Sermon: “Being” and “Doing”
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Fr. Larry Ort
Acts 10.44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.9-17
Today’s gospel reading, John 15.9-17, continues from last Sunday. Previously we considered two questions: First, how is God’s love perfected in us? It is perfected through abiding in Christ, the vine, and through pruning that we might abundantly bear fruit. And second, how do we know that God’s love is perfected in us? We know this through the absence of fear, for “perfect love casts out fear.” Last week’s gospel reading closed with these words: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (John 15.8; NRSV).
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus continues to teach his disciples, and us, about the importance of abiding in Christ’s love. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And how does one abide in Christ’s love? Through keeping Christ’s commandments: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Then Jesus adds: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.9-11; NRSV). Jesus desires that we live joy filled lives through abiding in love and keeping the commandments. And at heart, this amounts to one and the same thing, for the Ten Commandments were given in love and are rooted in the love of God and the love of our neighbor. Keeping the commandments is an expression of love.
But Jesus then reiterates the importance and character of love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15.12-14; NRSV). Note that Jesus called his disciples friends – not servants. Jesus told them, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (John 15.15; NRSV). Bear in mind, Jesus has already told the disciples that he is about to be crucified, that he is laying his life down for his friends. Jesus further reminded them that they did not choose him, rather, he chose them, and he has appointed them to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15.16).
John Pilch, a noted authority on Middle Eastern culture, notes the word “love” appears no less than eight times in this passage. He asks, “How did our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith understand this word” (https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/6EasterB050921/theword_cultural.html)? How did they understand Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you”? Pilch further notes the prophets’ emphasis on keeping the commandments, on obedience to God’s laws, on performing “deeds of justice and charity” (Ibid.).
In addressing this question, Pilch comments on the difference between “being” and “doing” in Middle Eastern cultures. “Being,” acting spontaneously, is preferred over “doing” which involves planning. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus places the emphasis on “doing”, i.e., “’keep [=do] my commandments’ (John 15:10) and ‘do what I command you.’” Pilch asks, “Why is this necessary?” (Ibid.).
In most cultures the primary value orientation reflects male choices. He notes, “For males in the Mediterranean, the values that regulate activity are “being” then “doing.”” For females, the order is reversed (Ibid.).
Pilch points out that Jesus’ ministry advocated the appropriate value for the moment. For example, “Martha who was quite appropriately “doing” … was directed to imitate Mary’s “being” ([her] spontaneous response to Jesus at the moment (Luke 10.38-42)” (Ibid.).
When considering this passage, we need to remember that Jesus was addressing his male disciples. In essence, “Jesus says “being” ([the spontaneous] “love attachment to him and the Father”) is not enough. They must strive to “do” (keep the commandments; do what I command you) (Ibid).
Jesus was stressing there are appropriate times for “being” and “doing.” The disciples must have heard Jesus as saying: It is not enough to be a child of God, to love God; you must do the work God calls you to do – keep God’s commandments.
Many years ago, when I was in the midst of my philosophical studies, my oldest sister asked, “What have you been doing lately?” I calmly told her that I was focusing on being as opposed to doing. As you might suspect, she howled with laughter. She knew I was a workaholic! My daughters even warned Judy of that fact before we were married. Nonetheless, I was wrestling with my need to simply be at times. I like to think I am getting better at being.
Given Jesus’ command to the disciples to “do”, and his command to Martha to “be”, we need to recognize that Jesus was commending what was appropriate for each.
This might be going beyond what Jesus was saying, but I would argue that we need to choose the middle way, that we need an appropriate balance between being and doing. It is not enough to simply be a Christian, we must “do” our Christianity, i.e., we must put it into practice. But conversely, we can become so consumed with doing God’s work that we neglect the necessary times for “being.” This is a recipe for burnout and exhaustion.
Part of “being” involves simply resting and relaxing; part of “being” involves drawing apart for prayer and reflection on God’s word. There are times when we need to rest in the awareness that we are a child of God. If we carefully study Jesus’ life, we see that his life is punctuated with periods of immense activity followed by drawing apart. The pressing in of the crowds seeking spiritual or physical healing must have been exhausting. After an extended period of ministry, of “doing,” Jesus drew apart. But we should also note, when Jesus faced the most agonizing part of his life, he also drew apart to pray.
In closing his thoughts on this passage, Pilch raises a good question: “If they [the prophets and Jesus] had to preach to Americans today, what would the message be” (Ibid.)? Our frenetic activity reminds me of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Hobbes asks Calvin, “Do you believe in eternal life.” Calvin gives him a very disgruntled look and replies, “Of course I believe in eternal life. I will never finish all of my work.”
What is Jesus saying to you? Is he calling you to “doing” or to “being”? When God’s love is perfected in us, we will respond appropriately. Respond in love; answer his call.