Re-inhabiting and re-interpreting wrongs

A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens

Readings for this Service: Acts 9.1-6, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21. 12-19

‘The Singing Detective’ is a TV drama serial by Dennis Potter that was first shown in the 1980s. The story concerns Philip Marlow, a writer of detective novelettes in the style of Raymond Chandler including one also called ‘The Singing Detective’. At the beginning of the series Philip is confined to a hospital bed because of psoriasis, the skin and joint disease, which has affected every part of his body.

Philip’s childhood beliefs and commitments to God and to his parents have been betrayed through key incidents such as his seeing his mother’s adultery and his allowing another schoolboy, Mark, to be punished for something that Philip himself had done; a particularly unpleasant present left by him for their teacher and, for which, Mark is unjustly punished. His inability to face these betrayals led him into a lifestyle where he abuses and betrays those he loves and it is only as he is stripped by his illness that he can begin to face these memories, come to accept who he is and move beyond these abusive relationships. Potter’s drama shows us how this happens.

The story is about the way in which Philip faces up to the key events in his past. Essentially, he has to re-inhabit his past and re-live it in order that he comes to feel sorrow for the way in which he betrayed Mark. This begins as he lies in his hospital bed, his body incapacitated but his mind on over-drive. Memories from his past and scenes from his books are brought to mind and fuse with fevered imaginings of present events. In his confusion he seeks support from a psychiatrist who journeys with him through his memories and imaginings until he is at the point that he can re-live the experience of betraying Mark and feel sorrow for what he did.

The incapacity that he has experienced throughout the drama, despite the very real pain of psoriasis, is revealed to be psychosomatic and, as a result, by re-inhabiting his past he begins to know change in the present and is able to get up from his bed and walk once again. Philip’s needs – his experience of near-breakdown – are the seedbed for the healing and new life that he eventual experiences. As we watch this drama, we may be challenged to live Easter by allowing the Holy Spirit to take us back into those aspects of our lives that we have abandoned or covered over.

What Philip experiences in ‘The Singing Detective’ gives an insight into what Peter experiences in our Gospel reading (John 21. 12-19). Like Philip, Peter is haunted by his own act of betrayal. When Peter meets Jesus by Lake Tiberias, Jesus forces Peter to re-live that experience of denial. That is why Jesus asks Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’ These three questions mirror Peter’s three denials and take him back into that experience. Like Philip, Peter has to re-inhabit his past in order to be forgiven and let it go. As Jesus questions Peter, his sense of remorse for what he had done must have been immense.

Peter denied Jesus three times. So Jesus asks Peter three times, ‘Do you love me?’ When they have finished re-living the experience of his denial, Peter finds that he has three affirmations that counter-balance his three denials. By taking him back into the experience of denial Jesus turns Peter’s denials into affirmations. He also turns Peter’s memory of the denial from a negative memory into a positive one. It’s as if Peter has been curled up in a ball of regret and guilt, and Jesus uncoils him and lets him walk again. The denial happened, Peter would never have forgotten that, but now his primary memory is of affirming his love for Jesus. By helping Peter re-inhabit his experience of denial, Jesus enables him to re-tell and re-interpret the experience transforming its meaning from a negative to a positive. The experience still happened but the significance of it is changed enabling him to live for Christ in the present.

Like Peter and like Philip, we, too, can carry around with us the memory of bad events that have happened to us – things that we did to others or things that others did to us. Easter is about facing up to such troubling events from the past that burden us in just the same way as Peter and Philip are burdened. The way of release from the harm and hurt of these memories can be, with the help of others, to go back into them. To re-live them in order to feel sorrow for the wrong that we did or that was done to us. Then to find positive ways in which we can show sorrow or repair hurt, whether done by us or to us.

A few weeks ago, a few of us involved in the Artists and Craftspersons’ group set up an exhibition, ‘Leaves for healing,’ in the foyer downstairs. We took our inspiration from Ezekiel 47:1-12, a vision of a transformed desert landscape, with the two halves of the exhibition reflecting the transition from wilderness to fertile land. As we reflected on the passage we saw that the temple, the place where God’s presence was very real, was seen as the source of new life with water flowing out and into the landscape, transforming the barren, empty desert into incredibly fertile land. Then the passage finished with a wonderful vision of the fruit from the trees that grow being food and the leaves used for healing. Some of our artists took the opportunity provided by this passage to begin the exhibition with an artwork that reflected wilderness and then transform that same artwork to reflect change, fertility and growth.

One piece that does so is by Lois Bentley. Lois started by creating photographic collages on triangular pieces of sheet steel. Then, for the first half of the exhibition, she decided to hang them as three triangular steel sheets strung out in a line alongside each other with the points of each triangle facing down. In this configuration they remind us of the three crosses on Calvary, the central triangle showing imagery related to its title, ‘Bruised’. For the second part of the exhibition Lois chose to re-shape and re-organise the piece. It is now called ‘Re-United’ and the principal change is that she has hung the middle triangle point upwards to indicate that Jesus’ work on the cross is finished and the Trinity are restored to their coherent whole. She says that she was inspired to do this by Jesus asking Peter for the third time – do you love me?

In this piece, Lois demonstrates how the incarnation and crucifixion come together for our salvation. The incarnation tells us that the fundamental issues of human existence cannot be resolved or addressed from the outside; instead God has to be become one with humanity in order to open up to possibility of change on a continuing basis. In Jesus, God plunges headlong into the mess of betrayal, denial and scapegoating that causes violence and torture in our world and emerges on the other side to re-interpret those experiences and bring new meaning and direction.

Philip and Peter were perhaps surprised to find that salvation involved facing their betrayals not running from them. Jesus’ death does not eradicate or remove the original wrongs in human experience but, by experiencing wrong and the pain it involves, Jesus re-shapes and re-orders our experience of it in order to create a new story with new meaning and direction. So, instead of being overwhelmed by the world’s wrongs and our own, as Philip and Peter were initially, we can now follow the path first walked by Jesus of inhabiting and experiencing the world’s wrongs in order to re-shape and re-interpret our experience and understanding. The new story with new meaning that we inhabit is that of the Resurrection.

A further example from the ‘Leaves for Healing’ exhibition is of the two pieces shown by Ruth Hutchison. The first was called ‘Grieving for my Garden’ and reflected the sense of loss Ruth felt at no longer having ‘a beautiful garden with lots of everything including barbeques, family gatherings and places just to sit quietly, listen to trees blowing in the wind while the blackbird sings.’ Her garden had been the context for her creativity. Now art has become the outlet for her creativity. She combines this with her passion for recycling using art materials recycled from skips, charity shops and friends to create her second piece called ‘The Barbeque.’ This expresses in a different form the pleasure that she once found in the barbeques held in her garden. Her art enables her to express grief at her loss and also to express past pleasures in new forms.

That is the journey undertaken by Philip and Peter. It is the journey depicted for us by Lois and Ruth. It is the journey first walked by Jesus. It is incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. It is Lent and Eastertide. Easter challenges us to face troubling events from the past that burden us in just the same way as Peter and Philip were burdened. Easter challenges us to inhabit and experience the world’s wrongs in order to live a new story with new meaning; that of resurrection. Amen.