The Nature of God’s Grace as Evidenced by the Liturgy: Part 3 – The Sacrament of the Altar

In Part Three, we pick up on page 194 in the Lutheran Service Book where the liturgy for the Sacrament of the Altar begins. Again, we will be following Divine Service Setting 3 and the words of the liturgy will be in bold. I will be covering the ordinaries in the liturgy. There are wonderful words of grace and mercy in the proper preface for each Sunday, but, for the sake of length, we will not be covering them.

There is a break in the service just before the Sacrament of the Altar, right after the Prayer of the Church. When the pastor is ready, he turns to face the congregation with the Salutation he spoke earlier. This comes from the conclusion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The Lord be with you. And with thy spirit.

The second part of the preface, (Lift up your hearts. We lift them up unto the Lord) is a summary of Colossians 3:1. Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” The Father has joined us to Himself in Christ Jesus. First, we are brought to remember our baptisms. In our sanctuary, our baptismal font is near the front of the pews so that each person must pass by the font on his/her way to the altar. We are crucified with Christ and raised with Him in baptism. Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” If then we are raised with Christ, our desire should be for the holy things which He gives.

In the Sacrament of the Altar, God places before us the holy body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins. God’s grace comes freely to us in order that we might receive life and salvation. No person is coerced to come forward to receive the body and the blood of Christ. We are drawn by God to seek the things that are from God above.

Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God. It is meet and right so to do. If you have never read Psalm 136,  now is your opportunity. The final line in the preface is a summary of that psalm. Thanksgiving does surround the Sacrament, although thanksgiving is not itself the Sacrament; it is before, during, and after. What are we really giving thanks for? Psalm 136 teaches us that we are giving thanks for the steadfast love of God that endures forever. This means that He is true to His promises. We need this assurance, for, without the steadfast love of God, we would not have reason to believe He would actually give forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. Stop now before you read further and open your Bible to Psalm 136. Read it a few times and soak up, like a sponge, the amazing nature of God’s grace in His steadfast love for His people.

Skipping slightly forward, we head to the Sanctus. This is a canticle of praise to our God. Six times the congregation sings “Hosanna,” which the hymnal nicely points out means, “Save us now.” The people of God cry out, “Save us,” and God answers by putting before His people the Lamb which was slain before the foundation of the world. The sinner must receive forgiveness to be saved, but we cannot receive it at the cross. Surely there on the cross, Jesus won for us forgiveness, but He delivers it to His people, in, with, and under the bread and the wine. Where the sinner finds and receives forgiveness, there he also receives life and salvation.

When it comes to the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, explaining the nature of God’s grace is quite simple. The Lord says, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” This meal is a pledge of His certain and unchanging love (steadfast love, Psalm 136) for us. This meal is not for the proud and unrepentant sinners. It is for those who know their sins and repent of them. It is for the weak and humble, the downtrodden and grieving, and the sick and the dying. When one is feeling weak and attacked by the devil, he should flee to the Supper of our Lord. There he will find comfort for his spirit and a renewed strength to fight against the devil, the world, and his sinful flesh. There he will find the comfort in the grace of God and the peace which surpasses all understanding.

The pastor proclaims this peace following the Words of Institution. The peace of God be with you always (John 20:19). Jesus met the disciples in their fear and trepidation. He came to them behind locked doors and the first words He spoke to them were, “Peace be with you.” Our unholiness because of sin leaves us trembling before God. We know that we should not be allowed to come into the Holy of Holies. We have access to it by the blood of Jesus who cleanses us. The one who is prepared believes the Word of Jesus, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus said in John 14:27,  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Many people search for peaceful relationships, financial peace, emotional peace, and so on and so forth, but the true peace we need before we depart this life is peace with God. This is why John the Baptist said when he saw Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He saw in Jesus peace with the Father. The church becomes partakers in this peace when we partake of the Sacrament. It is, for this reason, that we are encouraged to take the Sacrament as often as it is given. We recognize that in the Sacrament we are granted the peace of God in His Son. So we say in the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace. The peace of Christ, who was obedient unto death on the cross, is your peace. You have done nothing for it, but it has been granted to you by the mercy of God.

This peace is carried forward throughout the remainder of the service in the dismissal (Depart in + peace), Nunc Dimittis (Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word….), Post Communion Collect (…We thank you that you have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament….) and the Benediction (May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and + give you peace.) The whole service has driven us toward the Sacrament. Though the Supper has ended, its benefits do not. We depart the table with exuberant joy like Simeon departed the temple, and even departed this life, after holding the Christ child in his hands. There is nothing else in all of creation that can match or surpass the joy and peace delivered in the body and blood of Christ.

The Church is taught the nature of God’s grace by the liturgy. She learns that God’s grace is abundant and constant. She learns this because the liturgy is the Scriptures which constantly bear witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus. As the Scriptures are Christocentric, so also is the liturgy. Whether you have an abundance of hope or are suffering from despair, the liturgy draws us unto the Son of God who was lifted up for our transgressions and raised for our justification. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

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