When great leaders die, we worry about who will lead us next. Whose faith will unite, inspire and encourage us when we are too uncertain or afraid to move?
Matthew’s gospel was written during a death-dealing, destructive military occupation. It was intended to be a handbook for church leaders. Peter had recently died, so leadership was a big issue. Who should lead the church next? Matthew’s story of Jesus walking on water is an attempt to answer that question. Basically, the answer was “don’t wait for another Peter.”
Jesus walking on the water is a resurrection story thinly disguised as a miracle story. (Philip Jenkins explains this concisely here.) The story appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, but only Matthew adds the part about Peter jumping out of the boat. The addition makes the story a cautionary tale about the danger of leadership delegated to one person.
What did Peter do wrong?
First, he put God to the test: “Lord, if it is you…” give me the power to walk on water. Peter gave in to one of the wilderness temptations. (Mtt. 4:7)
Second, although Peter easily takes risks, Jesus says he lacks “faith.”
Third, by jumping out of the boat Peter left the others behind. For Matthew, discernment and decision making is a group process. The Risen One is present when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. (Mtt. 18) It was wrong to leave the others behind.
Matthew’s advice to the church is that they should not be seeking another Peter. Peter was not a bad disciple, but autocracy is not the recommended model of governance for Christian community. Leadership should be shared.
We can always hope for great leaders, but if and when they emerge we cannot cast all responsibility for leadership upon their shoulders. That burden will warp their judgment and their humanity.
In the meantime, we can share leadership. To do our part, each of us needs informed opinions, the willingness to share them and to listen to others’. We need the willingness to inspire and encourage one another, to do our share of the work and the confidence that our contribution can make a difference.
That last one is sometimes the most difficult. Maybe the faith Peter lacked was not in Jesus, but in himself.