"There Is No ‘Back to Normal’ Now," by Zachary Helton
John 20:19-23, 30-31
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God sent me, so I’m sending you.” After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” […] Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.
“Sometimes when you're in the middle of a crisis, like we are now with the coronavirus, it really does, ultimately, shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society." -Dr. Anthony Fauci
Everybody was thinking it, I was just the first one to say it out loud. In hindsight, I see the problem. You’ve got to understand that we were reeling from three days of a kind of despair (I hope) you’ve never experienced. We were hiding behind locked doors, hungry for any kind of relief when Jesus just… appeared. “Shalom!” he greeted, like it was no big deal. Like he didn’t just, you know, die and come back from the dead. Needless to say, we lost our minds. Excitement. Fear. Both. Just… wow. So, we had been talking with him for nearly an hour when I said the thing on all of our minds… “Now things can go back to normal!” But then Jesus turned toward me, and on his face was this combination of sadness and love… but the message was clear. Things would never go “back to normal.” I noticed he was gently shaking his head, and he said “That is something we can never let happen.” Three years before, my best friends were the dusty coins I collected on my table in my little shady alcove off of the main street. I would organize them in these little towers - my own silver and copper kingdom. You’ve got to know, I was never great with my hands, but I did have a knack for numbers. I never really had much of a family or group of friends, and collecting taxes was something I kind of just fell into. It was fine. It became my “normal.” I’d sit at my booth counting up the sums, and the cold, copper faces of the Emperor kept me company. With every coin I counted, it was like he was passively assuring me of how important my work was, telling me I had a valuable place in this whole big… thing. My supervisors were soldiers who would come at the end of the week to make their pick-ups. They never learned my name. They didn’t care. I mean, I was just a Jew, so… My fellow Jews, on the other hand, now they cared. They hated me. When they’d come in to pay their taxes, some of them would make a game of trying to bump my table, like it was an accident, trying to knock down my towers of sorted coins. One time when I was on the floor picking them up, one man spit on the coins, like it was no big deal, and said, “Why don’t you try to find some pride while you’re down there?” And then there was Jesus. He’d come in to pay his taxes, and he was so different. He didn’t ignore me. He didn’t hate me. He’d just smile and make small talk. He wasn’t judging, but he also wasn’t condoning, it was just like he… understood. He had told me bits and pieces about what he was working on, about the Kingdom of God, and when the day came that he said, “Why don’t you follow me,” I was gone. A few weeks later we were sitting on a mountainside around a fire, swapping stories, eating fish, listening to the teacher. It was just… perfect. I remember wondering in that moment how I was ever satisfied with “normal” before. Here, there was grace. There was new life. A new beginning for me. There was plenty for everyone to have what they needed without having to take it from anyone else. People saw me, they listened… I had a place. It was maybe the best thing that had ever happened to me. It became my new “normal,” and I never wanted anything to change… but, of course, it did. Everyone knows the story of Peter pulling out his sword in that garden, but nobody tells you I was right there behind him, bending down to pick up a rock. I was ready to fight for this, to kill for this. But over the high priest’s servant, screaming his head off, Jesus held us back. “If you’re willing to kill for this,” he said, “it won’t be this anymore.” So, our weapons hit the ground, and as I watched him mend the slave’s ear, I just broke. I saw, in that act of kindness, the same Spirit he’d been showing me all those years, and here he was giving it to a man who had come to kill him. There was something about that I just couldn’t handle. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I ran. I watched him die from over a mile away. Hours I stood there, too scared come any closer. How’s that for loyalty? So, there we were for three days in hiding. Nicodemus and Joseph had joined that first day, and they stuck around. They couldn’t exactly hide anymore that they were with us, and we all sheltered there together. The very thought of going outside, something we’d always taken for granted, now felt like a threat to our survival. And then, just like that, he was back! So, can you blame me for wanting to go back to some semblance of normal after this whole thing? But, “That,” he told me, “is something we can never let happen.” So I asked him, “Why not?? You’re here! We can pick back up where we left off, like this never happened! Nothing has to change!” And he walked over to me, and he put his hand on my shoulder. That was when I noticed the scars on his hands. He must have noticed me looking, because he looked too. He nodded at them and said, “Except it did happen. And it changes everything.” He turned back around to everyone, and he said, “What happened showed us things that we should never forget. It exposed things to the light that, for too long, have thrived in darkness, and we can never let them retreat back into their shadows.” I asked, “Teacher, what are you talking about?” The one that answered me, though, wasn’t Jesus. It was Peter, and his voice was unsteady. He said, “He’s talking about me.” Jesus turned to look at Peter. His eyes were closed and his chin was trembling. He said “I was supposed to be there for you. I said I’d never leave you. I didn’t think I could ever… but then I did.” He opened his eyes and said, “You died alone. I wasn’t there. None of us were. There’s no going back from that. That’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it.” And Jesus moved over to Peter and looked at his face, but Peter couldn’t return his gaze. And then Jesus wrapped his arms around Peter, and Peter clung to Jesus and just seemed to melt. After several minutes, Jesus stepped back and said, “Peter. Neither failure, not shame, nor any height or any depth, not even death itself could ever separate you from my love. Know that first and foremost. And then, when you can accept that, never forget or underestimate what you or anyone else is capable of when they’re afraid or hurting.” He said, “What happened exposed that to the light, and now your work is to embrace it with honesty and grace, because that is the only way to grow, the only way for things to go differently next time.” “But teacher,” I said again, “if you can forgive us for leaving you alone like that, then I still don’t see whywe can’t get back to normal.” Jesus must have heard the impatience in my voice, because he replied with an equal measure of patience. He said, “Because there’s more to it. There are other things that have come out into the light.” I didn’t understand, so I asked, “What else is there?” And this time, the answer came from Nicodemus. His voice was flat and he said, “The Temple. We’ve seen the true face of the temple.” Then he let out a deep sigh and said, “We would’ve had you believe that we were the defenders of the faith, the keepers of the sacred mysteries. We would have told you that we knew the mind of God and taught the people what it took to please God. But that’s just not true, is it?” He looked at Jesus and said, “The Spirit of God shines more clearly in you than anyone we’ve ever seen, and we killed you. We killed you for the simple crime of making uncomfortable.” Jesus moved over to him and kissed him on the forehead. He went on and said, “It is clear now that the Temple cares more about protecting dogma than listening to God. We care more about appearance than truth, and more about power than justice. That is our true face.” And he remembered, “When Caiaphas issued that order, not a single one of us stepped out to speak in your defense. Not one.” And he slumped back in his chair, and said, “Our whole religious system is a sham. It’s bankrupt. There’s nothing real about it anymore.” Jesus put a hand on his shoulder and looked at me. He said, “There’s no going back to not knowing that, to not knowing what they’re capable of.” He said, “They’ll try their best to convince the people that they didn’t actually kill an innocent man. They’ll say the Temple could never do that! But they did. You saw it. Jerusalem saw it. They’ll want things to beg back to ‘normal,’ but you can’t let them forget what happened until they can own it, until something changes. Otherwise, who else is going to get hurt?” And as Jesus spoke, and I nodded along, I realized one other thing that had been uncovered when he was nailed to that cross, one other “normal” there was no going back to. Maybe after all that time collecting taxes and counting coins, I’d convinced myself that Rome was a necessary evil. I knew they were flawed, sure, but they kept the order, they kept the peace, and they executed justice. But seeing Jesus there, remembering what Pilate had said, what he had done to him, I saw the truth. I remembered the face of the Emperor on those coins that had kept me company for so long, and I saw him, for the first time, for what he was – just a piece of metal someone had dug out of the ground, stamped a picture on, and convinced everyone to pretend was valuable. “The state!” I said, surprising everyone except Jesus. “The empire! They sing their songs about keeping bringing peace through their conquest and keeping law and order, but how Pilate treated you… that was just about power and empty bravado! Pilate didn’t crucify you because he believed in justice, he did it because he is a thin-skinned child! That is the true face of Rome!” There was silence for a minute. Those were dangerous words to say, and all of the disciples knew it. But Jesus said, “He’s right.” Everyone looked at him. “This has uncovered a piece of Rome’s story that they depend on ignoring. They’ll try to spin this as a story of victory, try to calm the people and get back to normal, but here again, we can’t let that happen. We have to tell the whole story, however we can, however many time it takes – we have to tell the truth.” And then he held out his arms, his very presence an act of defiance to the powers that be, and turned his palms towards us in a blessing. “My beloved,” he said, “as God sent me to disrupt lies and embody the gracious truth, so I send you. “As God sent me to become the true Temple, carrying God’s own Spirit in my body, so I send you. “And as God sent me to expose the Kingdoms of this world and bring about a new Kingdom, ordered by true justice and true peace, so I send you.” And then, just as suddenly as he appeared in the room with us, he was gone… but he wasn’t. He was right, there would be no going back to “normal,” because a new Spirit moved in us, as close to us as our very breath. We unlocked the doors, and we went boldly from that room into a world that needed to hear the truth, a world that needed to be set free, and nothing has ever been the same.
What is about to be unleashed on American society will be the greatest campaign ever created to get you to feel normal again. [There will be an] all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw what you saw. The air wasn’t really cleaner; those images were fake. The hospitals weren’t really a war zone; those stories were hyperbole. The numbers were not that high; the press is lying. You didn’t see people in masks standing in the rain risking their lives to vote. Not in America. You didn’t see the leader of the free world push an unproven miracle drug like a late-night infomercial salesman. That was a crisis update. You didn’t see homeless people dead on the street. You didn’t see inequality. You didn’t see indifference. You didn’t see utter failure of leadership and systems. But you did. -Julio Vincent Gambuto
We must embrace the whole story with honesty and grace, because that is the only way things will ever change. We do not need a resuscitation of the same broken culture and oppressive economy. We need a resurrection into new life.