Psalm 41 and Holy Week

As we prepare for Holy Week, we should remember that the early church boldly decided to include in even the early eucharistic liturgies the phrase, “on the night in which he was betrayed.” They are, of course, following the apostle Paul who uses the phrase in 1 Corinthians 11:23 as he gives us that earliest liturgy. The reason, I think, is because betrayal is the sin that hurts the worst. The people of God expected to be hated by their enemies, but they hoped for loyalty from their closest friends. The fact that Jesus was betrayed by one of the Twelve is yet another sign that the passion of Jesus does not begin at Calvary, but was borne throughout His earthly life.

Psalm 41 gives us an insight into this as we prepare for Holy Week. It is the final psalm in Book One of the Psalter and it prepares us for the depth of agony which is present in Book 2 of the Psalms (Psalms 42–59). Psalm 41 begins with a picture of blessedness: “How blessed is the one who considers the poor!” This is one of fifteen psalms that declares what it means to be “blessed” in the eyes of God. The psalm reminds us that as we help the poor and those who are suffering, we are coming closer to the heart of God. The first portion of Psalm 41 gives us a waterfall of verbs that describe how God is the one who delivers us, protects us, keeps us, does not give up on us, and sustains us. And that is just in verses 2 and 3! Then, in classic Psalm fashion (though rarely a feature of any modern hymns), the psalmist turns from the blessedness of God to recall the evil, treachery, and betrayal of his enemies. The psalmist recounts how our enemies plot our destruction, want us to die, break their promises, gossip and whisper about us, mock us when we are ill and lay on our bed dying. Then, when you think it cannot get any worse, the psalmist brings out the worst thing of all: betrayal. In verse 9 the psalmist says, “even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”

It is this verse from Psalm 41 that is quoted by Jesus about Judas in John 13:18. In fact, this is the verse which introduces that whole discourse in John’s gospel about “one of you will betray me.” Why does Jesus draw us to this psalm? The verse about betrayal is followed by verse 10 which says, “God be gracious to me and raise me up that I may repay them!” This is meant to jolt you. The psalmist goes to the place of vengeance. But the gospel of Jesus Christ interrupts this. Rather than Jesus repaying His enemies and getting even with those who mocked and betrayed Him, He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the good news of the gospel! We are living in the interruption of God’s vengeance. We are living in the day of mercy and grace. In due course of time, Judgment Day will come on those who plot and scheme against God and His people. The book of Revelation makes that clear. But, we are in the great season of mercy and grace. This is not the time for vengeance. This is the time for reconciliation and preparing people for the blessed return of Christ. In this day of violence and division and hatred and betrayal, let us remember that we are now in the day of God’s favor. Our job is to mend the broken, heal the sick, give recovery of sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Holy Week is God’s plan to insert an offer of grace and mercy into the certainty of the judgment we deserved. Thanks be to God!

Rise Up, O Church of God – Have Done with Lesser Things!

Like many United Methodists around the world, the Council of Bishops’ decision to delay, yet again, the General Conference and consideration of the Protocol until August or September 2022 was met with great disappointment. COVID-19 is, of course, the cause of the multiple delays, first from May 2020 to August 2021 and now to 2022.

We all understand the unique challenges posed by a global pandemic and we have all extended quite a bit of grace and understanding over a certain level of disruption and lack of clarity. However, there are several things which strike me about this decision. First, it is quite revealing that our leadership could not find any “pivot” solution. Large, international organizations all over the world faced the same challenges and they found a whole array of creative solutions to keep making important decisions. There is no reason why the church could not find a way to address the Protocol in 2020 or certainly by 2021, as a single agenda item, since so much planning and transition across the denomination appears to hinge on this decision. Second, at a deeper level, I continue to be amazed at the hope being placed in the Protocol. Isn’t it amazing that the United Methodist Church, which is such a stickler for rules and procedures, has embraced the Protocol which was never authorized by any formal body? After every General Conference delay the inevitable calls begin to emerge asking the Council of Bishops to re-re-re affirm their commitment to the Protocol as if their affirmation would somehow give us comfort and assurance in the long wait. What are we waiting for? Except for a faithful few, since when has the Council of Bishops had any concern for the health and future of historic orthodoxy in the church? Is our hope in the Protocol? Is our salvation in keeping our building and land? Is our trust in some kind of “golden parachute” which we are being given?

This is the time for the Traditionalists to remember afresh what this whole struggle has been about over the last fifty years. It has not been about human sexuality. It has not been about the terms of separation. It has not been about the Trust Clause. These have served as some of the presenting issues. The struggle has been about nothing less than the recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity. It is about a profound and fresh encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is the Lord of the church, and who has promised us that he will build his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. It is about a renewal of our Wesleyan message of holiness, sanctification, the re-directed heart, and the Spirit-filled life. It is about the unleashing of 10,000 new church plants across the world. It is about transformed lives and a message of hope in a culture of despair. It is about a fresh encounter with the Scriptures as the living Word of God. It is about the eternal verities of God’s revelation. It is about being set free from decades of confusion about the central, transformative realities of the gospel. It is about being set free from the wearisome pious platitudes of a kind of deistic, therapeutic, self-help moralizing which masquerades in our churches as the sermon. May the fire of God fall so profoundly on us that we cannot help but move forward now.

I still affirm that the Protocol remains the most viable path out of this morass into a more hopeful stream of recovery and restoration. But, what are we to do now that the wait is going on for years? We must live in the present as if we have already been set free for renewed mission in the world. After all, our hope is not in the Protocol. We do not stand trembling before the Council of Bishops waiting for them to tell us, yet again, they are still committed to showing us the door. We stand before the risen Christ! He has called us to “go and make disciples of all nations.” He has called us to re-evangelize a lost and broken nation. He has called us to renewed global partnerships to bring the gospel around the world. That is what all of the renewal movements have been about from the Confessing Movement to Good News to the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

This is the faithful future that we have been struggling to recapture. None of this has to wait until the vote on the Protocol. There are too many people who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ for us to be caught in some kind of endless Ground Hog Day type feedback loop. We cannot be immobilized by a decision whose largest support comes not from our brothers and sisters in Africa, who have stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder fighting for historic orthodoxy for decades, but from the very people who have opposed us. This newly emerging denomination has chosen the name Global Methodist Church. Yet, if the Traditionalists do not start acting now like a Methodist church that is truly global, truly historic, truly Wesleyan, truly a church, then the Traditionalists will have no right to such a name. We must live in the present as if we are already in the future. So, rise up, O Church of God, be done with lesser things; give heart and soul, and mind and strength to serve the King of Kings!