Grace and peace

This is a picture of a framed greeting that hangs on the wall just inside the front door of our home. I made it nearly 50 years ago, as a teenager, soon after becoming a Christian. At the time, I was interested in calligraphy and decided to pen this text from the opening of Philippians (with an “Amen” tacked on at the end). I remember sitting on my bedroom floor, hunched over my work, slowly and carefully forming the letters.

I also remember straightening my legs and accidentally kicking over the bottle of ink onto the carpet.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul takes the letter-writing conventions of his time to new theological heights, imbuing even the mundane identification of the sender and recipient with new meaning. Nowhere is this more true than in the greeting itself.

Again, we saw how James follows the standard practice more closely. He names himself, he names his recipients, then says chairein — a Greek word that is typically translated as “Greetings!” At root, chairein suggests the joy we express in meeting up with a friend, and was a common word of greeting. James’ contemporaries outside the church would have done the same.

I suspect that the commonness of the greeting, though, would eventually have robbed it of its connection to joy, as it became little more than a routine social pleasantry. After all, when we say “goodbye,” we don’t think of its original sense of “God be with ye.” Once it became the standard, letter writers would have said chairein even to people they didn’t like.

But Paul, never one to waste an opportunity, doesn’t use chairein. Instead, he uses the similar sounding Greek word, charis, which can be translated as grace, favor, or gift (one might think here of the gifts or “charisms” at the heart of the charismatic movement). Paul, in other words, takes the convention and transforms it. Where the Philippians might have expected to see chairein, they saw charis instead, reminding them of the grace in which they all stood together.

It’s fair to say, I think, that God’s grace is the heartbeat of Paul’s theology, the word that best captures the experience of the zealous Pharisee struck blind on the Damascus road, the encounter that turned his theological world upside-down and changed him forever. Without grace, he would not be an apostle. Indeed, there would be no gospel, no church in Philippi. Everything Paul wants to say to the Philippians is founded on grace. Thus, grace is front and center in his greeting.

But not just grace: peace. The Greek word translated as “peace” (eirene) was often used the way we would use the English. It could refer to the state of calm when a nation wasn’t at war, or when there was harmony between people.

Paul, however, was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews” and a Pharisee (Phil 3:5). He writes in Greek but from deep Jewish roots. To him, “peace” is shorthand for the rich Hebrew concept of shalom, a picture of wholeness in which everything is the way a good and gracious God created it to be.

Thus, Paul not only transforms the way people greeted one another in the Gentile world, he brings these believing Gentiles into the long and ongoing history of the covenant relationship between a God of shalom and his people. He refers to God as “our Father,” thinking not only of the teaching, prayer, and example of Jesus, but the long history of God’s people being referred to as his children, his chosen ones, his treasured possession (e.g., Deut 14:1-2).

Grace and peace are not only from God the Father, but also “the Lord Jesus Christ,” the one through whom grace comes and peace is established. It’s important to remember that while we might take such language for granted, it would have been a controversial thing to say aloud in Philippi, a Roman colony that was proud of its status and where there was a robust practice of worshiping the emperor. To declare Jesus as Lord, not Nero, could get a Christian into hot water.

But in some ways, that’s never changed. There have always been false gods that clamor for our allegiance. To declare Jesus as the one Lord and to mean it is to court the disapproval and condemnation of others. Paul knew this firsthand, and thus his greeting is more than merely a complicated version of “Hi.” It’s a reminder of who he and the Philippians were together: recipients of grace and shalom, children of God, all under the lordship of Jesus.

It’s who we are as Christians still. And like Paul, perhaps we might find some creative ways to remind each other of that fact.