A few years back I was involved in street ministry.
On Friday nights people who were homeless, from boarding houses and city churches and a mosque, would gather in the city around St Pauls Cathedral and Flinders Street Station.
The Open family Bus would arrive at 8pm with warm blankets and a meal and at 9 pm Rosies bus, operated by a Good Samaritan nun and student oblates, would arrive to offer donuts and coffee.
One night I was sitting out there with a couple of young people with drug problems and an elderly gentleman in a heavy woollen coat came along and sat beside us.
As he sat down I heard the clunk of his bottle on the metal seat and made this really judgmental statement:
Does it help?
He promptly responded by reaching into his other pocket and bringing out a bible, which he said a priest gave him and politely introducing himself as Vladimer.
Then he opened the bible and flicked through it until he found psalm 103 and he proceeded to it, really loudly.
It was pretty dark, so I doubt whether he could see the words, so it seemed he knew the psalm off by heart.
These words stood out.
Bless the lord O my soul
and do not forget all his benefits
Who forgives all your iniquity
Who heals all your diseases
Who redeems your life from the pit
Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy
Who satisfies you with good as long as you live.
He continued on until he sang the entire psalm ..
Ive never forgotten Vladimer.
On another night a lady with her shopping trolley and a man got into a conversation with me.
The man said he was an ex-mercenary.
Somehow we got onto the topic of forgiveness.
The ex-mercenary said he was beyond forgiveness and the lady with the shopping trolley said: No one will ever forgive me.
Ive reflected on their stories.
Vladimer finding forgiveness and Gods grace and witnessing to it.
The lady and the ex-mercenary seeking forgiveness finding it hard to receive it.
In todays gospel Jesus last words to his disciples concerned forgiveness.
His last instructions to his disciples before he withdrew from them and ascended up into the clouds was:
Repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed in my name to nations.
You are to be my witnesses.
Jesus opens their minds to scripture.
So that they understand everything written in scripture has been fulfilled.
What he says is framed within the context of the disciples culture and faith.
The Law of Moses, what the prophets foretold and what is in the psalms has been fulfilled. I suffered and died and risen on the third day.
He ask them to wait on the Holy Spirit.
Then with a priestly gesture Jesus blesses them, ascends and is gone.
They imagine Jesus has gone to sit on a throne in heaven beside his Father who also sits a throne. Their image of Jesus is of a King and messiah.
They worship him like they would worship God, obey his instructions and go to the Temple to worship and praise God. They respond with Joy.
The account by Luke in Acts is different.
Its like we have a different group of disciples.
In this account Jesus has risen and appeared to the disciples for forty days where they see him risen and alive. Luke says there were many convincing proofs of his being alive.
But they dont understand.
They consider Jesus the Messiah.
They ask him: When is political power going to be restored to the Jews?
But Jesus asks them not to be concerned with this.
He speaks of a different kind of power.
Power that will come upon them so they can be witnesses for him.
The birth of the church is about to happen.
So why are the disciples just standing there looking up at the sky where Jesus has disappeared?
Maybe they were feeling lost, bereft, grief or alone, like orphans.
Jesus had filled up their whole life with love, comfort, joy and acceptance.
Maybe when he ascended they went into shock and felt so alone.
Maybe thats why they stand there looking up at the clouds where Jesus was taken from them.
This time he has gone, really gone. They will not see or hear or touch him again. The reality has set in.
They must have felt shattered and lost without him.
Some of them may have felt caught up in the spiritual experience and wanted to stay in this moment as long as they could.
Maybe they see Jesus sitting on the clouds like the image on the front of the order of service.
How long did they stand there?
We dont know.
But two angels in white robes walk up to them.
These angels may have stood beside them for a while and maybe even looked up at the sky too.
They ask a question.
"Why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?
This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come on the same way as you saw him go into heaven".
What a strange thing to happen.
What is Luke getting at?
Firstly, there are connections with the transfiguration.
The two angels are meant to remind us of Elijah and Moses and their stories.
Secondly, Luke is not focused on staying with the ascension.
He is focused on Jesus returning.
Not just in the end times, but when the Holy Spirit comes.
We cannot have Pentecost without the ascension.
This is the end of one story and the beginning of new story.
Jesus will come as a continuing presence, in the Holy Spirit, beginning with Pentecost.
Whats this mean for us?
Like the disciples, we have just walked the Easter Journey.
Witnessed his death on the cruel cross
Lost him in death and the tomb
Found him again in the resurrection
Now he is leaving again
To be taken from us up into the clouds
The cross is empty
The tomb is empty
So what, are we all supposed to do?
Like the disciples, we are called to proclaim Jesus message of repentance and forgiveness.
To witness that we are a forgiven people and believe it.
But repentance and forgiveness are not easy to proclaim, in todays world.
Ive tried at times to reach into some place deep within me and through prayer, respond to unkind behaviour from another person, with understanding and patience.
But its not easy.
Ive come to realise that sometimes I can find it easy to forgive and other times forgiveness involves a process of grieving the hurt, the pain and the disappointment and it can be a long process.
But the times Ive managed to forgive have been a moment of grace and redemption, both for me and the person who I forgave.
I believe this is what Jesus wants us to embody and witness to, in our lives and actions.
This is costly love.
It can take time.
But theres no time limit on grace.
We are called by Jesus, to witness to how much the gospel transforms our lives and to the deepest form of love thats possible.
Its like the love Jesus offered from the cross. Forgive them Father they know not what they do.
If the gospel message is to become like Jesus, forgiveness is where we begin.
We are called to behave like a forgiven people.
To bring behaviour we regret before God and ask for forgiveness.
The gift of confession is about love, grace and hope, rather than judgment.
Confessing can be difficult too.
A friend of mine told me they experienced confessing something whole heartedly. They handed it all over to God, heard the words of absolution and felt really good. A real sense of freedom and a sense of that light yoke Jesus spoke of.
Then they were driving home from church and grabbed everything confessed right back again. They gave themselves a good self-flagellation. They condemned themselves and felt guilty over something they needed to let go of years ago.
They told me its a bit like being stuck on a roundabout, going around and around.
I dont know whether anyone has been to Rome.
This brings me back to the ex-mercenary and the lady with the shopping trolley.
Im sure Jesus forgave them long ago.
What about Vladimer?
He understands how much Jesus loves him and how he is redeemed and forgiven. He has experienced Gods grace in his life and is witnessing to all about what he has found.
Perhaps he even witnessed to the ex-mercenary or to the lady with the shopping trolley.
The good news for all of us is:
Some of the disciples stared blankly at the clouds, confused and lost, in shock. To them Jesus was gone and they didnt understand what they were to witness to or about.
But the Holy Spirit came upon them anyway at Pentecost.
Some of the disciples understood and knew they were to embody and live out Jesus good news as his witnesses.
They went and praised Jesus with joy in the temple and waited on the Holy Spirit to come.
The Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit came to Vladimer and he rejoiced.
The Holy Spirit came upon the lady with the shopping trolley and she threw it out.
The Holy Spirit came upon the ex-mercenary and he finally found peace.
The Holy Spirit comes to us too.
The church is born again and again and the story of Jesus continues ..
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.