I'm a book geek, so one of my hobbies is collecting autographed books. Some I acquire through my work in book publishing; others I find at bookshops. I now have more than 500 signed volumes, comprising authors from Sue Grafton and Walter Wangerin to Anne Lamott and John Stott.

Authors sign their books in myriad ways. Jimmy Carter's signature is a modest "J Carter." Max Lucado's is barely recognizable—what might be an "ML__." Calvin Miller used calligraphy. Eugene Peterson signed off with "the peace of the Lord." J. I. Packer rotated through Bible verses, from 2 Timothy 3:14–17 for a book about Scripture to Psalm 46 for Knowing God. Chuck Colson chose Romans 12:2, but more baffling was his inscription, which looked vaguely like "Burm gd."

I especially treasure signatures from those who are no longer with us. My former Wheaton professor Bob Webber signed several books to me with Dominus Vobiscum ("the Lord be with you"). Spencer Perkins wrote, "In the hope of racial healing." Rich Mullins autographed CDs with "Be God's!" Stanley Grenz inscribed a theology text with "May our Lord guide your steps." And one of my most memorable dedications came from Madeleine L'Engle, who signed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time with "Tesser well."

But my favorite phrase was inscribed by Michael Card, who borrowed the apostle Paul's signature expression: "Grace and peace." This greeting is found in some form at the opening of all of Paul's epistles, most commonly, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."

What many don't realize is that Paul coined a new phrase. "Grace" or "Grace to you" sounded like the standard Greek greeting, but was infused with theological meaning. On the other hand, "Peace" was a Jewish blessing that sounds weightier in the Hebrew: "Shalom."

Paul knew that many of his congregations were torn by factional strife. But he didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and shalom to you Jews." Grace is not just for Greeks, and peace is not just for Jews. God's desire was for the whole community to receive his grace and experience his shalom—not merely the absence of conflict, but the fullness of well being, harmony, wholeness, and life.

So Paul said, "Grace and peace to you." Paul addressed Gentile and Jewish believers together, as members of one body. He wrote in continuity with their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, yet pointed to a new, countercultural reality. He combined a Greek greeting and a Hebrew greeting to create a distinctively Christian greeting.

Paul did not neuter the cultural particulars of the church's constituents. Nor did he emphasize identity politics or pit categories against each other. Instead, he affirmed the communities' distinct identities, then transcended them to forge a new identity in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. He modeled unity amid cultural diversity, as experienced in the church's birth at Pentecost. If Paul were writing today, he might choose other vocabulary and language to bridge contemporary divides: "Hola and howdy, y'all, in the name of Jesus." Or, "Salaam and shalom to you."

As Brenda Salter McNeil points out in A Credible Witness, the gospel is both vertical and horizontal. Jesus reconciles us to God and to each other. Paul's greeting reminded the church of the new society it was supposed to be—one that had received grace, forgiveness, and salvation from God and also would extend peace, shalom, and goodwill to one another.

The church embodies a radically peculiar social order that incorporates vastly dissimilar people. In Paul's day, the world was divided between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. But he dared to imagine a Christian community that not only included all of these, but also enjoyed interdependent relationships. The power of the church's witness was due, at least in part, to the compelling alternative this new society offered to the world around it.

Today our culture continues to be divided by race, class, gender, and politics. Within the church, we are split between Calvinists and Arminians, complementarians and egalitarians, evangelicals and mainliners. Yet Paul would argue that our common identity transcends our differences. He would plead with us to treat one another charitably, to extend grace, and to make peace with one another. Indeed, our congregations should be some of the few places in society where conservatives and liberals can break bread together and make common cause.

When signing books, letters, and e-mails, "Grace and peace" has become my customary benediction. It has also become my prayer for the church, that we would truly bestow grace and peace on one another and, in so doing, offer a prophetic witness to our world. May it be so.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Kingdom Sightings columns include:

A Multifaceted Gospel | Why evangelicals shouldn't be threatened by new tellings of the Good News. (April 10, 2008)
The Vision Thing | Clarity came just as things got blurry. (February 21, 2008)

He also wrote on the Harry Potter craze.

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Kingdom Sightings
Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press and author of The Suburban Christian, Grieving a Suicide, and Singles at the Crossroads. His column ran in 2008.
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