Three of the four evangelists give their communities a narrative of Jesus walking across the sea, but only Matthew tells the story of Peter's attempt to join in this miraculous feat (Mt 14:22-33).
It's an important theological addition. But to appreciate the significance of Peter's action, we must first understand the significance of Jesus' action.
People often excuse failures by remarking, "I can't walk on water!" The phrase has become a popular metaphor for doing something superhuman or divine. Though three evangelists attempt to show that Jesus is Yahweh in these narratives, they don't do it by telling us that Jesus can walk on water. Such an activity doesn't convey divinity to those formed in a biblical culture. The theological import of Jesus' action isn't that water molecules can support His feet molecules; it's that He's able to walk across the sea.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, seas are places of chaos. The hostile forces of the world reside in them, forces which Yahweh alone can tame. Remember how the story of creation begins? "The earth being formless and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and a wind of God sweeping over the waters."
The scriptural definition of "create" isn't "making something out of nothing;" it's "bringing order out of chaos." In the sacred author's mind, all God's followers participate in creation. Every time we solve a problem, teach a child, form a sentence or straighten up a messy room, we're creating. But some creation belongs to God alone. Only God, for instance, is powerful enough to order the chaos of the seas.
Because of their familiarity with the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus' disciples see Him striding across the stormy sea, hear Him proclaim the biblically divine statement, "Stop being afraid! I am!" and know they're dealing with Yahweh.
At this point, Peter says, "If it is you, Lord, command me to come to you on the water." After Jesus invites him, Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk on the sea.
Everything goes well until Peter breaks his concentration, takes his eyes off Jesus and notices the chaos. He only has time to yell, "Lord, save me!" as he starts to sink. Jesus stretches out His hand, catches Peter, then chides him: "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"
Because of Peter's importance in Matthew's Gospel, his actions are deeply symbolic. As leader of the early Christian community, he represents all who dare step out into the chaos of life with only Jesus as their security.
Writing to the Romans 20 years before Matthew composed his Gospel, Paul reflects on some of the chaos permeating his life (Rom 9:1-5). These three chapters (9-11) probably contain the subject matter of many a sleepless night. When Paul stepped out of the security of Judaism into the sea of Christianity, the majority of his fellow Jews didn't follow. That would make most people think twice about their actions.
Yet the anguish and sorrow Paul feels because of his people's lost opportunity never stops him from concentrating on "the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever."
Though we're comforted by Elijah sensing Yahweh's presence on Mt. Sinai in "a tiny whispering sound," we must remember this event takes place during one of the most chaotic times of the prophet's life (1 Kgs 19:9, 11-13). He's come to Mt. Horeb (Sinai) because Queen Jezebel has put a contract out on him.
Just as Elijah had to train his ears to hear the whispering of Yahweh during the tumult of his ministry, so the prophet's successors in the faith, Peter and Paul (and we ourselves), must continually work on ignoring the winds of conflict and concentrate on Jesus, the one person who can bring order out of our chaos.