Matthew wants to show us Peter’s walk. Although similar narratives appear in Mark and John, only Matthew includes the account of Peter walking on water. Here Matthew shows us one of his favorite themes: grace conquering fear. Matthew took an account that affirmed Jesus’ divinity and crafted it into a lesson on the power of faith.
When he saw how strong the wind was, he became frightened. (Mt 14:30)
Have you ever done something that seemed impossible?
What are your “gods of noise”?
How can you tune out the noise to hear Christ?
Jesus progressively reveals his divinity in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 14:15–17:8). Today’s narrative comes immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. Hostility to Jesus continues to increase even as his fame spreads. Several of his wonders confuse his closest disciples, especially his two miraculous feedings of crowds, his walking on water, the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and the transfiguration. The confusion and fear that characterize the disciples in today’s reading give way through these events to deeper faith, which reaches its climax in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ (Mt 16:13-20).
As a first step to similar faith, Matthew teaches Christians to leave security behind. Humans will cling to the flimsiest refuge. To follow Christ, we have to venture out into the full fury of life’s storm and leave our fantasies of security behind. We know we can do this because the same Jesus who summoned Peter to leave the boat remains with us today, challenging us to do the same.
Too often we let the storm drown out the summons. Perhaps we confuse the noise with God. In our first reading, Elijah has to ignore phenomena worshiped by other nations—fire, earthquake, wind—before he could encounter the God of Israel.
Perhaps we know the noise is not God, but we forget that God is stronger. Peter was in Jesus’ own presence. He saw Jesus walk on water and heard him say, “Come!” Even this was not enough for him to ignore the storm. He was a sailor, and he knew the danger of a storm at sea. He had no comparable memory or skill to help him understand how to walk on water.
Many today worship noise. When we pursue power, wealth, fame or ego, we fashion and adore idols of noise, petty gods whose thundering demands allow not a moment of rest. Just as likely, we find ourselves in Peter’s condition: followers of Christ and recipients of his grace who still hesitate before the fume and froth of the world’s storms.
We may sink a few times in the process, but we can rely on Christ to teach us to walk on water. This practice will take many forms. The rookie volunteer who teaches a sixth-grade religion class is walking on water. The college graduate who joins a service corps to perform works of mercy in a tough neighborhood is walking on water. The Knights of Columbus who endure isolation and misunderstanding to promote the Gospel of life are walking on water. The Catholic Worker arrested for advocating peace is walking on water. The parents who choose—sometimes against the advice of doctors—to give birth to a handicapped child are walking on water. Peter’s walk, however brief, led immediately to the rescue of his fellow disciples. Like Peter’s, our acts of faith, shaky as they might be, will help effect the salvation of others.