Summary: Surprisingly, greet one another with a holy kiss is the second most repeated one another command. This culturally out of place command is far more relevant to our culture than we might first realize. We need to focus on the "greet" and not the "kiss."
Greet One Another With a Holy Kiss
I want to start this morning with a little quiz. Now I've already told you that the command to love one another is the most frequently repeated one another principle. It appears no less than nine times in the New Testament. Here's your one question pop quiz. Which one another principle is number two? Which one is repeated the next most number of times? Is it to live in harmony with one another? How about the call to forgive one another? Or perhaps could it be the need to encourage one another? Anyone want to take a stab at it?
You might be surprised. The second most frequent one another principle is this. “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” We're not talking about one obscure reference. No. It's written by two apostles, in five different letters, encompassing dozens of congregations, in several different countries. Four times Paul urges his readers to “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” He has to tell the Corinthian church in both of his letters to them. I guess they weren't a very warm and welcoming congregation. In Peter's first letter written to the churches of Asia Minor he calls them to greet one another with a kiss of love.
And yet we feel free to totally ignore this command. We're not a liberal congregation that picks and chooses which parts of the Bible we follow. We believe the Bible is the inspired and authoritative Word of God. So why do we dare ignore this teaching? What is a holy kiss or a kiss of love anyway? What is the real intent of this command, and how do we faithfully fulfill it in the church today? We will try to answer these questions from Romans 16. So please turn in your Bibles to Romans 16.
The ancients may have had limited ways in which they could greet one another, but today we have more ways to keep in touch than ever before. We have landlines, cell phones, and Skype. We have text-messages, instant messages, Facebook messages and in big cities we even have bike messengers. We have snail mail, air-mail, and email. With all of this you might think we would be the most relational people in the history of the world, with strong personal connections. Yet one of the phenomena of our modern age is that people feel more isolated and disconnected than ever. As Pink Floyd asked repeatedly in their album The Wall, “Is there anybody out there?” That album is a masterpiece of loneliness. There's a reason why that album remains perennially popular with every new generation of college students because it so effectively communicates the angst and isolation so many young adults feel. I was talking to a group of college kids who were telling me what a genius album that was. They sounded just like my peers twenty-five years ago. We are alone in a crowd.
Could it be that in this tiny little nugget of New Testament teaching that we happily skim across that there is cure to our isolation? Might this be a sign that points us to the answer of our aloneness?
The Emphasis is on Greet, not Kiss
When we read Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” our attention is immediately drawn to the word kiss, but in the grammar of the text, that is not where the emphasis of this verse lies. The main thrust of this command what? Greet. The primary command is to greet. This is the greeting verse, not the kissing verse. That doesn't mean that the kiss was unimportant, or wasn't a part of the command, but the emphasis is on the greet, not the kiss.
Interestingly, the root of the word translated greet means “to enfold in the arms.” It originally meant to hug. Now by the 1st century it came to be used for greeting someone in general. But even in the kiss of greeting the hug remained. You would embrace someone in your arms and give them a kiss on each cheek.
The kiss of greeting was not new with the church. It wasn't introduced by the apostles. It was an ancient part of Mediterranean culture. Kissing was a common and standard greeting in the 1st Century among both the Jews and the Romans. Its significance varied depending on who was kissing and the context of the kiss. Close friends may greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. When someone was addressing a superior such as a student greeting their rabbi, they may offer a kiss of respect on the hand. Such kisses could also be given on the forehead or even on one's beard. This was all in addition to the passionate, romantic kiss. This is where we have a hard time with the distinction, because in our culture the kiss has been so highly sexualized, we have a hard time seeing it any other way.