Red Rocks, Cairns, and the Way of Jesus

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14

Jeremy Richards

One of my favorite places is Arches National Park in eastern Utah. I’ve been there countless times.

If you were to fall asleep on the car ride to Arches, and wake up when you got there, you’d think you were on another planet. The scenery is other-worldly. Unreal rock formations rise up off the desert floor. The rocks and the sand are this stunning red. The most prominent rock formations are, as the name of the park suggests, arches (there are over 2,000 in the park), but there’s also balancing rock and devil’s garden and countless other unique rock features that wind, water, and time have shaped over the years.

There are a bunch of different hikes you can go on in Arches National Park, there’s Double Arch and Broken Arch and Skyline Arch. There’s even the Fiery Furnace, which you can’t enter without a ranger for a guide. But no trip to Arches National Park is complete without hiking to the iconic Delicate Arch, the pride of Arches National Park, the pride of Utah, really. Delicate Arch adorns all of Arches’ advertisements and is even featured on Utah’s license plates.

The hike to Delicate Arch starts at Wolfe Ranch, on a well-defined trail. After a while the trail transitions to a large, open rock face, where no trail is visible, and you must follow the cairns – little stacks of rocks – that are set up to guide you. On this part of the hike you and your traveling companions can spread out and walk side-by-side, but you don’t want to get too distracted and lose your way. You have to pay attention to where the cairns lead. Next, you come to a narrow ledge that stretches along a rock wall, with a hefty drop-off to your left and a rock wall to your right. On this part of the trail you need to walk single-file, especially if there are people coming the other way.

The narrow trail leads you around a curve and all of a sudden, BAM, there it is, Delicate Arch. There’s a large, steep bowl that separates you from the arch, which sits on the other side of the bowl, with a huge drop off behind it. You can walk along the edge of the bowl and stand under the arch, which is huge, much bigger than it looks from afar.

When you hike to delicate arch, you want to time it so that you’re there for the sunset. When the sun hits the arch it turns from red to a fiery orange. The best thing to do is bring a snack, sit back, rest and enjoy your food as the sunset hits the arch.

When you get to Arches National Park you are already in another world. When you begin the hike to Delicate Arch you are already in this other world – a world of sand and red rock and arches. But there’s more to see than just your surroundings. There’s a destination, a goal, an end. And there is a way to get there. This way takes many different forms. Sometimes it’s clear cut, other times it’s vague. Sometimes it’s wide open, other times it’s narrow. Sometimes it’s pleasant. Sometimes it’s dangerous. It’s beautiful, but in an awe-inspiring way. A way that makes you feel small, but also makes you very glad to be alive. The hike is strenuous. You need water and the right equipment. And it’s always best to do it with friends.

In our passage from John, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to go away. He’s preparing them, in a sense, for his death, but even more so for his ascension. Something interesting about the Gospel of John is that the ascension is almost as important than the resurrection. Remember what Jesus said to tell Mary on Easter morning, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” To John, the ascension is a big deal. It’s part-and-parcel with the resurrection.

Our passage from today is part of Jesus’ “farewell discourse” to his disciples. Even though it takes place before his crucifixion, the farewell seems to apply to more than just his death, but to his absence once he has ascended to God the Parent. He’s letting them know that he’ll be leaving, and he wants to prepare them for what to expect when he’s gone.

He tells them about a destination: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you tomyself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

The disciples are understandably worried, though. Throughout their time with Jesus they have always followed him. He’s always walked ahead of them, showing them where to go next. Now they’re worried that they’ll lose their way. Thomas speaks for all of them and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus responds with the famous line, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

This line, meant to comfort Jesus’ troubled disciples, has often been used to promote a kind of Christian triumphalism, saying that we, and we alone, have access to God because we worship Jesus.

The truth is, that as Christians, we do believe that Jesus is the true revelation of God, that Jesus shows us who God is in a way that no one else in history has. But the point is not that we said the right prayer or checked the write belief boxes, but that Jesus came to us, to all of humanity, and made a way out of know way. We can’t say how Jesus reveals himself to others. The Psalmist says, “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” and Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” These verses make it clear that faith in Jesus is a personal decisions.

You commit your spirit. You believe.

But don’t try to determine where another’s spirit is in relation to God, don’t judge other people’s religious convictions. You believe. We are responsible for our own spirits, and for our own decisions to believe in Christ. It’s not our place to judge other people and other religions.

What Jesus says here is meant to be a comfort to his disciples before he leaves them. To take this verse out of context and wield it like a weapon against other religions is to do violence to the text and to miss Jesus’ message for us.

Jesus’ response that he is the way, the truth, and the life is not what his disciples expected, or even wanted to hear. They wanted some clear markers for the way, like the cairns stacked up along the path to Delicate Arch, but Jesus says the only way to God is relational. It’s not in a set of beliefs or some well-defined traditions. It’s in the person of Jesus Christ.

It requires us to “believe in God, and believe also in Jesus.” It requires us to say with the Psalmist, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” It requires us to trust Christ to lead us in the way, that we might know the truth, that we might enter fully into the full life God has for us here and now, in this world.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with one of my professors, J. Kameron Carter, while I was in seminary. I told Dr. Carter that I felt called to ministry, but I was struggling with whether or not I should follow through with the call because I’m a white, heterosexual man, and the church really has enough of those. I wondered if it would be more responsible be a church member in a church that was pastored by someone who was a woman and/or a person of color and/or a sexual minority. I was really, truly scared (and still am) of perpetuating subtle forms of racism, sexism, and homophobia that have almost always plagued the Church, especially the American Church, especially by people who look like me.

I thought Dr. Carter would be perfect person to talk to. He is a black, Baptist theologian, who has done a lot of work around race. He’s very kind, but he doesn’t mince his words, and he’s extremely intelligent – almost to a fault. I spent much of the one class I had with him scratching my head. When I told Dr. Carter that I felt called to ministry, but wasn’t sure how to do it without perpetuating those forms of oppression I mentioned earlier, I had my pen and paper ready. I was prepared to write down a bunch of big words I would have to look up later, but he said, “I think you just gotta trust the Spirit.”

That was the last thing I expected to hear, and the thing I most needed to hear. But it’s scary, because it means that the moment as I stop listening, stop paying attention to the leading of the Spirit, who is the one who points us to Christ, the one who points us to the Way, our guide, is the moment I might lose my way. That’s the moment I might become the very thing I’m most afraid of being.

I wanted Dr. Carter, as the disciples wanted Jesus, to tell me the steps I could take before I ever became a pastor that would prevent me from making mistakes. I wanted him to tell me, “Read this book,” or “Go to this training,” or “Do this thing every morning,” but instead he told me to rely on the living God. The “Living Stone” in the words of 1 Peter, on whom we are built.

This life of faith is not a one-time decision, not adherence to beliefs, not a set of rituals (though it may include all those in some form or fashion), but a way, a journey.

But let’s be honest, this journey is exhausting. Even if we are listening to Jesus’ voice, even if we are seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance, even if we are journeying with a wonderful community like our church here, there are strenuous hills, and frightening drop-offs. Far from a walk in the park, it’s full of highs and lows, marked both by brilliant scenery, and by overwhelming loss.

When we rise out of the waters of baptism into the new life we have in Christ, the world we live in has, indeed, changed. Like falling asleep in the car and waking up in Arches National Park, everything is different, though the sky is still blue above us, and the earth continues to turn as it always has, we see that we are living in a world that is changed. It has been colored by resurrection of the risen Christ. We see the beautiful formations of God’s love rising up out of the barren deserts of life.

And yet, we haven’t made it to our final destination yet. It’s not yet time to sit and rest and enjoy the sunset. We are to continue in this Way of Jesus, we are to do the works that he did. That’s what Jesus tells his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

When Jesus walked the earth with his disciples he did many wonderful, powerful works, but he was confined to place and time. Now, because he has ascended, he is made available to each and every one of us through the Holy Spirit, indwelling each and every one of us, offering to lead us in the way of truth and life if we will listen.

We are, in the words of I Peter, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people,” because of Christ’s presence in and among us. This is important because we, as a church, believe in the “priesthood of all believers” which means we believe all people have equal access to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Pastors and priests don’t have any special connection. We all, as individuals, have the right and responsibility to listen for the voice of God in our own lives.

At the same time, we believe that this journey, this Way, is best travelled together in community. So that if we get distracted and start wandering from the path, we have a family who sees us and gently calls us back, or if we slip there are hands all around us that catch us and put us back on our feet, or if we are too tired to go on, there are those who will pick us up and carry us in our moment of need. If our faith falters we will be borne up by the faith of others.

The Way of Jesus is full of twists and turns; times of joy and times of sorrow; wide, open paths and narrow ledges with terrifying drop offs.

It’s a journey we take together, until we round the bend and see at last our final destination, where we can kick back and rest and watch the sunset from our Parent’s house, a place prepared for us, where there is room for all.