The Triune God

Preacher: Isaac Zika

Scripture: John 21:1-23

Date: July 17, 2022

Nine years ago I was taking a class that was part of my music therapy degree. During that class, which was mostly populated by seniors in their final semester, the professor mentioned the high burnout rate of music therapists. The picture painted of music therapy up until that point, had been  in my view, incredibly rosy. One got to use one’s musical talents to help people become the best possible versions of themselves. There was a high job placement rate. I could use my musical talents for something “useful.” But, now some cracks were showing themselves through that rosy image. As part of that class, my classmates and I were strongly encouraged (perhaps arm twisted?) to participate in a “Shark Tank” style activity in which we each would pitch a music therapy business idea to a panel of potential investors/funders.

I, being as naive then as I am now, of things  like “Shark Tank,” really had no idea what I was pressured to say yes to. So it goes. So I put together my one or two minute pitch which consisted of a proposal to start a music therapy program at a kind of halfway house for people reentering society after incarceration. I got great points for delivery. However, I started to freeze and stumble over my words once their questions started flowing. Then they proceeded to critique my performance and offer pointers. One of the judges suggested that I should strongly consider pitching this idea to potential funding sources/investors by reminding them that prisons are a growth industry in our state and that thus my reentry program idea could also potentially partake in that growth. This suggestion fit well with the tenor of that program and with the larger two or so day program of which it was part. Music therapy students were being encouraged to become savvy in the ways of the neoliberal world in which everything and everyone is a commodity that can and should be put to the service of maximum profit. In my view all of this was troubling in that it seemed to frame the basic shape of the world as an eternal web of market relations.

In that world, one can do good things like provide music therapy for people exiting prison, but one must order these goods towards and around that ultimate shaper of all that is: the Free Market. This showed up throughout my music therapy training and work as a therapist in the more mundane world of reimbursement for and access to services. This is controlled by the web of capital and market relations. If one has money and/or insurance, one can have music therapy. If one doesn’t have insurance or other funds, or if one’s insurance doesn’t recognize music therapy as an efficacious treatment protocol (sometimes regardless of scientific evidence), one is barred from access for no other reason than by decree of the ever wise and invisible entity known as the Free Market. And in the world created and ordered by the Free Market, there is no free lunch and definitely no free healthcare. All must be made to pay in one way or another. That is simply the way the “real world works.”

Neoliberalism can easily be viewed as the dominant ideology in the world today. Both for its promoters and detractors, fervent believers and ardent skeptics, it can easily represent a totalizing picture of reality. The Roman Empire might well have appeared similarly totalizing in its ideological and material scope for the cast of characters whom we find in the final chapter of John’s Gospel. Perhaps a bit like the early Brethren, the Johannine community that produced the Gospel and Epistles of John was likely sectarian. The Johannine community stood apart from the Roman way of life and worshiped as God One who had been executed by Rome. The Johannine community also stood apart from more mainstream Jewish communities that did not share their faith in the crucified and resurrected Galilean name Jesus.

This can be seen as being similar to the early Brethren in that they too stood apart from the ruling powers of their day. The Johannine community and the early Brethren lived an alternative politics of love and peace that sharply contrasted with the politics of exploitation and violence promoted outside of their communities. Today I want to reflect on some themes in the Gospel produced by the Johannine community that paint a picture of a reality in which the Triune God’s love and grace cannot be imagined apart from any part of reality because they form the very shape of all of reality. I want to draw out the difference between this gracious reality and the pseudo-reality of the Market based-neoliberal system in which there is no necessary connection between the way things are and the practice of the love of neighbor. So let us journey with Peter in this lovely passage from the final moments of John’s Gospel.

And  we find Peter going fishing. I get the sense that Peter may have been deeply worn out. He had after all seen Jesus arrested and crucified. This would have been incredibly traumatic and trauma has a way of wearing one down. And so Peter goes fishing. I imagine he may have needed to do something familiar. New Testament scholar Dwight Allen Callaghan talks about how Peter goes fishing to secure his own needs. I find this deeply understandable because I too want to secure my wellbeing most of the time and definitely when traumas and crises strike. 

Which brings me to my next point. In our modern society, with its intensely neoliberal shape, this drive to secure ourselves is made into a kind of ultimate source of meaning. A god if you will. In this striving for self-security–be it economic, social, emotional, spiritual–we often ironically end up feeling increasingly insecure in a multiplicity of ways. And because we feel insecurity and the drive for self-security, we end up with an almost hopeless task. Philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes, “Depression is …a symptom of the burnout society. The achievement subject suffers burnout at the moment it is no longer able “to be able.” It fails to meet its self-imposed demand to achieve. No longer being able “to be able” leads to destructive self-recrimination and auto-aggression. The achievement subject wages a war against itself and perishes in it. Victory in this war against oneself is called burnout.” I think of Peter in light of this. Could Peter have experienced something like burnout? While it is definitely anachronistic to apply this modern term to Peter in his ancient context, I think that it may be fruitful to think of how Peter’s experience may have been similar to what we label as “burnout.”

I get the sense in reading about Peter in John’s gospel, and in the other gospels, that he doesn’t always grasp what Jesus is really about. For example, when Jesus is arrested, Peter attacks a man and cuts off his ear. Interestingly, this man, Malchus, is enslaved by the high priest and thus may not have been the most powerful person in the group that came to arrest Jesus. So not only was Peter going against Jesus’ example of love for his enemies, he was also directing his violence towards someone with possibly less power than others in the mob of police sent to arrest Jesus. Anyway, Peter seems to have not grasped what Jesus tells Pilate–that his “kingdom is not of this world” and if it was, his followers would fight to keep him from being arrested. Peter seems to not understand Jesus’ mission. I wonder if Peter sometimes turned Jesus’ mission into a kind of achievement? I know that sometimes I engage in church and peacework as if it is a part of my self-securing project of self-creation. And that project is quite draining.

And I think that it becomes draining because it fails to name–-and thus escape from– the myth that says that we are the creators of our own lives. And as the creators of our own lives we own our lives. This is a recipe doomed to failure. And yet Peter returns to his old life of fishing. A life that would have been burdened by the taxes and debt that characterized the Roman economy for peasants, fishermen and laborers in the colonies. Peter returns to live a life, as Theologian Rowan Williams says, “as if Jesus had not been.”

And yet in his return, Peter experiences failure. Despite fishing all night, he and his fellow disciples fail to catch any fish. Peter is thus left to grapple with failure on all fronts. There is his failure to understand Jesus’ mission, his failure to remain faithful to Jesus in his hour of need, and now his failure to even successfully perform at his old occupation.

And yet. And yet there appears a stranger upon the shore. This stranger directs them to cast their nets on the other side. The disciples do and catch so many fish that they cannot haul the net into their boat. Having been overwhelmed by this extravagant outpouring of grace, the disciple whom Jesus loves recognizes the stranger as “the Lord.” Peter dives in the lake to swims to Jesus. Jesus is already grilling fish on the shore for the disciples. Rowan Williams points out that it is through this display of abundance that the disciples recognize Jesus.

This recognition of Jesus recalls the prologue to John’s Gospel. It does so because in the prologue John narrates Jesus as existing with God prior to creation. Dan Ulrich, professor of New Testament at Bethany Theological Seminary, makes a convincing case that the prologue’s “In the beginning…” strongly echoes the “In the beginning…” of Genesis chapter one. We should thus remember God’s proclamation of delight in all of creation: “It is good.” God is again creating abundance through God’s life creating word. David Bentley Hart accents the idea that the Triune God created the world as a purely unnecessary gift out of the love shared between God, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our passage today, we are reminded of this reality: God is the author of all that is. Therefore we need not engage in futile acts of self creation. We need not climb on board the achievement ship. Jesus is the Word who creates all that is. Jesus at the lakeshore is the Word who creates and freely gives abundant food to tired and worn out disciples.

Within neoliberal orderings of the world, all things are ordered towards one common goal: the bottom line. Within neoliberal calculus, the final destination of worldly goods is their valuation by the Market. In a way, all things are made to pass before this throne of judgment–the Free Market–and are reduced to their monetary value. Because the Market is ‘free’ to do as it pleases, values routinely shift to suit its whims and fancies. And so the procession of all things before its throne of judgment, its ever watchful eye perpetually surveying its kingdom of capital–its deathly domain, perpetually proceeds to a perilous end This domain puts to death any notion of inherent goodness stemming from something like God’s creation of the world as a free gift. Free gifts and inherent goodness of created things are a threat to the neoliberal order. This is well exemplified by the final ends of so much of what passes for mental healthcare in this nation. Such mental healthcare is ordered towards returning prodigal Peters to their fishing nets so that they can continue to produce profit for the Roman empires of the world.

And this is why Jesus’ free gift of fish to Peter and the disciples is so otherworldly within the world of empire and debt, free markets and capital. In a world that produces abundant food, it is often treated as a scarce commodity that can be withheld from people without money because that is what is demanded by the Free Market and its endless drive towards profitability.  In this way the primacy of profit over human need is poignantly displayed. But even when we get caught in these logics of scarcity that the false gospel of neoliberalism incessantly hammers home, Jesus stands on the shore, waiting for us to hear his creating Word and recognize him as that Word made flesh and recognize ourselves as created in the Word.

It is in this context of prodigal grace given to prodigal disciples that Jesus begins to speak to Peter. Peter, as you likely remember, denied Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested. Rowan Williams points out the significance of the charcoal fire upon which Jesus cooks fish in this chapter. It would have reminded Peter of who he was: one who denied Jesus while warming himself by a charcoal fire. Williams speaks of how this reminder, though surely painful for Peter, is part of a  grace filled “recovery of memory” that allows Peter to face what he has done, who he has been, and be forgiven, healed and recovered to his vocation as a disciple and herald of the Good News.

I think that often in our various vocations in ministry, peace and justice work, and service, it can be easy for our vocation to easily become a party to the neoliberal ordering of creation.  We may subtly follow Peter’s example of going back to the old way of doing things even while we are involved in good work. I believe this can happen when our work subtly becomes about achievement in a neoliberal fashion. In this model we are the work that we accomplish and we must create and sustain a personal brand so that we can continue doing this most important work. This can happen when we feel compelled to justify our work in neoliberal terms. Many therapeutic goals in music therapy end up being about making the person receiving therapy a good “producer” and/or “consumer.” I even have done music therapy in facilities in which people are referred to as “consumers” as if that is a better, more dignifying label for people than “clients.” Of course if a client’s deepest desires lie too far outside the boundaries of neoliberal orthodoxy, they must be adequately therapized so that they can get in touch with “reality.” So much music therapy service provision is quite literally dictated by the availability of funding. Music therapists must then pitch their ideas to department heads and continuously document their success so that they obtain and retain their funding. This ongoing performance for others according to neoliberal logics in which all must be made to serve the goals of efficiency and profit is deeply tiring.

But in the world described by Jesus in his dialogue with Peter in vv. 15-19, we find a practice of gracious care that is antithetical and alien to the values and ends of neoliberalism. And this gracious practice of care proceeds from the life of the Triune God in which the persons of the Trinity are always  lovingly pouring themselves out to each other and receiving lovingly from each other. It is by participating in this divine dance of love that we become “children of God” as promised in John’s prologue. We become one with Jesus the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Jesus does this because this is the very nature of Jesus as God the Son who has from eternity poured forth and drank love richly with God and the Holy Spirit. And so it is that Jesus spoke of the “thief” as the one who “kills, steals, and destroys,” for this is the same as speaking of evil as the privation of the good–which is how the term has been understood within classical Christian thought. And so we can name neoliberalism as a privation of the good in that it falsely names the world as primordially divided between winners and losers. The winners are thus destined to practice privation of the goods necessary for human life for those labeled losers. Of course that system produces quite literally privation in the form of starvation, homelessness, poverty, thefts, murders, wars, lies, burnout and on and on and on. But Jesus comes that we might have life. And Jesus gives his life for the life of the world in the same manner that the Trinity is continuously sharing the divine life within and between their persons. 

So Jesus’ words to Peter should not be considered another form of burdensome Roman or neoliberal balderdash about self improvement and achievement so that one can be more productive and consumptive (and also more burned out). It is not about becoming a better version of oneself in an otherwise fundamentally brutal and barbaric cosmos. It is rather about Jesus inviting us to participate in the very life of the Triune God which created the entirety of existence, and freely and graciously redeems and sustains it. Jesus thus invites Peter and us to truly be “born again” and thus able to see the reign of God clearly. In seeing God’s reign clearly we come to see that the “real world” is most assuredly not the world described and celebrated in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The true shape of the world is one of glorious grace that continuously pours forth from the love shared and celebrated and witnessed by God, by Jesus the Son, and by the Holy Spirit.

And Peter, and we, are invited to join in this grace shaped world by feeding Jesus’ lambs, by tending Jesus’ sheep, and by feeding Jesus’ sheep. Whenever your community cares for the needs of people with the freely given grace and love that Jesus has freely gifted you, you participate in that divine life of the Trinity that gives shape to the world. For this is the call of the Church, to demonstrate the love of God through its concrete acts of love in the world. And yet, unlike neoliberal self-improvement project that are rooted in the commodification of the self and of all of creation and leave ourselves feeling burned out and all creation with us, Jesus’ command to love each other is not burdensome. It is instead a gift. It is a gift that opens our eyes to see the entire creation as a freely given gift from God that we receive with joy. The Holy Spirit works to open our eyes to see Jesus offering us fish and bread aplenty. We are thus reminded that God not only calls us to love, but also empowers us to love with the same love that is the Triune God. 

Of course, the question becomes, can we really get on board with this picture of reality and way of life? iThis practice of peace? This good news? And I must confess that I am not that ready most of the time. My feelings might produce a question like Peter’s: “Lord what about him?” I want to know if other people are living this way, if they are achieving this kind of life, perhaps if they are better at it than I am. But these questions again completely miss the world that I think Jesus is describing. I think that Jesus is describing a world in which such comparisons with others become utterly meaningless because zero sum, competitive achievement is not a value in God’s realm. Because God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit pours forth the love that they share as Trinity. And the disciples experienced this as an abundance of fish that overtook their fishing failure and made a mockery of the Roman economy of scarcity for the many and luxuries for the few.  And God continues to pour this love out for us in the Body of Christ, the Church. For it is in the Body of Christ that we begin to discern the shape of a community who practices an economy of joyfully receiving and giving gifts that have come from God Almighty, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And as the Church as Christ’ Body practices this grace shaped way of life, the world is reminded that its basic shape is not commodity but gracious gift given by the glorious God of all grace.

And so it is that we need not live the myth that we are our own creators. We have no need of protecting our images, of developing our personal brands, of selling our entrepreneurial selves. For in Jesus we find the truth of our lives. The truth that we are created by an act of sheer grace by the Trinity. We thus have no need of participating in an endless, tiresome cycle of achievement in which our desires are diverted from their true end. For in Christ our desires are set towards God who is eternal love. In Christ we are graciously invited to partake in the endlessly joyful dance of fellowship that is the Trinity. We discover that our lives are gifts to be enjoyed and shared in an endless celebration of giving and receiving that is the life of the Trinity. Glory be to God, to Jesus the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

Maybe Also place more emphasis on caring for one another being a participation in the Trinitarian love of God. Jesus makes true community possible that shows the world what it is meant to be: a creation at peace and praising the God who is love.

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