So What's Normal?

Reading: Ephesians 2.1-10
I recall back to the early days of our family - after number one had been born. The older ones among us will remember the problems of colic and the myriad methods and remedies that the well-meaning would recommend to overcome it. Probably the most realistic, but not very comforting, advice was, "Don't worry, dear! It's quite normal. They grow out of it at three months!" Later it's ear-ache at teething times, or bed-wetting, or a late walker - when you know that everyone else's baby is walking by now! Normal! we are told. Everything, it seems, is normal!

Early thumb-sucking is normal, we are told, so is selfishness, agressiveness, shyness. Later on it's rebelliousness, rejection of parent's values, laziness.... and so the list goes on!

What is meant when people say these things are normal? They are being reassuring. There are a whole range of characteristics and behaviour that are common enough - other parents face them too! Don't panic! Mostly, children grow out of them to become normal healthy adults. There - we used it again - "normal healthy adults"! What's the norm? By what standard do we say that people or behaviour patterns are normal?

Then the other year I heard it again - but this time at a combined churches' prayer meeting for revival. Someone was praying, and I was thinking along in prayer with this person about the need of the Church. That was when she said it - praying that the different denominational groups would learn to love and appreciate one other and not just stick to themselves "as we normally do". That's when it hit me again, and my personal praying took a different turn - "Lord, how have we made normal anything that is not your will and plan for the church? Forgive us, Lord, that we have set our own norms!"

I have chosen as the title of this sermon - "So what's normal?" There are many things that are commonplace, that often happen, but that doesn't make them normal! You could do a survey to discover how regularly professing Christians attend Church, read their Bibles and pray. You could, perhaps, put a percentage on the number of people claiming to be Christian who gamble, drink, take drugs, beat their wives, fiddle their tax forms, have sex outside marriage, cheat the boss, practise homosexuality... Add to that your personality studies - the incidence of anger, depression, fear, worry, instability... Now - do you think? - you might be ready to draw up your picture of "the normal Christian"! Or would you? Would this average picture of people claiming to be Christian tell you anything at all about what a Christian really is? So - what's normal?

The Abnormal Life

In Eph.2, Paul wrote, "In the past you were spiritually dead because of disobedience and sins. At that time you followed the world's evil way; you obeyed the ruler of the spiritual powers in space, the spirit that now controls the people who disobey God. Actually all of us were like them and lived according to our natural desires, doing whatever suited the wishes of our own bodies and minds. In our natural condition we, like everyone else, were destined to suffer God's anger" (2.1-3). What is Paul saying about our previous non-Christian lives? Surely that they were not normal!

At our previous manse we planted a number of Australian natives. Among them, a grevillea - Robyn Gordon, in fact. It was, maybe, 20cm in height when we bought it some four or five years ago. When we left Bulimba it was still no taller. It kept on having a flower or two, but didn't grow! I'm sure the nurseryman would immediately tell us that something is wrong! It could be the soil or the plant! He might advise that Robyn Gordon can be a bit situation-sensitive - that some people put them in and they thrive, while others have no end of trouble! However, he doesn't try to sell the idea of it being normal, even if it has happened to a number of other gardeners!

So "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Rom.3.23) - but that doesn't make sin normal! Sin is death-related, it is a destructive condition, it is abnormal! So "all of us were like them and lived according to our natural desires, doing whatever suited the wishes of our own bodies and minds" (Eph.2.3) - but that doesn't make that sort of behaviour normal, no matter how common! It is a dangerous condition that puts us under the righteous anger of God - it is abnormal!

Or we turn over to that frank description by the apostle Paul in Romans 7 - the struggle within. A struggle, I believe, that he faced before he believed in Christ, but whose reality he knew after as well. "So I find this law is at work: when I want to do what is good, what is evil is the only choice I have. My inner being delights in the law of God. But I see a different law at work in my body - a law that fights against the law which my mind approves of. It makes me a prisoner to the law of sin which is at work in my body. What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?" (vv.21-24).

Is that a picture of the normal Christian life? No, it isn't! I am sure that many Christians have experienced and can identify with that struggle. Some have felt it to be almost characteristic of the attack of the evil one on the new believer - a struggle intensified and felt more keenly by the believer! It certainly happens, but that doesn't make it normal!

And, if we think about the Church, where do we find a normal Church? Some folk insist that we need to get back to the New Testament. In a sense they are right, but what do they mean? Do they mean the Corinthian church with its quarrels and divisions over leadership, in which sexual immorality was condoned, in which disputes became so heated that brother took brother to the secular courts, where the Lord's Supper became a sign of selfishness and division, where the gifts of the Spirit became a sign of jealousy and conflict....? Or perhaps they mean the Galatian church who had believed in Christ wholeheartedly but then succombed to a different teaching which cut right across what Christ has done for the believer? Or perhaps it is the Thessalonian church which rightly understood that Jesus is coming again, but where some took this to mean that they didn't need to work and could sponge on the rest of the Christian community!

Does normal mean a church is so "decent and in order" that the Holy Spirit doesn't get a look in at all? And does "free and unstructured" necessarily allow the Spirit any space either?

The Normal Life

In our Bible reading, Paul says clearly that, although "you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live", things are different now - "God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ..."

Earlier in the year in our morning services, I referred to 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul speaks about a revolution that is only possible in Christ. It is not a directionless revolution. It is the turn-around of a life to what is normal. "When anyone is joined to Christ, he is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come" (v.17). Paul gets really excited about it, forgets about verbs and writes, "If any in Christ, new creature/creation!"

The new is the norm. It is what God always intended for us. The new is the "glory of God" that we had fallen short of because of sin. It is new because sin had marred it, rendered it fit for destruction. In Christ it is restored, reinstated.

So there is a whole new era in which the new has come - we are no longer dead and destined for hell, we are alive and destined for heaven! Sometimes we feel the pull of the old - conquered, it still fights a rear-guard action! But Christ is Lord! Conscious submission to him is the key by which the Holy Spirit is able to fill, control, re-shape and re-direct our lives! In Christ, in union with Christ, the potential, the plan, becomes a reality!

What about us?

So - how many minutes a day can I get away with for prayer and the Bible? There's something wrong there, don't you think?

(c) Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 26 August 1990
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.

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