Drowning: for some of us, that’s how life feels at the moment. Every day, there are new reports of the spread of coronavirus. New edicts are issued by health officials and local government. Businesses have to close or move their work into cyberspace. Families are being forced into new ways of being together. Congregations can’t…well, congregate.
Even those who aren’t drowning are having to dog-paddle.
In the face of all this, I have a proposition: I nominate the apostle Peter to be our patron saint of pandemics.
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You know the story. Jesus has just fed well over 5,000 people with five little barley loaves and two small fish. Everyone ate their fill, and there was more food left over at the end than the amount with which he began.
The crowd was suitably impressed. But when they tried to make him king, Jesus quickly put the disciples in a boat and sent them away, while he went up the mountain to be alone with his Father in prayer.
When dawn was near, the disciples were still out on the water. Jesus came to them, walking on the surface of the sea. This, apparently, was something the Twelve had never seen before. They drew what for them was a logical conclusion: It’s a ghost!
And then they screamed whatever terrified people scream in Aramaic.
Calm down, guys, it’s just me, Jesus said. It worked. In fact, Peter was so calm that he decided to experiment with a bit of water-walking himself: “Lord, if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water” (Matt 14:28, CEB). He was smart enough to know that this wasn’t something to try apart from the command of Jesus.
“Come,” was all Jesus said, perhaps with a touch of bemusement in his voice.
Everything went swimmingly at first: Peter climbed out of the boat, fixed his eyes on Jesus, and walked toward him on the water.
But then he noticed how strong the wind was, how high the waves and turbulent the water. I imagine him thinking, What in the world am I doing? And as soon as he thought that, he couldn’t do it anymore. Suddenly overcome with fear, he sank like a stone (is that what Jesus meant when he nicknamed him, “The Rock”?). He cried out: “Lord, save me!”
Matthew describes what happened next:
Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him, saying, “You man of weak faith! Why did you begin to have doubts?” When they got into the boat, the wind settled down. Then those in the boat worshipped Jesus and said, “You must be God’s Son!”
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Jesus scolds Peter for having so little faith. But we need to be careful here. Both our culture and our church subculture have a propensity for shame that can skew our theology and our reading of Scripture. A shame-based reading of the passage takes Jesus as saying, “Peter, you’re such a loser!” And that reading gives us a God who is far less gracious than we say we believe.
Here’s a more gracious reading. Jesus was neither thundering his disapproval nor shaming Peter for his failure. Like a father trying to encourage a child, Jesus chided him by calling him “Little-faith.” That is, after all, a more literal rendering of the Greek; in fact, one interpreter suggests that Peter’s faith was “little” because it was short-lived rather than weak.
Think about it. I don’t know about you, but if I had to step out of a boat and walk on water — even calm water — that would take more faith than I’ve ever needed for anything.
For Peter to walk on water took faith. Even crying out to Jesus was an act of faith, an instinctive reach toward the only one who could save him.
And in grace, Jesus responded immediately. When the disciples screamed in terror, he didn’t roll his eyes; he comforted them immediately (Matt 14:27). When Peter faltered and sank, Jesus didn’t let him flounder a while until he had learned his lesson; he reached out immediately and pulled him to safety.
Note too that Jesus didn’t levitate Peter out of the water, though I have no doubt that he could have, just as he healed other people from a distance. He reached down and grabbed Peter, I believe, because Peter needed to feel the firm grasp of his Master’s hand.
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Being anxious about coronavirus is not a sign of our faithlessness. Feeling like we’re gasping for air in the midst of uncertainty and change is part of the human condition that we all share.
But for believers, the pandemic is an opportunity to cry out to the one who saves, to the one who takes hold of us immediately to let us know: I’ve got this. And I’ve got you.
I don’t know when the wind and waves will cease. But we have the privilege of turning to Jesus even now, in the confidence of knowing that he is truly the Son of God.