Have you ever had a direct experience of Jesus? Where you saw or felt Christ’s presence so clearly that it removed all doubt from your mind that Jesus was real? That Jesus was as real or more real than the person next to you this morning? That’s a tall order. Some people have had that kind of sacred encounter, and when it happens, it usually changes their lives for good. It can be tremendously liberating. Doubts disappear, and the fear of death fades away. That direct, empirical experience of Jesus is not common, but it does happen. It may have happened to you.
In today’s scripture we hear of it happening to Christ’s most senior disciples. If they had any doubts about Jesus’ divinity before, that doubt is gone now. They’ve seen him work all sorts of healing miracles, but other people were faith healers, back then, too. But never in all their lives have they seen anything like this: an encounter with Moses and Elijah, the voice of God, and Jesus suddenly glowing white, including his face. This is the ultimate sacred encounter, as good as it gets in this life. They have seen and heard the divine. They have direct, personal proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and they can tell just by looking at him.
The church calendar remembers this event each year as a way of telling us that this encounter proved that Jesus was from God, the Messiah. They saw it, they believed, and therefore, so should you. If only it were that simple.
Many of us struggle with the whole idea of believing in Jesus as the Messiah. Part of this is the age we live in. We insist on proof before we believe in something, especially when it comes to religion. How do we know that Jesus is even real? What if he was a Rabbi 2000 years ago who knew how to tell clever stories with great morals? What if after he died his followers made up stories about him, turning him from a brilliant human to a Messiah? Wouldn’t that be way more plausible than believing in all these miracles and theology? Occam’s razor says that we should always accept the answer that explains the facts in the simplest way. That works in science, so why not apply it in religion, too?
One of the differences between science and religion is that faith is always personal. I can’t prove that e=mc2, or that black holes exist, but I trust scientists to be right about this. With faith, we can be told that we should believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but most of us would prefer some proof. When it comes to faith, we want to be changed by why what we believe in.
If the newspapers announced tomorrow that scientists were wrong, there were never any black holes, I think most of us would just get on with our day. But with faith, what we believe changes who we are, changes what we’re willing to do each day. Faith is a kind of knowledge that happens in here, not just out there. So, if we’re being asked to change, we would appreciate some proof, rather than taking someone else’s word for it. We would prefer our own mountaintop experience, where God is obviously real.
We are not alone in this. When Christianity was young, the miracles performed by Jesus and later his disciples helped people believe that Jesus was real. Even centuries after Christ’s death, Christians were healing with the holy spirit, and attracting converts. When that died down, the Roman Catholic Church promised a direct encounter with Jesus through communion.
The wafer and wine were believed to transform into the actual blood and flesh of Christ as believers took communion. Jesus was in their mouths, in their bodies, physically and spiritually real for each individual who participated in mass. That was supposed to be their mountaintop experience.
But in our day, the expectations have changed. The early Protestants cast doubt on the miracle of communion. They taught that it really was just bread and wine, at best a symbol of Christ’s body, but no miracle takes place during the eucharist. Instead, the Protestants said you were much more likely to get to know Jesus by reading what he said in the gospels. That’s where you’ll find him, that’s where you can have your mountaintop experience. So, people all over the world were encouraged to learn to read so they could meet Jesus in the Bible. For a long time, the only book most people owned was a Bible. Because that’s where they could meet Jesus and learn who he was.
That shift worked as long as people believed that the Bible was true. But in the mid 19th century, Biblical scholars started to cast doubt on the accuracy of the Bible. They had decided to study the scriptures scientifically, paying great attention to every detail. What they found was that the Bible couldn’t possibly be factual since so many passages contradicted each other. In the gospel of John, Jesus goes back and forth to Jerusalem, whereas in Matthew’s Gospel he only goes once. The gospels disagree about what day Jesus was arrested. They disagree about who saw the resurrected Jesus first – was it Mary, Mary and two other women, or no women, but instead the two men on the road to Emmaus? The more closely they studied the Bible in this scientific way, the less accurate the Bible sounded.
First, doubt was cast on communion, and then doubt was cast on the Bible as a way to meet Jesus. As a result, very few Canadians read the Bible even weekly – just 11%. Why read it if it isn’t true? If Jesus can’t be found in the Bible or in communion, where should we look? Where do people look for an encounter with the divine? I’d like to say they come to church for that, and I hope you do. But all the sex scandals and residentials schools have cast doubt on the authority of the church, too. So, most people stay away.
But that created a conundrum we are still wrestling with today: where should we get our mountaintop experience? How do you get a direct experience of the divine? That search for the sacred takes many forms now. Some people look for it in Eastern practices like meditation and yoga. Others have abandoned organized Western religion all together and look for it in nature. Still others look for that direct connection with God through hallucinogenic drugs like peyote and ayahuasca.
People still yearn for an encounter with the sacred, for proof that our lives have meaning, but the traditional ways have been called into doubt. So how should we get that confirmation that the sacred exists? How do we meet the divine now, how do we get our mountaintop experience?
Let’s take a second look at what happened on that mountaintop with the disciples. It starts off well – Jesus suddenly starts to glow as he speaks to Moses and Elijah. That’s pretty cool. Just as people see a bright light in near death experiences, here is Jesus glowing, talking to two people who are dead. This must be heaven, but heaven on Earth. Fantastic. For Jews like Peter, James, and John, it doesn’t get better than this. Elijah and Moses are the two most important prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, and today they are standing right here, with the Messiah. So, Peter says to Jesus, let’s build three booths, huts, for you, Moses and Elijah. Peter has no interest in going back down to the plain, back to normal life. This is his peak spiritual experience, so let’s just stay on the mountaintop, for days. He doesn’t want this experience to end, so let’s build some shelter and get comfy.
But then God speaks. God’s voice declares that Jesus is God’s son, the beloved. You’d think that this would just increase the disciples’ bliss, but it doesn’t. They are terrified. They fall to their knees, faces on the ground. How much bliss is too much bliss? This much. You want a full encounter with God? Well, here it is, and it is terrifying. Not because God hates them, there is no sense of that here, God only speaks of love. But when humans encounter the fullness of God, it moves beyond blissful to scary.
It is only when Jesus touches them and says do not be afraid that they get up. Jesus doesn’t want them to stay on the mountaintop. He says let’s go back down. Don’t tell anyone what you saw, not until I have died. They won’t be able to handle it yet. That makes sense: the disciples can barely handle it. They were terrified. The truth is that when we say we want to encounter God, to have a direct experience of the sacred, what we are really saying is that we want God on our terms. We want to feel fulfilled, validated, blissful. We want God to be wonderful, for us, to solve our problems, give our life meaning. In the words of the Depeche Mode song, we want our own “personal Jesus”. But it isn’t that simple. If God exists, the God who creates black holes, who allows the life and death of entire galaxies, then a meeting with God would be mind-blowing. Too big for our little hearts and minds. We need God in a size that we can handle. God in bite sized pieces. Not because God is small, but because we are small.
Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to stay on the mountain top. He wants them to come back down to Earth. Jesus does not come down from the mountaintop with a glowing face. He looks like a regular guy. That’s deliberate. The implication of the transfiguration is that spiritual bliss is less important than a sacred life lived in human form. One of the early Christians put it this way: God became Man so Man could become more like God (Irenaeus). Jesus teaches that you won’t find him separate from your life, like an alien landing on the White House lawn. The sacred is meant to be lived, in the messy confusion of everyday life.
You might have a mountaintop experience someday, when you get a vision of the sacred, maybe you will even see Jesus. That would be great. But Jesus doesn’t want you to stay there or keep looking for it. But what matters more is how you live your life following the teaching and examples of Jesus. It’s more important that you behave more like Jesus than that you meet Jesus in a vision. That’s why we encourage reading the New Testament, so you can learn more about the subtleties of a lived faith. It doesn’t matter if it is all factually true. We’re not being asked to be scientists; we’re being asked to be spiritual. And that means a different standard of truth.
The Gospel stories are like a tune played by four different musicians. Christ’s life and teachings are the tune, but how we play it, how we dance to it in our lives is up to us. You can hum Christ’s tune as jazz, as hop hop, as classical, as salsa. You can dance to this tune of love and compassion as a gay person, a straight person, as black, white, Asian, as young, or old, rich, or poor and everything in between. It’s a tune, not a bunch of facts that are either true or false. It is a way of living, where you become more like Jesus, and in doing so, God becomes human again in you. The truth of this face is in how it is lived, it is found down here, among the dancers, not up on the mountaintop.
And if you live with Jesus, dancing his tune in your life, you may start to see the faces of other people differently. You may see Jesus in their faces. And as you provide love and compassion, they may see Jesus in your face, too. That’s the real transfiguration.