by Fr Bill O’Shea
Sr. Mark’s Gospel is the first written record we have of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. It was written between 30 and 35 years after the death of and resurrection of Jesus, and shows us how some Christians at least, in those early years of the Church, understood the person and mission of Jesus.
In this earliest Gospel, the first recorded words of Jesus are found in 1:14-15. We are told that after his baptism, Jesus announced: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news.” This can be seen as a headline-summary of everything that follows. It is a statement of Jesus’ programme or agenda, and everything he subsequently said and did is somehow related to the kingdom of God.
The actual Aramaic word used by Jesus, which we translate as “kingdom”, does not so much describe a territory, but rather has the active sense of “reign” or “rule”. Jesus was therefore saying that the purpose of his ministry and mission was to proclaim, establish and promote the reign of God in the world. So when I used the word “kingdom” in this article, it should be understood in the sense of God’s reign.
Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels came later, agree with Mark, in emphasising the importance of the idea of the kingdom in Jesus preaching and activity. Matthew actually uses the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”, but it means the same thing. In his Sermon on the Mount, he quotes Jesus as saying: “Seek first (that is, above and before all else) God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). This call by Jesus to seek first the kingdom or reign of God is a summons to holiness, to live one’s life according to the values that are consistent with the reign of God.
This has implications for our understanding of the church and its role in God’s saving plan. Since the kingdom of God was the primary focus of Jesus himself, and what we are asked to “seek first”, it means that our main focus of attention is not the church as an organisation or institution, but rather the mystery of God acting in history and in people’s lives. We look first of all to the action of God calling the world to journey towards God, and gathering people into the kingdom, in other words, uniting them to join in living and promoting the reign of God.
So what is the role and purpose of the church in this process? What does it have that is special and unique? What is its particular mission? And what does the idea of seeking the kingdom say to the members of the church about how they should see their life-style as a community?
It is clear from the New Testament (especially in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles) that they were aware that their vocation was to continue the mission of Jesus. They saw their role as that of promoting the coming of the kingdom, but they clearly also saw that this could best be done by promoting the growth of the church. Nevertheless, the kingdom does not belong to the church. God freely acts in history in a variety of different ways and through different human activities. The kingdom belongs to God, to Christ, and the Holy Spirit. It is for the church to welcome and announce the kingdom, but always in reference to Christ. The church is a sign of the kingdom, insofar as it witnesses to Christ; hence the importance of the quality of Christian witness to the values that Jesus emphasised: faith, hope, love, justice, mercy, unity and peace.
Throughout history, the church has not been entirely open to the Spirit, as Jesus was. It is a mixture of holiness and sinfulness. It transmits the Word of God, and the saving action of God (by word and sacrament), but alongside the witness of love, it has often succumbed to the temptation of power.
The church’s sole aim should be the promotion and growth of the kingdom of God. Everything should be for the sake of the kingdom – the church’s organisation, structures and activities. Its traditions and customs must always be evaluated in the light of this. The kingdom is a gift from God to the world, and only God can bring it to completion. So the church must always be a community of prayer. “Thy kingdom come” was the prayer of Jesus and is also the prayer of Christians.
Important for the church is the matter of fidelity, not just by what it says, but by how it lives. What it announces and denounces must apply to its own life as well. To be an effective witness of the kingdom, the church must itself be changed and transformed by the message it bears. Otherwise it is not a fit instrument for God to use. Pope Francis has described the church as always being in need of reformation.
To be a witness of the kingdom also means that the church has to be alert to recognising the presence of the kingdom outside its own boundaries, like a radar antenna picking up signals of another presence. The church can do this by appreciating the work of God in human cultures, in the values people live by, in the religions they practise: In a word, by a faith-filled reading of the signs of the times. This requires a formation in discernment for all Christians, not just church leaders.
The relationship between church and kingdom has always been a delicate one. Sometimes, the two terms are used in the New Testament in a way that could leave people to identify the two. But the church and the kingdom are not the same thing. The kingdom of God is greater than the boundaries of the church, and goes beyond the limits of all the world religions. The Spirit of God is not confined within any human movement or organisation or institution.
Yet, the church does have a special relationship to the kingdom. Because we Christians believe in the divinity of Jesus, in whose ministry the church has its roots, we claim that the church should be the main instrument in the hand of God for promoting God’s kingdom. This is what it has been called to be and to do. During its 2000 year history, it has for the most part carried out its mission effectively, as it still does today. Bu there have been other times, including our own, when it has failed to be the kind of effective instrument that Jesus intended it to be. That is true not just of church leadership, but of the whole Christian community.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom: he lived for the kingdom. Following him, the church has to remain free for the kingdom, free of all power and attachment to political ideologies. It must accept the provisional nature of its position and its institutions, be truly at the service of humanity, avoid all forms of self-glorification and triumphalism, and be like Christ, at the service of the poor. The Church has to be a travelling companion to everyone, while recognising its own limitations.
It must help people to recognise their human dignity, their freedom, and the importance of their conscience. It must help people to see themselves as a human family. It must be always ready to pick up those who are left behind, or left out, the oppressed and the outcasts, so that they are not forgotten. That is what Jesus did, and that is how the church becomes a credible and powerful sign of the kingdom of God.
This is clearly what Pope Francis had in mind, when he wrote of the church as “semper reformanda” – always in need of reformation – if it is to carry out its mandate to promote the kingdom – a kingdom of faith, hope and love, a kingdom of justice and holiness, a kingdom of mercy and forgiveness, a kingdom of unity and peace.