Under the dome of a tiny 12th century mosque, near the top of the mount of Olives, there is a footprint in the rock. Legend tells us, this is the last footprint on earth of the prophet Issa, the one we call Jesus.
Standing in the mosque, you can hear the bells from the nearby Greek Orthodox monastery Viri Galilaei, “Men of Galilee,” as in the line we heard from Acts just a few minutes ago, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven?” One can imagine the disciples gesturing to the sky, “did you see? Jesus lifted off.” The end of Jesus’ story in the Gospel is strange. Jesus comes back from the dead, and then rises off to heaven. It’s odd, but there’s a footprint on the mount of Olives, so what are you going to do?
To understand the ascension, you need to consider the view from the mount of olives. And you need to go back to an earlier story from the same hill, in the 21st chapter of Luke. The disciples are standing, admiring the stones of the temple, their size, beauty, and decoration.
The Temple as a location of Mimetic Desire
The theologian James Alison argues this earlier story is a critical moment to understanding the Jesus we claim to follow. He says the temple was built as an object of desire. The stones were meant to impress, to evoke desire. Alison is a Girardian, a follower of the French philosopher René Girard, whose primary contribution to philosophy is called “mimetic theory.” Mimetic has the same root as the word “mime.” Basically, Girard taught that we borrow our desires from others. We learn to want what we want, but watching others want.
The Temple, Alison argues, was designed to be the center of desire. Herod the Great, massively expanded the Temple in the years just before Jesus was born, doubling its size. Herod fancied himself a modern day Solomon, and rebuilt the temple as one of the largest projects in the first century.
Herod’s temple spoke of power. The stones are massive, some of the largest building blocks ever hewn. The courts would have been visible for miles around. Thousands of Pilgrims streamed into the the temple, to perform sacrifice, to celebrate high holy days. They came from the world around.
Little wonder the disciples marveled at the stones, at the decorations. Alison says, underneath their admiration is a basic human desire. They believe they are walking with the messiah, the anointed one, the liberator of Israel. As they admire those stones, they imagine themselves standing within the gates of the glorious Temple. The kingdom is restored to Israel. Jesus has expelled the Romans. He has come to rule, and his followers will have power in that powerful building.
But Jesus interrupts their expectation in Luke chapter 21. He says, “the days will come when not one of those stones will be left upon another, all will be thrown down.” Don’t desire that seat of power. Don’t put your energy there. The temple is not the point.
Jesus tells them, The temple is not the point. I know, it’s a dangerous thing for a religious leader to say, inside a beautifully renovated expensive church. Though maybe we have a little bit of an edge because in a few minutes, I’m going to need your help to re-arrange this house of worship. Still I am telling you, “the temple is not the point.” That’s Jesus. Don’t bother admiring the stones of the temple, they’re about to be torn apart. When we want to cling to symbols of status, when we want to control systems of belief, when we attach too closely to a particular leader or brand, Jesus says, “let go.”
On Not Understanding God’s Power
Which brings us back to today’s story. As the story of the ascension opens, the disciples ask Jesus: “when are you going to restore the kingdom” They haven’t moved much past that earlier chapter. They’re still wondering, “when are we getting our seats of power?”
Another theologian, Willie Jennings, likes to point out that the disciples, if they got what they asked for, would have received a tiny amount of worldly power. The followers of Jesus, left to their own devices, would have temporarily become minor government bureaucrats in the running of Jerusalem. Jesus’ followers imaginations were too small for God’s Spirit.
As Christians, we have to ask ourselves, when we see displays of power, whether we believe in the story behind those displays. Is power really the ability to enforce your will on others? Is that power? Is power the ability to control and manipulate? Is power the capacity to accumulate wealth? Is that what Christians mean by power?
Or could power, for Christian’s be something else entirely? Could power be subversive? Could power be the capacity to say stop, to stoop, to listen to someone living on the street? Could power be the capacity to lift up the lowly? Could power be the capacity to love the unloved? Could power look like bringing needed healthcare to those who can’t access it? Could real power be what happens when those who were excluded find a place to belong? Willie Jennings says, writ large we Christians still don’t know how to imagine power. We’re still too busy admiring the so-called temples of power. We risk missing what the Spirit is offering. How do we learn to attend to the Spirit? Well first, some of us are going to have to tear some things down.
Okay, as long as we’re introducing twentieth century French philosophical terms like mimetic theory, I want to introduce another. This term comes from the philosopher Jaques Derrida, it’s a good one when we talk about the destruction of the temple. The term is deconstruction.
Derrida used deconstruction to talk about dismantling the old systems and structures of meaning in our world. The term is all the rage these days on TikTok, especially among folks who call themselves Post-evangelicals.
You can scroll through video after video of people talking about their “deconstruction journey.” Usually this means they have let go of fundamentalist beliefs: literal readings of scripture, patriarchal understandings of gender, homophobia, racism, party affiliation.
If you are on a deconstruction journey, if you are still sorting out which pieces might fit into a new arrangement of faith, know that you’re on a journey of the Spirit. Keep looking among the rubble.
And as long as you are deconstructing old beliefs, Jesus would ask you, deconstruct the systems of desire as well. If you’ve left a church behind, maybe stop following their social media posts. Let go of critiquing the leaders. Stop listening to the sermons with rage.
Also, don’t let your energy get sucked into a news cycle about politicians spewing hatred and division in the name of faith. Don’t let your emotions get caught up in the games of power being played. Even when you find yourself testifying in a hearing, or marching in a protest, you can be free from the status games.
Throughout the Civil Rights era, Dr. King preached something radical about the treatment of his so-called enemies. He said that he was working not just for his own freedom, not just to free black people from oppression, but to free white people as well. You’ve got to love your enemies he said. He got line that from Jesus. King knew, the desire for power doesn’t just hurt those who end up on the bottom end of the ladder, it hurts those at the top as well. Top down power dehumanizes the powerless and the powerful.
The True Direction of the Ascension
The Ascension, as it’s often depicted, is troublingly directional. We still live in such a top-down world. So sometimes it’s inconvenient that we believe Jesus ascended up. We sing all sorts of hymns about him being “on high to reign.” I say it’s inconvenient, because ascension is not about exaltation, but escape.
But I want to read for you the collect for the Ascension Day. A collect is a prayer which sets the tone for the day. Listen to how this collect for the Feast of the Ascension begins:
“Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.”
Christ ascended, so that he might fill all things. Christ went up so that he might spread out. Gods work will always be bigger than what we can grasp. Gods work is always wider than we can hold. God is always bigger than our viewpoint. God can’t be contained by our party. All our containers will fall to dust. And God will keep moving.
In order to understand the Ascension, to make sense of that footprint enshrined on the mount of Olives, you have to see the pattern. Every time the people want to take Jesus and install him in a throne of power, he escapes. Every time they ask Jesus when he will give them power, he says, “you’re missing the point.” When Mary tries to grab hold of the Risen Christ on Easter morning, he says “don’t cling to me.” Christianity isn’t about the destination, not for Jesus. The way of Jesus isn’t a system of belief as much as a posture of seeking. Let me say that again. The way of Jesus isn’t a system of belief as much as a posture of seeking. Jesus ascends to heaven itself and frustrates all our human desires for control and certainty.
So, Galileans, quit standing there staring up towards heaven. Jesus has gone to fill all things. Your work is to find Jesus, not just where you’ve been taught to look, but everywhere, and in everyone.