Sermon: Faith is an Experience

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Mark 9:2-10

My sermon from Transfiguration Sunday (February 11, 2024) on Mark 9:2-10


So every song ever written was, at some point, contemporary. I’m not saying every new song is always up to date and modern; just that every song’s specific style was once considered brand new. I was reminded of this last Sunday while watching the Grammys since that award show gave all kinds of music fans something to hold onto. The fans of Olivia Rodrigo, Tracy Chapman, and Joni Mitchell not only got to see those artists perform; they also witnessed how different kinds of music mattered to the people right next to them. When it comes to pop music, each one of us likes what we like; and I, personally, wouldn’t know how to explain to you why a specific artist or genre matters to me more than any other. But I wonder if the reason why we invest so much passion and energy into the music we love is because music is more than simply sounds in the air. Music has this way of creating an immersive experience that we get to be a part of. It surrounds us, fills us, and has a way of enhancing every other sense we have. Music also has a habit of changing our relationships with people when we’re gathered in an expansive European cathedral or standing in the low light of a bakery’s basement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When we wrap ourselves in music, we create new memories while reliving old ones rooted in the people and places that have shaped who we are. Music is something we can, and should, study, analyze, and critique. But music is also meant to be an experience that carries us through the days, months, and years of our lives. When we let music be music rather than only something we try to understand, we discover a little bit of what Jesus was up to when he took Peter, James, and John on a hike.

Today’s reading from the gospel according to Mark is out of sequence from the stories we’ve been listening to over the last few weeks. The stories we’ve heard showed us what Jesus’ public ministry was like at its beginning but the reading from chapter 9 comes closer to its end. Jesus, after preaching and teaching throughout Galilee, Syria, and beyond, took his friends to the city of Caesarea Philippi. That city was built at the foot of a hill covered with religious temples that included one that imagined the Roman Emperor as a god. It was there, while surrounded by all the imagery celebrating the so-called divinity of Rome, when Jesus asked his friends who they thought Jesus was. Peter, being Peter, responded quickly, confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, the One who would change the world. Peter, though, kept talking and he also revealed how his understanding of the messiah was rooted in a very human point of view when it comes to power, strength, and might. Jesus, in response, rebuked Peter and tried to steer his thoughts to somewhere new. And it was after all of that when we discovered that Jesus, and his friends, took a six day break. Mark doesn’t tell us what happened during those six days but I wonder if the disciples spent most of that time trying to understand everything Jesus had said. They, if they’re like me, probably replayed that conversation over and over again in their heads while attempting to figure out how a Messiah who could cast out demons wasn’t casting out the Romans from the land. They had spent over a year watching this Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry, and change the lives people had. Jesus was right there in front of them but there was so much they didn’t understand. And so after sitting with their thoughts for six long days, Jesus then took Peter, James, and John up a mountain.

Now we could, I think, try to unpack and explain every part of this story since the church gave it its own name. I have, in the past, focused on different parts within the story – such as Peter’s response, James and John’s silence, and how verse seven is the only place in the gospel according to Mark when God the Father told the disciples what to do. The Transfiguration is a story that invites us to go deeper into Jesus’ own story since we are re-introduced to Moses and Elijah. And it’s also a story when, in one sense, we see Jesus’ divinity on fully display – in the kind of event that matches who we expect Jesus to be. It’s fruitful to try and understand what the Transfiguration is all about but it’s also okay to let it be an experience we can never fully explain. Jesus, like I said last week, was always himself regardless of where he was. When he was teaching in a synagogue, praying alone on a mountain, confronting the religious authorities, and hanging out with people who needed mercy and peace – Jesus simply gave them life and then connected them to a community who could help them live their life in the months and years to come. Jesus, I think, knew that his disciples had spent the last six days trying to understand what he meant. And while he could have put together the ancient near east version of a powerpoint presentation, he also knew the disciples would need something to hold onto while living through the next part of his story. In their race to understand, they lost touch with the ways Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and death would end any understanding that they had. They needed to know that their Jesus was always going to be their Jesus – and that another chapter in their lives and in their world was already on its way.

That kind of faith is, I think, not something we can easily understand since it needs to be more than simply thoughts sitting in our head. Faith is supposed to be an experience that speaks, shapes, and influences every other experience we have. Faith, like music, enhances the lives we live while opening us to what this world could be. And while that sounds pretty awesome, it’s also pretty risky since it knows that our faith will be shaped by other kinds of experience that make us wonder why we believe in the first place. Faith, I think, doesn’t make life easy but it does hold us through all that life might bring. And while we might have a mountain top experience like Peter, James, and John, we also have to remember that these weren’t the only faith experiences pointed to in today’s story. Jesus, after letting his disciples wonder and ponder for six straight days, didn’t invite all his disciples up the mountain nor did he let James, Peter, and John share with the others all they had seen and heard. Jesus, instead, let each of the disciples have their own personal experience that would let them know they were not alone. The healings they saw; the words they heard; the welcome they were extended; and the relationships Jesus created for them with people they never expected to meet – those were holy moments big enough to hold them through the sorrow and heartbreak to come. The faith God gives us isn’t only something we have; it’s also meant to be an experience that holds us through all the wondering, doubts, questions, joys, and sorrows a life with faith will have. And when we let our experiences be experiences rather than turning them into things we have to immediately unpack, understand, or move on from – that’s when we might notice how Jesus already has a hold on us through all the experiences life brings.