Thursday, April 08, 2021

The New Normal

As much as it pains me to say it, welcome to our second Easter season during the COVID pandemic. Around this time last year, we were trying to look for signs of resurrection while many virus-related lockdowns and cancellations were still relatively fresh, and the novelty of participating in worship while it emanated from empty sanctuaries or makeshift home studios did not yet feel like the soul-debilitating slog that it has become.
This year, there may be cause for greater hope as the vaccine rollout continues and as many entities cautiously make plans for a future that will see resumed interaction and gathering and returns to some semblance of what we used to call normal. So new life might be slightly easier to spot this Easter compared to last, even if guidelines and mandates will continue for a while longer. 
So one question facing us this time around might be what our new normal will look like. After all, the fallout, the grief, the realizations that we’ve had related to how we work, how we interact, and how we can most effectively be the church will be with us for a while yet, even after it is deemed safe for people to gather again. With all that we have discovered and lost and experienced during this time, “normal” will not be what it was.
Fortunately, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 lend themselves quite well to the sorts of questions we may be asking at this phrase of the pandemic:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

He first speaks of the message of good news that he received from others, indicating that the early church is already engaging in its work of evangelism and proclamation so that others may receive this good news themselves. Paul is one such recipient, and in the spirit of his receiving the good news, he too has passed it on to the believers at Corinth.
But with proclamation there has also been transformation. Paul has not only received a message, but also his own experience along with it. He sums up the message as “Christ lived, Christ died, Christ was raised by God, and then Christ appeared.” He recaps a handful of appearances that the risen Jesus has made to Peter, the rest of the disciples, to a group of over 500 people, and then, last and least, to Paul himself.
And it was this appearance that really set Paul forth on a new sense of mission and calling. Whereas before he was a persecutor of the church of God, he is now an apostle of that same church, a fellow proclaimer alongside others, a sharer of the message that he first received. 
“By the grace of God,” he says, “I am what I am.” Not by his own will or strength or talent (of which he has plenty, he finds a way to mention), but by what he has received from God and from his fellow workers in the faith.
With the message of resurrection and the realization that the risen Christ is still an active and life-giving presence in the world, comes a new normal. It brings a new way to see the world around us, more full of hope and grace even if the circumstances don’t present much cause for either. Alongside and underneath the questions of how to move forward, how to cope, how to process, how to live in a reality that will not be like it was, walks Jesus, raised and alive, ever-present and still appearing, transforming us and inviting us to proclaim and aid in the transformation of others.
Whatever our normal looks like after the pandemic, we will live it as an Easter people, made so by the grace of God.

This was adapted from my recent segment for the Pulpit Fiction podcast.