who are in Christ. [1 Peter 5:14 (NLT)]
In four of Paul’s epistles, he instructs his readers to greet one another with a sacred kiss. The word he used was philéma which meant a kiss of respect or affection between friends rather than one of romance. It seems odd to us today but, when greeting or saying farewell in the ancient world, people frequently kissed one another on the cheek, forehead, beard or hands. In the Old Testament, for example, both Laban and Esau kissed Jacob, Joseph kissed his brothers, Moses kissed Aaron and Jethro, Samuel kissed Saul, David kissed Barzillai and Jonathon, and Absalom curried favor by kissing just about everyone who approached him!
Apparently, the Jewish converts in the early church carried on the practice of greeting one another with a kiss and it grew to have a special significance for them. Peter made mention of it in one of his letters and the elders from the church at Ephesus all embraced and kissed Paul before he left for Jerusalem. This “sacred” kiss expressed union and fellowship and signified a spiritual kinship with other followers of Christ. A kiss from a Jewish Christian to a Gentile convert would have indicated the convert’s full acceptance into the church family. This kiss would have been especially meaningful to new Christians who frequently became outcasts from their own families when they converted. The kiss also may have been a sign of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation that was shared before celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
Neither Peter nor Paul were making this kiss mandatory, which is good since greeting one another with a kiss nowadays could lead to a slap, rumors, or a charge of sexual harassment. What they were commanding was that we greet one another warmly and enthusiastically. The word often translated as hospitality in the New Testament was philoxenias which literally meant the love of stranger. Hospitality simply is the generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests. Sad to say, most flight attendants seem to be better at greeting and saying farewell to strangers than many of today’s churches.
When a friend was visiting a local church, she found an empty pew in which to sit. A few minutes later, she was told to move by a group of women who said she was in “their” pew! We’ve attended church events where none of the empty chairs were available because they were saved for other people’s “friends.” I think of a troubled teen who, after being introduced to Jesus in the church youth group, ventured into the church sanctuary for the first time one Sunday morning. He was immediately greeted by a woman who angrily told him to walk right out and only return once he’d taken off his baseball cap and pulled up his saggy pants! Sadly, these are not isolated events. What happened to the “spiritual kinship” of the early church?
In any church, we all begin as strangers, but we shouldn’t remain that way. As members of God’s large and diverse family, we should become a community of former strangers. Our community, however, must be open to new people and that, sadly, often is where we fail. Christian hospitality begins with acknowledging everyone—not just the people in our own circle—both when they arrive and as they depart. Although most churches have designated greeters, welcoming is everyone’s responsibility. Whether or not we know our fellow worshippers, we should greet them as warmly as we would a guest in our own home. Sometimes, hospitality is as simple as a smile, an introduction, or an extended hand.
I’m the first to admit that, at least for me, speaking to strangers doesn’t come naturally and it isn’t easy. Nevertheless, it is where we must begin. After all, a stranger simply is a friend we haven’t yet met! If Jesus walked into your church, would He be welcomed with Christian hospitality or told to take off his baseball cap and pull up His pants or find another place to sit?