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Catholicism Without the Kingdom?

Updated: May 17


Imagine inviting Jesus to preach at a retreat or a conference. What do you think He would talk about? What would you like Him to talk about? I suspect the current crop of internet Catholic ministries would expect Jesus to storm his audience with robust discourses on the Traditional Latin Mass, or the Church, or Mariology, or the saints, or heaven, hell, limbo, and purgatory, or even caustic diatribes against liberals, Protestants and Pope Francis.


Funnily enough, Jesus didn't seem to pay much attention to any of the above topics during his earthly ministry. Of course, liberals, Protestants, and popes weren't around. For example, Jesus mentions the Church just twice. Only Matthew records Jesus' words on the Church: "On this rock I will build my Church," (Mt 16:18) and "If a brother sins and doesn't repent go "tell it to the Church" after you've talked to him in private and with a couple of other brothers (Mt 18:15-17).  


Jesus' Number One Topic 

So, what's the Number One thing that Jesus talks about? This is certain: the Number One thing Jesus talks about is the Number One thing we almost never talk about. Jesus is super-obsessed, monomaniacal and feverishly fanatical about this topic— and we are completely oblivious to it. We shun it like a Pharisee would shun a leper. We avoid it like anthrax.


Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. The term 'Kingdom of God' occurs 52 times in the four gospels; the corresponding term 'Kingdom of heaven' occurs 33 times in Matthew's gospel. The gospels also use terms like 'the kingdom,' 'your kingdom,' and 'my kingdom' 24 times. In all, the gospels use the term 'kingdom' about 109 times. In addition, the gospels also talk about 'kingdom' in the secular sense 20 times. Totally, the New Testament makes 142 references to the idea of the kingdom of God. It is the overarching theme of the New Testament.

 

I'd like to offer a few biblical reflections on the Kingdom of God. I could teach an entire course on the Kingdom, and weighty biblical theologians have written entire books on the Kingdom and its relationship to Israel, the Old Testament, the cross, the atonement, the resurrection, and so on. But my reflection is going to be very limited and, perhaps, also provocative, as I would like to goad the reader to explore this central concept in greater depth.


Defining the Kingdom of God 

How, then, do we define the Kingdom of God? It is the realm where God is sovereign and Jesus the Messiah rules as King of kings and Lord of lords. Jeremy Treat, who has written an excellent book on the kingdom of God, defines it in eight words: "The kingdom is God's reign through God's people over God's place." George Ladd defines it as "the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced."

 

Let me underline two qualifications. First, the Kingdom of God is not to be confused with heaven. No doubt, the gospel of Matthew uses a Jewish circumlocution and calls it the "Kingdom of heaven." But when Jesus talks about the 'Kingdom of heaven' in Matthew's gospel, he means God is "establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well."


The New Testament scholar Tom Wright remarks: "The 'Kingdom of heaven' is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth." That is why Jesus asks us to pray that God's Kingdom will be actualized on earth as it exists in heaven. Jesus talks about the Kingdom coming down to earth from heaven. We talk about getting people down from earth up into heaven.

 

Second, the Church is not the Kingdom. The Church is the people who swear allegiance to the King. The Church comprises of the citizens of the Kingdom. But the Church is distinct from the Kingdom. The Church is a sign [even a sacrament] of the Kingdom, it is the engine that advances the Kingdom, but the Church is not the Kingdom. 

 

In fact, not once do the first missionaries in the book of Acts preach the Church; they preach the Kingdom of God. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Philip preaches "the good news about the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ" and those who believe "were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12).

  • Paul enters the synagogue in Ephesus and "for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the Kingdom of God" (Acts 19:8).

  • In his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, Paul says: "I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the Kingdom will see my face again" (Acts 20:25).

  • In Rome, Paul when addresses the Jews, "from morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the Kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets" (Acts 28:23).

  • The book of Acts ends with Paul in Rome. "He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance" (Acts 28:30-1).

 

Sermons on the Kingdom?

Notice, how Jesus and the Kingdom are used almost interchangeably in apostolic preaching. Jesus talks endlessly about the Kingdom. We talk endlessly about the Church. The first missionaries preach the Kingdom, not the Church. Even though the gospel is read at the Eucharist every day and every Sunday, I have never, ever heard a substantive homily on the Kingdom. I have never, ever heard a Catholic internet apostolate offer a series of substantive podcasts on the Kingdom.

 

We preach a Catholicism without the Kingdom. We promote a Church that points to itself and exists for itself rather than existing for the Kingdom and being a signpost to the Kingdom. Of course, I am not talking about Catholic biblical scholars who do emphasize the Kingdom—I'm talking about the Catholic 'internet magisterium.' And believe me, there is a yawning chasm between Catholic scholarship and the 'internet magisterium.'


Church as Embassy of the Kingdom 

So, how do we best explain the relationship between the Kingdom and the Church? The Church is the eschatological embassy of the Kingdom of God. I have always been particularly excited by the idea of an embassy—an officially sanctioned outpost of one nation inside the borders of another nation. An embassy does not exist for itself; it does not act on its own. It represents, acts, and speaks for its home nation while living within its host nation. It even has its own sovereign territory within the territory of that host nation.

 

Embassies and ambassadors present the official policies and decisions of a foreign nation. When Jesus establishes the Church, he gives Peter and the other apostles the keys of the Kingdom—the power to declare the policies and judgments of the Kingdom as the chief ambassador of the Kingdom. The Church announces the policies and decisions of the Kingdom by preaching and administering the sacraments. Baptism, for example, is the passport the Church gives to declare a person a citizen of the Kingdom.

 

Hence, the Kingdom creates the Church just as a country creates its embassy. But the Church as the embassy of the Kingdom witnesses to the Kingdom and proclaims the Kingdom. As an embassy, the Church functions as the instrument of the Kingdom and the custodian of the Kingdom.


Confusing Church with Kingdom  

Since the time of Augustine, who conflated the Kingdom with the Church, the Church ceased to function as an embassy of the Kingdom; it began to identify itself as the Kingdom. Thomas Aquinas also mistakenly identified the Church with the Kingdom of God. Vatican II has now corrected this erroneous conflation.

 

However, this confusion continues in much of Catholic doctrine and practice. Have you noticed how Catholics often talk about Matthew's parable of the wheat and the weeds (13:24ff.) to refer to bad priests and laity in the Church? But Jesus Himself begins the parable by saying: "The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field." In v.38 Jesus explains: "The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the Kingdom."

 

Again, Liberation Theology and the social gospel movement mistakenly conflated the Kingdom with a socialist utopia which is brought about by our efforts through fighting for social justice and against capitalist oppression.

 

The confusion on the part of both liberals and traditionalists has resulted in a futurist eschatology. Liberals preach utopia; traditionalists preach purgatory, hell, and heaven. We have lost the biblical concept of an inaugurated eschatology.


Between D-Day and V-E Day 

With Daniel 7 and other Old Testament texts in mind, Jesus, the Davidic king brings to fulfillment Israel's Kingdom expectations. Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. He brings about the Kingdom of God, but does so in the most surprising way through his death on the cross in the manner of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The Kingdom is now being advanced by the Holy Spirit through the Church and will be consummated in Christ's return.

 

One of the most memorable ways of explaining this tension was proposed by the New Testament theologian Oscar Cullman. During World War II, the Allies were only able to declare victory and the total defeat of the Nazis on May 8, 1945. We call this V-E Day. However, V-E Day was only made possible by D-Day when on June 6, 1944, over 1,000 ships—the largest armada ever to set sail—carried some 200,000 soldiers across the English Channel to France where they stormed the coasts of Normandy. After D-Day, the Allied victory was not a matter of if, but when. D-Day struck the decisive blow; it was the defining battle of the Second World War. Everyone, even the Germans, knew that Victory in Europe, V-E Day, was inevitable, when the war would end with Germany's defeat.

 

Yet between D-Day and V-E Day, came the Battle of the Bulge, a desperate counterattack by the German army, fought during one of the worst winters in European history. For six weeks the battle raged back and forth. It was the deadliest battle for American forces during the war; over 19,000 Americans were killed.

 

"The decisive battle in a war may already have occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues," Cullman wrote in his book Christ and Time. My prayer is that you and I will be faithful soldiers of the Kingdom, fighting till our last breath and our last drop of blood.


Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.


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Scott Hahn: “where the king is, there is the kingdom, and where the Eucharist is, there is the King.”

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Hmmmm.... A class about The Kingdom. Sounds like a good idea for a show to me! 😉

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Excellent article Dr Gomes!

The German defeat by the allies...that date is significant...May 8, 1945...the Feast of St Michael of Mt Gargano!!!

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