Friends of mine told me once that they had been asked to write a letter of character reference for someone whom they had known and loved and trusted for many years but who had done something both shameful and criminal. They said that they were inclined to do it but at the same time had to admit that they had some reservation about it. They were feeling betrayed, deeply hurt and disappointed.
I told them that if they knew this person’s good qualities they should certainly attest to them, especially if they also knew him to be the sort that would forgive others freely and as nearly unconditionally as human beings are capable of doing – which, as a matter of fact, I knew was the case.
We humans are inclined to dole out our love, to measure it so that it is proportional to what we think the other person deserves. Often, in the retreats that I give, when I speak of the lavish, unconditional love of God and say that notorious criminals and sinners are embraced by God after their deaths, repentant or not, I get objections from one or two of the retreatants. They say it cannot be that unrepentant sinners are welcomed into union with God because God, they insist, “has to be just.” As we find it necessary and right to punish offenders, so, they say, God has to do the same.
It’s obvious that such persons prefer that God judge and condemn rather than forgive and transform. What they do is to reduce the infinitely loving God to the puny stature of mere human beings.
Today we are celebrating the phenomenon of Pentecost, which we traditionally define as the coming of the Holy Spirit to the earliest believers in Christ. Actually, we are professing our belief that the Divine Spirit is within every human being, making it possible for us all to live in such a way as to draw comments such as, “But people just don’t act that way!” No, generally they don’t. That’s true. Not without availing themselves of the awesome power and love and wisdom that are so far above our unaided human inclinations.
I will never forget the TV interview of an elderly couple whose beautiful daughter had been brutally attacked and murdered by a young man. They were asked what they wanted to be done to the murderer. They responded in a quietly peaceful way that they hoped he would come to his senses, repent of his crime, and get the help he would need to live a life of love and service to others. If ever I’ve witnessed the Spirit of God speaking from within a human being, it was in these two unforgettable persons. I remember reacting to what I had just heard with the desire that the interview make the front page of every newspaper in America. It didn’t, need I say?
But that’s what Pentecost is really about. The dramatization we read in the bible with all its rich symbolism, like fire and wind and multiple languages and so forth, actually calls our attention to something much broader, and that is the empowering presence of God in all of creation.
I enjoyed dinner a few evenings ago at the home of long-time friends in north Jersey, when this topic came up. It was said that this is the great new spiritual realization of our present age: that the Spirit of God is lovingly present and active in the lives of all people. No longer do we envision God as up above the clouds somewhere, alone and aloof. There are those who are aware of this universal phenomenon and engage in it habitually; there are also those who still have no sense of it.
From the Scriptures: “I can do all things in God, who strengthens me.”
It’s true: I can forgive more generously, love more unselfishly, struggle more hopefully, live more joyfully, relate more peacefully — because it’s always Pentecost!