The Kingdom of God
(Readings: Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading this Sunday Jesus begins his public ministry. At the centre of Jesus' preaching was the vision of God's Kingdom, the ancient dream of the prophets, the promise of God's reign of truth and justice and love, the biblical image of salvation.
Let's begin Mass by acknowledging the times we've been half-hearted in our commitment to God's Kingdom, and we ask God to pardon us and strengthen our faith.
In Luke's gospel Jesus starts his ministry of preaching and healing by quoting a well-known passage from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor…liberty to captives…to the blind new sight…to set the downtrodden free…”.
All these different expressions point to the same basic reality - the reality of salvation, the reality that the gospels call the Kingdom of God. Good News, liberty, enlightenment, the end of suffering are all different images of God's Kingdom.
The authors of the books of the Bible, and the prophets in particular, were only too aware of the injustice, the lies, the blindness, the innumerable forms of exploitation that arise from fallen human nature. Those are the features of the kingdom of this world, as it were, and they're permanent features of human life, human society.
God's Kingdom, on the other hand, was their symbol for the kind of relationships and the patterns of social life that take shape under the influence of God's nature: a pattern of peace, justice, truth, holiness, love. To move from one to the other is to experience salvation.
According to the prophets, and to Jesus, salvation will only be completely realised at the end of time, at the final judgement of humanity. In that sense God's Kingdom is always something that lies ahead of us, beyond our present efforts, beyond our present vision.
But at the same time Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom was already here, already available. Christ presented himself as the Messiah, the person anointed by God to usher in his Reign, and he presented his ministry as the fulfilment of what the prophets had looked forward to: God's decisive intervention in history. He taught his followers to see that his time on earth was the start, or the dawn, of God's Kingdom.
The Kingdom in its essence is something we receive - a reality of God's grace, not something we create or build by our own efforts. But it's something we're invited to cooperate with. The way to belong to God's Kingdom is to put it into practice.
The Kingdom takes shape in history partly in the Christian community, in the Church, in the sacraments and the handing-on of the word of God, in the efforts of Christians to live out Jesus' teachings. But the Kingdom also takes shape in everything that co-operates with truth and justice and love, even when the source of these, God himself, isn't acknowledged directly.
At its best, that's what the community of Christians - the Church - has always done. At its best, in spite of all its flaws and weaknesses and corruption, the Church has always been the vehicle for God's Kingdom.
That's what it's supposed to be, and down through the ages, despite being in very different circumstances and periods of history, and so on, Christians who were open to the Holy Spirit have always been shown how to remain faithful to the vision and the values of the Kingdom, and how keep God's love and truth and justice alive in the world.
And at the end of the day that's still our job. It's still the Church's job, and it's every individual believer's job: not just to cultivate a private relationship with God but to make the Kingdom present in the world around us. It's the job of every parish community, which is ideally a kind of cell of the Kingdom, the light of the gospel attracting others to it.
We have to spend time praying and reflecting on the mystery of the Kingdom and the unexpected ways that it appears. We have to read the signs of the times and identify the forces in the world that are opposed to God's Kingdom. And we have to reflect on what we need to do, concretely, to receive God's Reign and to make it a reality within ourselves, within the believing community - and beyond the confines of the believing community.
Today, every bit as much as in Christ's time, the hour of salvation - which is also the hour of decision - has struck. If our activities as a Church don't have the Kingdom as their centre, we're not really carrying out the job Christ gave us to do. It's never too late to start - but it's never too soon, either.