The Gospel and 'normality'
Going into ‘lockdown’ has been an odd experience for all of us – we have entered a new type of existence, which requires that we change and adapt; there are new rules and routines in the home and at work, and new rules on how we take our leisure time. New phrases like ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary. These aren’t just phrases used by a trendy elite; all our lives are now governed by them. So, we move out into the road to keep away from someone walking towards us on the pavement (or maybe we cross the road to avoid them, or turn our head away from them as we pass?); increasing numbers of us are wearing face masks – will it soon become compulsory? There are now queues at supermarkets, banks and Post Offices, as we are admitted one-by-one to conduct our business, strictly observing the two-metre rule; we are asked only to pay with plastic. This is a strange new ‘normal’.
I guess we all have an insight now into what it was like in 1914 (when ‘the lamps were going out all over Europe’); or 1939, when schoolchildren were evacuated from cities, rationing came into effect, and every night a blackout was enforced. Vera Lynn sang ‘We’ll meet again’, and people wondered how long that would be – the war lasted nearly six years in the end.
That same question is being asked now: How long before we can relax ‘lockdown’? It was put to Dominic Raab (at the time, acting PM) on 26th April by Andrew Marr. His answer was that it would be a phased process. Schools, sport and businesses will be some of the first to start up again, but it wouldn’t be like before – at least, not at first; it would be ‘a new normal’, maintaining many of the social-distancing practices, probably for many months to come; perhaps to the end of the year? It seems we may have to wait until the longed-for vaccine appears, which is likely to be 2021.
I wonder what your reaction to all this is? Will we ever get back to what was ‘normal’ before 23rd March 2020, when the drastic new regulations were put in place? If we do, will we find that some things have changed forever? Will many businesses simply not start up again? Will this be the death-knell for the high street? Will some employers require their workforce to carry on working from home? Will some families be permanently scarred by what has happened in the home over these weeks? Will the government retain some of the emergency powers they have taken for themselves during the crisis? In short, will we find that we have left behind what we thought was ‘normal’ forever, and that a ‘new normal’ has emerged – perhaps one that we feel quite uncomfortable with? And, if this is the case, how do faith and the gospel relate to this state of affairs?
One of the comforts we should take from the present situation, if we are feeling things are ‘abnormal’, is that the gospel of Christ declares that what is ‘normal’ is not found in this present world. The whole history of the human race, since the Fall, has been one long aberration from the ‘norm’. For instance, when Jesus was asked about divorce (something quite ‘normal’ in our society), he immediately referred his questioners to the state of affairs before the Fall (Matt. 19:4), when divorce did not exist; and when they persisted to ask about Moses giving out divorce certificates, he replied that it was not this way from the beginning: that is, it should not be seen as ‘normal’.
For Jesus, ‘normal’ was what he had known with the Father in heaven, and his ‘sojourn’ on earth must have been a difficult adjustment – living with the effects of sin all around him, in an unbelieving world, with all its change and decay. We can perhaps sense his frustration in Mark 9, when he exclaimed: O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? And perhaps we can imagine what was going through his head when he taught the disciples to pray, May your will be done, here on earth [where it is not normal for people to obey you] as it is in heaven [where it is normal for you to be perfectly obeyed]; and his desire to be home again when he prays to his Father in John 17: And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began…I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you…I am coming to you now…
There is a similar theme in Paul’s writing. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 7:31 that this world in its present form is passing away; it has no future, and will be replaced by a new order of things, which will be the norm for eternity! In 1 Cor. 15, Paul tells us what this new normal will involve for Christians, and especially for our bodies. In 2 Cor. 4:18, with reference to our current experience of life, he writes that what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. So all that we see around us at the moment, whether before ‘lockdown’ or after, is only a phase we are passing through – none of it is going to last. Paul continues:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:1-8).
Paul’s teaching here is that we should be longing for our heavenly dwelling and clothing, and that God has fashioned us for this very purpose! This is what will be normal for us, and therefore we should not be at home in our present bodies, or indeed in our current circumstances, whether pre- or post-Coronavirus!
In 1920, Warren Harding won the American Presidential election with the slogan ‘Return to Normalcy’. Of course, after the First World War, there was a desire to go back to how things were before, to some sort of settled state where life was not so turbulent. That was a false hope, though it shows us again the deep desire in the human soul to seek after something that transcends the ebb and flow of human history. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can give substance to this hope, and show us what we should really see as ‘normal’.
In Rev. 21, when he returns, Jesus declares that the old order of things has passed away, and that he is making everything new. Let’s prepare ourselves for the new order, and not look back wistfully at the age before Coronavirus – if we are Christians, that is not the normality we want to return to!
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