Doing and Being: John 1:1-18

Are you a doer or a be-er? Without doubt you are both, but usually one or the other dominates in a person. Doers get things done. If we want something done, we call on doers. As a pastor I learned quickly that fellowship meals, decorating the church, budget programs, building and maintenance concerns, etc. all depend on the dedication and drive of doers. With doers, you had better get out of the way, because here they come! Doers are often in a hurry. In fact, they would sometimes rather do something  -even if it’s wrong- than do nothing at all. “Gitter done!” is their motto.

Be-ers, on the other hand, think a lot. They meditate on the meaning and purpose of life. They always seem to be asking the question “why?” They analyze, conceptualize, spiritualize, synthesize, theologize, psychoanalyze. The words they seem to like the most and the things they seem to engage in the most all end with the letters ize.

Doers are usually impatient with be-ers. They harbor the suspicion that be-ers are a little lazy. And be-ers are usually amused or alarmed by do-ers. But doers need be-ers to keep them from making fools of themselves and destroying the world. And be-ers need doers to prevent them from permanent lapses into navel-gazing and taking themselves too seriously. 

Our world needs doers and be-ers, and as we said earlier, doing and being are both qualities we all have, although usually one or the other dominates in each individual. Both of these qualities are a part of the experience and makeup of our humanity. We are made in such a way as to do, to manipulate, to build, to create, and to transform our environment. Homo sapiens are still homo habilis (“tool makers”) and, thus, doers. Such an identity is a vital, indispensable part of who we are. 

And yet we are also made in such a way as to question, to wonder, to think, to ask why, to search for meaning, and to reach beyond ourselves in our mind’s eye to new possibilities and yet-unborn solutions. 

Doers and be-ers are who we are, and whatever religious answer is given to our identities; whatever act of salvation is offered on our behalf; whatever sacred message is uttered for our benefit must take seriously that we are by nature, deep down in every fiber of our being, both doers and be-ers.

The first chapter of John tells us who we are, offers us salvation, and utters that holy message we so covet and need by focusing on a word which in the biblical tradition encompasses both doing and being. And that Greek word is logos, translated in our English versions as “word.” However, that term means much more than just “word.” There is a Hebrew and a Greek background to logos in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures the term translated “word” can also mean “thing.” The Jewish religion has always been very concrete in its orientation. The faith of Israel was concerned with the real world. It was a “show me” religion. “Word of God” never means in the Hebrew Scriptures a written document. Dabar (a transliteration of the Hebrew noun translated as “word”) was too dynamic and alive to mean just that. In the Old Testament dabar is intention that goes into action. Listen to these words from the prophet Isaiah regarding the Word of God: For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

In this passage from Isaiah, “word” is viewed as something which is done and accomplished. And John says that this intention which seeks action and fulfillment—this doing part of God evidenced throughout the Hebrew Scriptures from creation to Exodus to judgment to restoration became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and walked where he walked. When you think about it, the Incarnation is the most natural thing to expect from the God of the Hebrew Scriptures with its concrete, earthy, “show me” orientation. And what better way for the Word/the intention of God seeking action and fulfillment to accomplish its purpose than to become flesh. 

The being part of us is flabbergasted by this idea of God in human flesh. God should be in heaven where any respectable God should be. What does the Bible mean by saying that when we see this carpenter who grew up in Nazareth, who sweated when he labored, and who wore a peasant’s robe, we see God? When we see him touch a leper, eat, drink, and make merry with the disreputables of this world, and even when we see him nailed to a cross bleeding, hurting, and dying—when we see him doing all these things, we are supposed to see God? But the New Testament says over and over, “Yes,” and also maintains that this intention of God becoming action is the key not only to who God is but also to who we shall be. 

The doing of Jesus can never allow us to be content with a religion which is not as worldly, earthy, and concrete as was the life of Jesus. A religion without real, practical, and sacrificial expressions of love and justice is a travesty and a sham. There can be no following Jesus without the “doing”—without the Word once again becoming flesh in and through us. Our faith is dead if God’s intention becoming action does not occur in our lives. If we are human, we will do, manipulate, create, build, and transform our environment. However, it is in this carpenter from Nazareth that we discover what kind of doing is worthy of God and of our humanity embraced by God through the Incarnation. 

The word logos has another dimension in the New Testament. In the Greek culture logos had the meaning of purpose and was the key to understanding the whole and the parts of our world. To be human is to ask questions like: What is the meaning of the universe? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life? This aspect of word is associated with philosophy, a discipline in which the Greeks excelled. 

I believe our capacity to ask the question “Why?” and to search for meaning in life is what makes us human. We need a reason to live, and we need meaning to give us the courage to face the trials of life, including death. Victor Frankl was a Viennese psychoanalyst who as a Jew was interred in a Nazi concentration camp. In these inhuman conditions he discovered that the basic need of every human being was to find meaning in one’s life. Without a meaning worthy of our humanity, we lose our humanity. He observed that those imprisoned by the Nazis who had meaning in their lives also found the will to continue and survive—to face the worst of hardships and inexpressible cruelty—to maintain their humanity in dehumanizing conditions. Even those who did meet their deaths in gas chambers did so with a dignity and courage which had their source in the meaning they found in their identity and affirmation as children of God. Frankl survived the Holocaust and went on to write his profound book entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. In that inspiring volume, he wrote about his discovery that meaning worthy of our identity as human beings is the most important ingredient in maintaining our humanity. I cannot help but wonder if so much of the confusion, cruelty, despair, and scapegoating currently afflicting our world is rooted in the lack of worthy meaning so many people apparently experience in our materialistic cynicism.

But being able to ask why is not enough. There are many people who have discovered purposes for their lives as well as reasons to live and to die. However, the problem is that many of their purposes have become destructive forces in their lives and in our world. Fanatical Nazis were willing to fight and lay down their lives in obedience to the monster they called their Fuhrer. Modern-day terrorists are willing to sacrifice their lives as they pursue the rabid lunacy of a distorted religion. (Islam is not the problem. Fundamentalist Islam, like fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist atheism, and fundamentalist anything else, is the problem.) Money-hungry people who are addicted to greed spend an incredible amount of time and energy in their pursuit of wealth. We currently see politicians devoted to racist, greedy, and unjust policies doing all they can with monumental efforts and devotion to destroy any government which is truly “of, for, and by the people.” There are those religious racketeers who devote their lives to sick religion lacking in grace and righteousness. Frank Stagg, my Greek professor at seminary, said that he didn’t worry much about the lazy people in this world. Those he most feared were the ones who had strong but misguided convictions. His comment reminded me of the English statesman who quipped that he would rather face a thousand armed men on horseback than one solitary Calvinist bent on doing the will of God. Most of us will find some meaning, purpose, and reason in life. Whether such is worthy of our Creator and our humanity is another matter. 

John says that in Jesus, we can find the logos because he is the logos. The amazing and scandalous claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the key to the mystery of our identity and to the goal of our universe.  Doing is necessary, but doing without worthy meaning has been the cause of much of our world’s suffering, injustice, and sin. We must be doers of the Word, but we must make sure we are doers of the Word and that our lives are grounded through faithful dialogue and through disciplined and compassionate vision in the Word which alone knows what ultimately matters. 

Of course, in a very real sense, we can’t so easily distinguish being from doing because they are vitally connected. What we are determines what we do, and what we do affects who we are. But the critical questions for us as human beings and doer-be-ers of this planet are these:

  1. What should we do?
  2. What are we meant to be? 
  3. What is the calling, mission, and meaning of our lives and of this universe?
  4. Who are we as children of God and followers of Jesus? 

The New Testament makes the incredible claim that in Jesus, this impoverished carpenter from Nazareth, we see, with the veil removed and the mystery pulled aside, the perfect example of being and doing as well as the only hope we have of letting that Living Word and Divine Intention become active and determinative in our lives. 

John Bunyan ended his devotional classic Pilgrim’s Progress with these words: “Then said Evangelist, ‘Keep that Light in your eye, and go directly thereto, so you shall see the Gate.’” At its foundation, the Christian faith proclaims that Jesus is the Light of the world, the Revealer of all that matters in this life and beyond, and the One in whom God has shown us the way to be, to do, and to live. If we keep that light before us, we cannot go wrong.

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