“What shall we do?” Various groups of people go to John the Baptist to ask him for moral instruction because they recognize his wisdom and moral authority. In every age people have gone to ask their religious preachers and sages for moral guidance: “What shall we do?” Many of the world’s religions offer responses to this fundamental question on how we should order our lives, how we can live well as human beings. So, every religion and culture has its great moral teachers: Confucius, the Buddha, Muhammad, Moses, and today, John the Baptist, who was the last and greatest of God’s prophets.
Many people would number Jesus Christ among the world’s great moral teachers. But we shouldn’t:Christ is different. For Christianity, contrary to a commonplace popular belief, is not principally about being nice. It’s not primarily about following a set of rules and commandments, obeying laws and moralistic preaching. Tragically, this is what Christianity has often been reduced to, or this is how it’s been perceived, and perhaps, rejected, by very many. And it’s often been asserted that one doesn’t need religion to teach morality. That’s arguable, but even if it were true, we would still need Jesus Christ.
Because, leaving aside morality, Jesus Christ comes first of all as the Redeemer and Saviour of every human person. He is the salvation we are all equally in need of, and the perfection of what Jesus gives us, namely, eternal life in union with the Holy Trinity, is something that can only ever be achieved by his grace and never by our own human efforts or merit. So, Jesus comes to give us eternal happiness, and he does so because he loves us. To all who freely accept this gift of grace, Christ becomes their unique source of joy. Hence, we Christians are exhorted by St Paul and today’s Gaudete Sunday liturgy to rejoice.
We rejoice because of who we are in Jesus Christ. For our faith is not principally about observing moral values, or the gritted-teeth keeping of laws, or being good for fear of a policeman God. It’s not principally about what we shall do, and more about who we shall be. For Jesus comes to establish a new relationship between us and God. Through him, by the grace given in baptism, we can enter into Jesus’ own relationship with God. So, we can also dare to call God Abba, Father; we have been reborn in the Holy Spirit as daughters and sons of God in the Son of God. This new relationship of filial love between God and Man that Jesus offers all people is something we do not–and cannot–earn. It is just freely given out of gratuitous love for us. But it’s up to us to accept this pure gift, this grace.
Thus, Christianity was seen by St Paul as a liberation from the Law and its many ethical injunctions, commandments, and religious observances. One could now rejoice and remain in the peace of Christ because righteousness wasn’t earned through what we did. Hence, when asked “What shall we do?”, the apostles just taught the first Christian converts to “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). For salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone, through a loving relationship with God which he establishes, and not through our works.
However, this does not mean that Christians have no moral life, or need not wonder what we should do as children of God. For when the rich man asks Christ “What must I do?,” Jesus tells him to do something that surpasses the Mosaic Law and commandments: “Follow me” (cf Mt 19:16-21). Hence, we, who are made daughters and sons of God by grace, are called to follow the Son of God: to learn from his Wisdom, to imitate his example of love, to behave as a child of God does. Therefore, the Christian moral life is called by the Catechism, “Life in Christ”. But what we do is always, first and foremost, founded in the fundamental grace of who we are; being precedes doing, and we have been loved into being by God and been saved by the gift of Christ’s incarnate and crucified love.
St Paul puts it like this: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1), which means that we have been saved from sin by Jesus Christ so that, empowered by the Spirit and in co-operation with his grace, we will act with complete freedom as Jesus does. For our true freedom is found in embracing the good, in choosing to love, in saying ‘Yes’ to God; a faith-filled surrender to Love and its ways. This is what baptism in the Spirit entails: the Spirit comes as fire, as the burning charity that purifies us of sin, of our disordered desires, and of our selfishness, so that our loving becomes Christ-like. Over a lifetime, then, we grow-up to reflect the reality of who Christ has made us to be, and thus to exhibit the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). So, what shall we, as free children of God, do? St Augustine says: “Love, and do what you will.”