After he had fed the people, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat
and precede him to the other side,
while he dismissed the crowds.
After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.
When it was evening he was there alone.
Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles offshore,
During the fourth watch of the night,
he came toward them walking on the sea.
When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified.
“It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.
At once Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Peter said to him in reply,
“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
He said, “Come.”
Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened;
and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter,
and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
After they got into the boat, the wind died down.
Those who were in the boat did him homage, saying,
“Truly, you are the Son of God.”
In today’s Gospel we see Jesus doing some pretty typical (for Jesus) kinds of things: he teaches the crowds, he withdraws to the mountains to pray alone, he walks on water, he calms the storm, he scolds Peter. Of these, I want to concentrate on the last. Think about the setting: Peter is in a boat, possibly overloaded with a dozen or more people in it, on rough seas. Suddenly, out of the darkness a figure approaches walking over the water. Like the rest of the disciples, Peter is frightened—“terrified” the gospel says. But upon hearing Jesus speak he cries out, impetuously, “Let me walk on water to you!” He then leaps over the side of the boat and sets out over the water. So far so good, until he realizes exactly what he is doing and he succumbs to his fear once more. Jesus is forced to physically intervene, pulling Peter up out of the water and helping him back to the boat. And then Peter gets scolded for his lack of faith: “why did you doubt?” I must admit that I have a certain amount of sympathy for Peter: I think all of us, from time to time, have taken something on only to realize that we are in over our heads.
What does this incident tell us about Peter, the man Jesus later describes as “the rock upon which I will build my church”? (Mt 16:18) Matthew recounts this incident as one of several stories that show us that this is really who Peter is. Here and elsewhere in the gospel, Peter responds to Jesus quickly, almost without thinking. He plunges forward in a burst of enthusiasm, only to realize after the fact what he has gotten himself into. In today’s reading, he finds himself standing on a lake in the middle of a storm, and (perhaps understandably) freaks out. Later, he jumps ahead of his fellow disciples and professes faith in Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” (Mt 16:16) Then he learns what this means when Jesus tells him (again) that the messiah is destined to suffer and die. And, once again, he is unnerved when realizes he has gotten more than he bargained for as Jesus rebukes him: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mt 16:23) And at the Last Supper, Peter confidently announces that he will never betray Jesus; Jesus immediately cuts him down to size, showing him how badly he will fail: “You will betray me three times.” (Mt 26:34)
Given Matthew’s portrait of Peter, you might be justified in thinking that Jesus did not have had the liveliest confidence in Peter. Jesus, however, seems to measure his followers by different standards: Matthew shows Jesus giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:19); in John’s gospel, after the resurrection Jesus tells Peter, three times, “feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17)
So then why does Matthew include these incidents in his portrayal of Peter, a leader of the early Church? I can think of two reasons. First, I suspect that Matthew included these details to remind us that our faith should be in Christ, and not in any human figure. In any small movement, there is a danger of a cult of personality, of hero worship, of undue attention being focused on the leader; the early Church was no different. Matthew wrote in this way to remind his first readers that the Church is not about its earthly leaders. As Paul said in one of his letters: “every one of you is declaring, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been split up? Was it Paul that was crucified for you, or was it in Paul’s name that you were baptised?” (1 Cor 1:12b-13) This warning still has meaning for us. When we idolize anyone—a charismatic priest, a television personality, a bishop or even the pope—when we forget their human weaknesses and limitations, we risk setting them up in place of Jesus.
Second, it is to remind us that God works with humanity as we are: fallen, broken, imperfect. In baptism we become a “new creation” but one molded from the clay of who we are. We are measured by our faith: our faith does not excuse our sins and our failings, but it puts them into context. Peter’s faith led him to say and do things he couldn’t follow through on, but in the end his faith led him to martyrdom for Christ. Today, may our faith lead each of us to more fully embrace the cross of Christ. If we step in over our heads, Jesus may scold us, but he will be there to help us stand and take up our cross again.