Stephen Hawking is the physicist, mathematician and cosmologist with more alphabet soup credentials on his business card than any living human.
You need an advanced degree just to understand Hawking’s areas of research. And because of his body of work, when it comes to the existence of life on earth and beyond, whenever the boundaries of human potential are discussed, a sound bite from Hawking is a certainty. From human space flight to alien life to theoretical physics, Hawking offers mind-blowing ideas.
And among the vast expanse of knowledge that Hawking has given the world, among it all is the proclamation that human beings need to abandon earth or face extinction.
He says, “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet.”
It seems that Hawking is saying, because of the mess we’ve made we need to get the heck out of here and find a new planet.
Not a very comforting thing to hear from one of the smartest people the world has even known.
Christians might even agree with Hawking, thinking the earth is doomed and all we can do now is wait to punch our ticket to heaven and move to a “new creation.” Certainly there’s no mess there!
But in a Time magazine interview, theologian N.T. Wright counters that line of thought, saying, Never at any point do the gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.”
So, with all due respect to Hawking, instead of seeking out and preparing to take off for someplace better, Jesus says Christians, as those who know we have been created in the image of the Creator, should develop and nurture the earth into someplace better. And the way we do that is through advancing the Gospel.
Our text for today is the Ascension of Jesus.
On Ascension Day, the disciples watch as Jesus apparently does what Hawking suggests: He scoots up and off into the heavens, seemingly abandoning the earth.
But did he abandon the earth and all its inhabitants? Of course not.
So what happened on Ascension Day?
For Jesus’ disciples, the ascension was a powerful catalyst to get them to work on the mission and ministry Jesus had left for them to do.
The days prior to, and after, Jesus’ crucifixion had been brutal for the Disciples. They scattered and hid. We can only imagine the confusion and despair they must have been consumed by that likely lead them to ask and wonder if the last three years were nothing more than a big mistake.
If they weren’t killed themselves, what would they do next? Go back to fishing? Collect taxes?
Fortunately for them their confusion, despair, wondering, and fear all went away on that third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. The resurrection changed everything. The disciples’ mission and ministry were on again, but some clarification was needed.
The opening question of the Acts text makes perfect sense: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
To which Jesus says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In saying this Jesus was echoing the sentiments of the prophets before him because Israel had always been a bit too narrow-minded. They forgot that Abraham’s blessing was to go to all people. They forgot that the temple was for all nations.
Sure they were passionate about being God’s people in God’s land, but they often neglected God’s mission and justice for the rest of the world.
Jesus was perfectly clear in his last earthly words: advance the gospel to the ends of the earth!
Now, again, it seems that Jesus does what Hawking suggests we prepare to do: get out while the getting out is good.
It’s possible that the Disciples might very well have felt completely abandoned.
But while the disciples kept craning toward the sky as if watching a space shuttle launch, angels appeared to them and got their gaze back on the earth.
Their message was simple. “He’ll come back just like he left, suddenly and without warning, so stop gawking! There’s work to be done.”
It’s the reaction to that moment, and that experience, that I want to know what the Disciples felt, and then did, because the ascension must have been a stunning spectacle to see.
But while the ascension of Jesus must have certainly been an amazing spectacle, more amazing than his departure was the unlikely lot with whom he left the mission of “advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth.”
The Disciples grew up cleaning fish and collecting taxes—not as religious leaders.
Even after being called as Disciples they still misunderstood parables, fought over who was the greatest, fell asleep in the garden, denied Jesus in his last days, and ran away in terror.
They had only fully understood the life and mission of Christ over these last 40 days, when he “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
Humanly speaking, the disciples weren’t the best choice to advance the good news.
But the ascension was powerful. We can think of it as the hinge of the apostolic mission.
Take the resurrection of Jesus, that we celebrated at Easter, and Pentecost, which we will celebrate next Sunday, and the hinge holding the two together is the ascension because the ascension told the disciples that Jesus’ mission was now their mission. And that made a huge impact because now, far from feeling abandoned, they felt empowered. Jesus’ mission and ministry was now theirs.
Jesus didn’t abandon his disciples. The ascension had a counterintuitive effect. Instead of abandonment, for the first time, the Disciples had ownership of advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
There are four implications of the Ascension that impact Christian living.
First, it is on us.
Couldn’t Stephen Hawking, who is almost completely paralyzed, justifiably say his physical limitations were too great to overcome? Absolutely.
Didn’t the disciples have plenty of excuses to avoid the mission? Yes.
And like them, don’t we have a lot of excuses as to why we can’t answer the call to ministry and service? Sure.
Perhaps it’s, “I haven’t been a Christian long enough,” or “I’m not trained or haven’t been to seminary,” or “Someone might ask a question I can’t answer.”
But the thing is, then, like now, imperfect people are still God’s primary plan— not a backup plan— for advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth.
For such advancement to happen, it is on us to make it happen.
Second, we are not alone.
The disciples were told they would have help, they just needed to go to Jerusalem and wait for it to come in the form of the Holy Spirit—which came to them at Pentecost.
As post-Pentecost Christians, we have been given the same Spirit the disciples received in Acts 2. That means our limitations, like theirs, need not stand in the way.
The help we need, the help that assures us we are not alone in our efforts to advance the Gospel to the ends of the earth, is the Holy Spirit.
Third, we are in a partnership.
Paul didn’t go preaching with persuasive words but rather with a demonstration of the power of the Spirit.
We are no different in our gifts and passions.
We need to understand our mission as a partnership with God’s Spirit. We must pray with purpose, dream dreams of possibilities, and together work at building up the kingdom of God and the body of Christ right were we are.
We must always be asking: Where do we see God working, and how can we join God there?
And fourth, the time is now.
The angels issued a clear warning that we rarely think about: Jesus is coming back the same way he left. After 2,000 years, it’s quite easy not to take that seriously. Christ’s return can feel like hitting the lottery— chances are it won’t happen in our life.
But James reminds us that our life is like a mist that comes and then vanishes. So if we know the good we ought to do and don’t do it, we are then sinners.
The truth is, we are Disciples of Christ, now. And the time to be Disciples of Christ is now.
So what are we waiting for?
Ascension Sunday is a time to reflect on how we partner with Jesus in life and faith.
Do we have a clear sense of personal mission?
Do we feel empowered as we should?
Do we see spreading the gospel as church work or as a lifestyle?
These are good questions to ask because maybe it was too much sky-staring Christianity that pushed Hawking to the idea of abandoning earth for some place with better potential.
Comparing the impacts of science and religion, he said, “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority; and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
Well, he is right. Science does work. Hawking sees science advancing us to the point where we can abandon this place for new planets.
But we believe that religion and faith work as well.
So what if we made sure that Hawking, and those who shared his thoughts, saw that it did?
What if he saw something that made an impact?
What if he saw something that was transformative and life-changing?
What if he saw something that addressed the world’s urgent needs and problems?
What if he saw something that made abandoning earth an unnecessary idea?
Perhaps if Hawking saw such from people of faith he might just find a renewed hope about our future.
Jesus told his Disciples to go out to Samaria and the ends of the earth because he wouldn’t let them be content with Israel alone, because he knew that the whole earth has needs.
This kind of Christianity is that to which the ascension calls us. And while we can serve God in many ways, we can’t do it by simply staring at the sky and waiting for Jesus to show back up and do it for us.
Rather, all Christians have natural spheres of influence around them, and we can find need in every one of those places.
Ascension Day is a natural time to take a look at our natural spheres of influence and ask, “Am I advancing the gospel to the ends of the earth, or am I abandoning the Gospel all together?”