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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Praise the Mount

Wandering Heart, a Lenten sermon series, week 3 of 6, using the life of Peter beside Jesus and the hymn “Come Thou Fount”, from, preached Feb 25, 2024


Lent is the season of preparation before Easter. Each week of Lent this year we are reading a scriptural encounter between Peter and Jesus. We admit we are NOT Jesus, so we are trying to maybe see ourselves in Peter, his belief and his doubt, his confusion and his faith. We are signing the hymn, Come Thou Fount, as we go along this journey beside Peter, and we are listening for phrases in the song that parallel Peter’s response to Jesus.

The first week, Caitlan read from Luke 5, Jesus’ call of Peter and the disciples by the lakeshore, and we sang the lyric “Jesus Sought Me when a stranger”… Caitlan wondered, are we ever really strangers to God? We might feel like we are, but this God knows us, better than we know ourselves.

Last week, we read from Matthew 14. Peter and the disciples are in a boat, in a storm, when Jesus comes to them. We saw the doubt in Peter’s faith, and realized doubt is normal and needed for faith to grow. Then we saw how Jesus, rescues me from danger, when I have faith AND when I have doubt.

Today, let’s pray, and listen for the word of the Lord.

Scripture MATTHEW 16:13-21

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist but others Elijah and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[c] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[d] and on this rock[e] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[f] the Messiah.[g]

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem…

Sermon Praise the Mount

For most of my younger life, I only knew about Jesus that Christmas is his birthday, so we take time off from school, decorate trees and get gifts. He’s called the Son of God. He died on a cross, stayed dead about three days, then rose from the dead, so you know, there’s a bunny and we hunt eggs. And there’s this book about him called the Bible, where if we believe it, we go to heaven, a really awesome place with the angels and all the “good” people, when we die. If Jesus had snuck up on me in high school and asked me, “who do people say Jesus is?,” that’s probably how I would have answered. And I have a feeling that there are many cultural Christians who today might answer about the same.

When Jesus asks the disciples, “who are people saying that I am?,” their answer is a little more sophisticated. They at least know some of their own history. Some are saying John the Baptist, that crazy guy just a while ago who went viral, kept teaching new strange things about God and got himself killed. Some are saying Elijah, from over a thousand years ago, who challenged the ancient kings and priests on God’s behalf and ended up getting chased out of town and disappeared. Some are saying one of the prophets from hundreds of years ago, like Isaiah or Jeremiah, who shouted at the people and leaders of their divided nation to do life differently only to be ignored and see their nations conquered by outside forces.

I wonder what Jesus’ reaction might have been to the people’s description of him. In one way, that is prestigious company. John, Elijah, and the prophets were all committed truth tellers. They all had the peoples’ best interests at heart in their words and actions. They all rightly invited the people of God to live life differently now, in a way that loves God, and loves one another more fully. They all warned religious and political leaders to follow God’s wisdom and advice more closely, to end wars and make peace, and to share more and care more for the people they serve, especially the children, the elderly, and the wandering refugees. I imagine Jesus might have smiled a bit at their comparison of him to them. And yet, I also imagine the smile would have had a weight to it, a heaviness behind it. Jesus knew well, all of those suffered and died for speaking their godly message of just love and loving justice, and were only remembered with any respect generations after their death.

There can be a big difference between someone’s public persona, how the general public perceives them, and how their inner circle perceives them, their private, more personal perception. A person can be a great, loving parent and spouse at home, but a real jerk to servers and cashiers, mean to coworkers or underlings, or judgmental of the homeless person on the sidewalk or the mother of three on welfare, or call the cops on a kid in a hoodie just for walking down the sidewalk. Or a person can be a real sweetheart in public to customers, or constituents, colleagues, congregants, or club members, but at home be cold, judgmental, insulting, controlling, or abusive. We get there can be a difference between public and private perception.

So Jesus asks, “Well, that’s what they are saying about me. What do you all say about me, my inner circle?” Every family, every board, every friend group needs a Simon, someone who is honest and quick to speak without overthinking it or softening it so much it loses its truth. Simon just blurts it out, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Like last week, where no one else got out of the boat except Peter, this week, no one else answers except Peter, of if they did, their answers weren’t remembered. This is when Simon gets his nickname Peter. “Well Simon, I think I will call you Petros, Peter, Rocky from now on, because on this rock, I can build a new community and even if all hell breaks out against it, it will endure. Whatever yall bind on this rock is also bound in all of God’s realm, and whatever yall loose on this rock is loosed in all of God’s realm.”

Bind and loose. Those verbs are tough to translate from Greek to English. Bind and loose do begin to explain the tension, the opposite feel of these two verbs, but there’s so much more to them. The first one does mean bind, but it can mean it both ways… Like you might tie something down to keep it safe and secure, a boat tied to the dock, or you might tie someone down to kidnap them. The word behind bind has both a positive or negative connotation, depending on how it is used. The same for the second verb, sometimes translated as loose. It can me loose, as in release or set free. If something is unfairly caged or tied down, this new community, yall can cut the cords, open the cage and let it go. But the same word also means destroy. To loose something means to allow chaos to have its way, to remove any restrictions or boundaries and let something explode, like letting the crowd loose on the capitol. Jesus is saying we have that much power and responsibility for whatever we say or do on this rock.

And while some think Peter is himself the ROCK on which Jesus can and will build the new community, I don’t think Jesus was saying Simon is himself the rock. After all, in next week’s text, the verses right after this, Caitlan will read where Jesus tells this same Simon to “Get behind me Satan.” We don’t believe Simon is literally Satan, nor should we believe Simon is literally THE Rock.

I think Jesus is saying that aspect of Simon that is willing to see and say this Jesus is THE messiah, THE offspring of the living God, that is the rock solid truth that can withstand anything life or death can throw at us. Simon, any disciple, any person, any community that dares speak and act as if this Jesus is the Messiah, truly the anointed child of God, the embodiment of God’s love and God’s will for all humanity, for all creation, anything we build up or tear down, anything we start or stop, anything we hold onto or let go of with this Jesus as its cornerstone, those decisions and actions will reflect God’s promised community of love and justice and will be strong enough to withstand anything, anything that resists. Can I please, get some kind of Amen to that?

But if Jesus asked us, today, those same questions, what could we say? If Jesus asked us, who does the world say that I am, we’d have to tell him there are lots of people who aren’t even sure you ever existed. They might have heard about you, but some think you’re a made up person, a myth made up just to alleviate our fear of death. There are some who might say you were a real person who lived a long time ago, but that’s all. You were a child of a carpenter and his wife, and you were a good person, a wise teacher, with hopes and dreams for a better society, like the prophets, but you were naïve, and you died, just like the rest.

We’d have to tell Jesus there are plenty of people who say they believe you were and are the son of God who died on the cross, and was buried, and rose again on the third day, but that you did all that just for the people who believe in you, just for Christians. They say YOU were a Christian. They paint pictures of you with white skin, and blue eyes, and brown wavy hair with blond highlights. They say you will get us a job, or heal us from cancer, or save us from addiction, of fix our broken marriage if we just live right, pray in your name, and give an offering to our church. They say you came to save souls. They say you are pro-Israel and anti-Palestine, that you are pro-America and anti-immigrant, that you are pro-family and anti-gay, that you are for any form of capitalism and against any form of gun control. They say you’ve gone, but you are waiting for the right time and one day you will come back and rescue the good Christian people, and you will leave everyone else behind.

And then there are some that want to believe you, believe in you, and have maybe even tried, but they got so hurt or confused by all the twisted messages about you, and they don’t know what to think about you anymore. So now, they just think of you as inaccessible, out of reach, as someone who they can’t trust, as someone who doesn’t notice them and their pain anymore, or if you do notice, you don’t care.

Can you see the shock and horror on his face as we, his disciples, his inner circle tell him that? I wonder if he says to us, “Nah, that can't be true!” and we pull up the YouTube video of the mega church pastor (in Texas) calling immigrants “garbage” while thousands of congregants applaud, or the video of the pastor (in Texas) preaching with a AK-47 strapped to his chest and a crown of bullets.

After he wiped the tears from his eyes, he turns to us, to you and me, and he asks, “But, who do you all say I am?”

I hope, I hope we would say, you are Jesus of Bethlehem, of Nazareth, of Galilee, born to an poor, unwed, teenage mother. You have brown skin, brown eyes, kinky black hair. You ran from the police to Egypt as a refugee seeking asylum. You are Palestinian. You are a Jew. You are a human just like all of us, and yet, somehow, you do human better than anyone else ever has. You pause for the overlooked, you pay attention to the ostracized, you nurture those we assume are beyond healing or hope, you see and empower women, you gather the children and dare us to become more like them instead of making them more like us. You are God incarnate, God with us, Emmanuel, Son of God, son of humanity. You are the way to life, the truth about life, and the life itself. You are living water and the bread of life. You are the prince of peace, the prophet, the priest. You are the great shepherd, and you are the sacrificed sheep. You are the alpha and the omega. You were there at the beginning of all things and you are where all things will end up. You are Lord of all. You are love itself. You are the crucified one, the resurrected one, and the one who is already out in front of us wheverever we go, already at work repairing, healing, and reconciling all broken things and inviting us to join you.

If we could say that, then I can imagine Jesus saying, “On that, I can build my church.”

Let’s pray…



I hate the way so much of the world misrepresents and misunderstands and manipulates who Jesus is. And here, in this place, Caitlan and I are called, trained ordained, and committed to doing our very best to tell you only true things about the God we know in Jesus. But today, as you go, I want you to imagine Jesus is asking you, you, personally, who do YOU say that I am?

Find some way to answer him, so he could say to you, Now on that I can build a corner of the Kingdom of God.


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