The world is in a state of flux with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many countries to close their national border or to restrict international travel, and bringing huge economic impact on business and employment. Above all, it generates social and emotional pressure on those who are struggling in coping with all sorts of confinement and restriction. Nobody for sure know exactly what the “new normal” would be like, and coping with the uncertainty requires institutions and businesses to plan ahead with caution and introduce necessary emergency measures.
For Christians who have no prior experiences of upheavals, the pandemic creates fear and doubt. How are they going to ride out of this storm? Churches are closed, pastoral assistance is no longer readily available, and online counselling support and worship lack the personal touch despite their convenience. Would past experiences of overcoming hardship and being the recipient of divine provision help us? We might claim that fear is not a problem, but how about the uncertainty of plunging into a new area, one which is full of challenges that require great courage. The essence of our problem is the trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The story of Jesus walking on water is no stranger to us. Two things struck me when I read this familiar passage. First, the reaction of the disciples after Jesus declares his identity in the midst of the storm. All except Peter did not respond to Jesus’s assurance. Peter, however, took the bold initiative of requesting Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28) When Jesus granted his request, Peter took the plunge and “started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.” (Matthew 14:29)
Matthew is unlikely to use the contrast as a critique of the rest of the disciples. Instead, his depiction of Peter’s response suggests that among them, Peter’s initial reaction is a focus on Jesus. Despite the danger of the lurking waves, he is prepared to step out of the comfort zone. After all, the wind did stop and everyone was safe by remaining in the ship (Matthew 14:32). My first observation raises the question on our preparedness and willingness to meet our Lord in a stormy encounter. In my self-assessment of the “new normal” in theological education, I remain cautious, and even somewhat unwilling in coping with the use of new technology, the development of new learning methods, and discovering avenues to mentor our students. However, Peter has shown us the way, “Lord, command me to come to you.” Are we prepared to walk with God as we confront the current crisis? A commentator puts it succinctly, “Important for Matthew is that this saving presence of God does not mean that no storms appear but that one experiences it in the storms. Those who risk obedience and move out from their securities experience it. God’s help does not mean that faith, bright and unthreatened, eliminates life’s storms.” (Ulrich Luz, A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, 2001)
My second observation is the focus of Peter’s faith. It would require a lot of courage to step into the water. Perhaps Peter’s excitement in seeing Jesus took away his attention on the immediate environment. When he met the reality of raging wave and strong wind, Peter was overcome with fear and doubt, and his cry for assistance was met with Jesus’ “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)
It is premature to criticize Peter for losing the sight of Jesus or expressing sympathy for him because we too doubt when the going gets tough. What we should not ignore is that his request to Jesus to command him to come, which is an acknowledgment that he has no ability to come to Jesus unless the Lord provides. When the command was given, Peter responded with obedience. This obedience does not mean all the obstacles would be removed in a crisis. The “little faith” of Peter is not about unbelief, but instead, it has a mixture of courage and fear. Doubt is a part of his faith, and the cry shows he recognizes Jesus is the one who will save him. Peter’s obedience would carry him through the crisis whether this obedience is an enthusiastic response or a recognition that Jesus would save him. My observation, therefore, raises the question of what are the distractions that might cause us to lose sight of Jesus in a crisis. Would it be a lack of resources? Is it the unwillingness to learn a new skill or switching to a new industry? Are we shaken by the opinions of others?
The boat in this story might be seen as a metaphor of the Church in a crisis. Numerous and yet different voices might be raised as we determine the unique solution to our current crisis. We might lose sight of Jesus by having sleepless nights or pondering over exhaustive details of the solution. Peter’s struggles are not confined to an individual, but also represent an indecisive community. Yet in the midst of his dilemma, Peter’s cry in distress, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14: 30; cf. 8:25) is the call in every age. Hearing that cry, Jesus would step in to deliver his community, both from strong winds, and from faltering faith.