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From Law to Grace: The Gospel in the Holy Eucharist

As I grew up, it was fairly common to hear the Summary of the Law, right after the Collect for Purity, at the very beginning of the Holy Eucharist. It says:

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (BCP, p. 324)

It was rehearsed so many times that my young mind had memorized the words even before I had finished high school. In the 1979 prayer book, the summary is a compromise that replaced the Decalogue. Even then, it is optional in Rite I, and conspicuously missing in Rite II. It took me many years to understand its spiritual power and soul-forming benefit.

Liturgically, once we reach the confession and absolution, the Summary of the Law, if not the Decalogue, takes on a deeper meaning, if we have said it earlier in the liturgy.

The second confession prayer in Rite I, the one that many parishes are most familiar with, says this: “We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” (BCP, p. 331). This directly corresponds with our having already said:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

There is a deep liturgical cohesiveness at play that connects exactly what we are asking forgiveness for — breaking the law. The Catechism adds:

Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments?

A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.

Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?

A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption. (BCP, p. 848)

In other words, the prayer book acknowledges at least the pedagogical use of the law, that it shows us our need for a Redeemer who forgives our sins, so that we can experience everlasting life instead of condemnation and everlasting death. Thus, when we reach the absolution of sins, these themes of the forgiveness of sins, because we have broken God’s law, are connected to God blessing us abundantly and bringing us to “everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP, p. 332).

As we progress through the liturgy, we notice that the prayer book not only retains its inherently Reformed character, but also incorporates its historical Catholic character. In the weekly celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the words everlasting life first arise in the absolution. It should strike us as curious that our entire religion — which is founded upon the triune God desiring to spend eternity with us, who sends his only Son to become incarnate for us sinners, not to condemn but to save — only now acknowledges that we have been graciously given this gift of “everlasting life, through Jesus Christ out Lord.”

Everlasting life will be said many more times in the liturgy, to the faithful who come to the altar, with palms wide open to receive the signs of our everlasting life, the Body and Blood of our Lord. And as they receive this Sacrament, these words are said, over and over and over again.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.

or with these words

The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you in everlasting life. (BCP, p. 338).

In other words, the final words of the absolution, “everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord,” find their denouement in these words said during the ministration of Communion, as the faithful receive the sacrament. In this sweetest of moments, the liturgy transports us from the burden of the law to our forgiveness and absolution from breaking it, to resting in the grace that empowers us to enjoy eternity with our Lord and our God.

That the liturgy doesn’t end here tells us more about its soul-forming power. In the Confession, after humbly repenting our sins (“We have not loved thee with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves”), we say, “For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in thy will, and walk in thy ways, to the glory of thy Name.” (BCP, p. 331) In the post-Communion prayer, after thanking God or feeding us with the spiritual food of Christ’s Body and Blood, we humbly beseech God to assist us with grace to do all good works that he has “prepared for us to walk in.” (BCP, p. 339).

In other words, borrowing from Ephesians 2:8-9 and 5:2, where the apostle talks simultaneously about not being saved by our works, but nonetheless being saved to walk in love, to do the good works prepared by God before the foundation of the world, the liturgy too connects lawbreaking to then being redeemed so that we can fulfill the law by the grace of God. God’s grace is not limited to only forgiving us lawbreakers and giving us everlasting life. The liturgy shapes us to recognize that God’s grace extends to nourishing us to walk in God’s ways, to walk in love, indeed to go back to the very beginning of the liturgy, where we heed Christ’s words, to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. This phrasing in the post-Communion prayer is almost like a second denouement — propelling us from being burdened by the law, to standing in grace, to then walking in superabundant grace. This is the gospel!

I’ve spent a lot of time in parachurch ministries where most of my peers and colleagues were not Episcopalians. One of the strongest criticisms leveled against us is that we don’t preach the gospel. I would counter that immersed in our tradition, we preach, through our liturgy, nothing but the gospel. It is a gospel that takes seriously the weight and burdens of the law, and acknowledges weekly that we can’t do it. We are unable to fulfill it, as hard as we have tried. Yet, by the mercy and grace of God, he forgives us our sins, and gives us everlasting life, through his Son, in the sacrament of his Body and Blood. Yet this gospel is not a truncated one that stops at sin and forgiveness. It takes repentance seriously enough that the faithful are propelled toward living out their everlasting life by walking in God’s ways, to the glory of his Name.

The Rev. John Deepak Sundara is Vicar for Worship and Evangelism at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston, TX.

4 COMMENTS

  1. This is good.

    My only quibble is that at the heart of the liturgy, at the heart of the Eucharist, at the heart of Bread and Wine/Body and Blood, is Jesus’ cross. A gospel that doesn’t have the cross at its center is not the gospel of Jesus. It certainly is in the background of this post, but I think it always deserves pride of place.

    “He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself,
    in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole
    world.”

    “For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

  2. At age 83, and a believer, I have been trying to unravel God’s mysteries for some time but I’m not there yet. This piece is at once thoughtful, helpful, confirming and, most of all, comforting. I agree: “This is good.”

  3. […] As if in response, and to drive home what historical liturgies attempt to safeguard (despite the efforts of those presiding), John Deepak Sundara penned a beautiful piece for Covenant titled “From Law to Grace: The Gospel in the Holy Eucharist.” […]

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