During lent this year, some of us have been watching and discussing Jimmy McGovern’s television series ‘Broken’. This is part of our Exploring Faith courses which we do usually three times a year. It is pretty full-on and gritty viewing. A lady with two children gets fired from her job and discovers that she’s not eligible to receive any support for 13 weeks. And with no family or friends who could help, how was she going to feed her children. Too proud to receive a food voucher from her priest, it’s a desperate situation.
In the second episode, a lady tells the priest that she has embezzled her boss of over £200,000. She had become addicted to gambling. Her crime was going to be shortly discovered and with the shame this would cause, suicide seemed the only way out. She approaches her priest for counsel.
The priest, Fr Michael Kerrigan, brilliantly played by Sean Bean, presides at St Nick’s, a gothic church in a city of northern England.
Fr Kerrigan’s dilemma is that every time he prays at the consecration of the bread and wine of the Mass, he is tormented by memories of those he has sinned against and those who sinned against him. The latter includes his shame-mongering mother, a paedophile priest who taught at his school, and a senior priest who disregarded young Michael’s protests about being molested. These memories come to haunt him as he presides and stumbles through mass.
The series includes these and other stories of broken lives.
Today we reflect upon two lives that had been shattered – Peter and Paul. They had to pick up the broken pieces of their lives and try to make sense of tumultuous events that had changed everything for them.
It’s what Peter had to do in this week's gospel. We find him dirty, wet and tired from fishing all night and catching nothing. Breakfast followed, for which Jesus had made all the preparations, just as he had done for the Passover meal. In fact, Jesus had made meticulous preparations, because for Peter, there was to be a new beginning.
The Gospel writer is careful to specify that a charcoal fire was involved. Our sense of smell evokes memories, and this smell would bring back for Peter the vivid, painful memory of betraying Jesus by a charcoal fire. The shame Peter must have felt at deserting Jesus… so soon after saying he would die with Jesus.
Jesus intended to take the sting out of those memories, so that they didn’t paralyse him for life. Jesus dealt with Peter's three denials by providing opportunities for three affirmations of love. The triple question evoked a deeply painful memory of his triple denial.
This encounter shows us the way of God – it affirms the truth that God does not condemn. He doesn’t revel in our mistakes and broken lives and say, ‘I told you so’. Through this encounter, Jesus undid the power of Peter’s memory of failure, taking him back past his betrayal to his memories of Jesus's command to love and his prayer for them to be protected (John 14-17). Jesus then called Peter to share his responsibility as the good shepherd (John 10) by feeding his sheep.
Another person whose life had been shattered was Paul. Today’s account describes Damascan encounter with Jesus. Before this experience, Paul ‘breathed out murderous threats’ and aggressively sought to imprison believers. After his encounter with the risen Christ, the greatest persecutor of the church became its greatest propagator. Paul would travel over 10,000 miles to spread the good news of God's love. But in those days following his dramatic encounter, blinded, his whole worldview thrown into disarray, he must have felt bewildered, disorientated. Through his encounter with the risen Christ, his life was to change forever.
Into these two lives, Peter and Paul, we witness the transforming power of the Gospel. The Easter faith is about new life, new hope, new beginnings. The metaphor of the caterpillar is evocative here: the caterpillar that is transformed, through the pain of death, into a beautiful butterfly that soars into the sky, free.
Whilst the Gospel is about new beginnings the past still leaves its scars. While Peter knew deep down the forgiveness Jesus offered, he would never forget his betrayal. I imagine that it might have made him more humble, and perhaps more forgiving towards those who stumble.
Paul also found his past difficult to forget. His memories of the past always cast a dark shadow. Both Peter and Paul were to learn that God works through human weakness; the sting of their past would be healed and used for good.
Returning to the Broken television series. In one scene, Fr Kerrigan returns home exhausted and on the way to bed, when he hears the phone ring. He didn’t answer it and the result is tragic. He ends up blaming himself.
It’s a fascinating portrayal of a priest – very human and fallible, broken himself, yet compassionate, caring, and courageous in challenging injustice. And yet he finds it challenging to forgive himself. He regularly meets a fellow priest and mentor who offers a prayer toward the end of the series: “This is Michael Kerrigan, Lord, he’s a good priest. He’s quick to forgive others, slow to forgive himself. Grant him peace, Lord. Amen.”
God’s Easter message to us is that whatever our brokenness, God doesn’t condemn us. As a loving father, God longs to redeem, to heal and renew in such a way that his light will shine through the cracks, the scars of our redeemed lives.
Perhaps we know deep down that God is loving, that he doesn’t condemn, that he truly forgives. But what about loving and forgiving ourselves?
Perhaps that is even more difficult than accepting God’s loving forgiveness. And yet that too is part of the journey to wholeness.
When our wounds cease to be a source of shame or embarrassment, when we learn to love and forgive ourselves, they may then become a source of healing to others. So much so that we may, along with Peter and Paul, become wounded healers and respond to God’s call to become the good shepherd – loving, protecting, caring for the sheep in God’s world.