We have just heard about the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. It started after the arrest of John the Baptist and, according to St Matthew, Jesus used the same words to announce his ministry as John used for his: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.
Where Matthew used the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’, the Gospels of Mark and Luke used ‘kingdom of God’. It is thought that because he was a Jew, Matthew shared the reticence of Jews to use the divine name of ‘God’ and so used ‘kingdom of heaven’ instead.
Kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God mean the same thing. It is not a territory or a country. The kingdom is the new community founded by Jesus whose members follow a way of life based on the values he espoused and now promoted by his Church.
The Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah in today’s First Reading) longed for the coming of this new ‘rule’ or ‘reign’ of God. Now, says Jesus, it is kicking off with me and it is here among you.
Those who belong to this kingdom have a special place in their hearts and consciences for the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged and the victims of injustice. In this kingdom sins are forgiven; sinners are gathered into God’s love; and through the cross and resurrection of Jesus the power of everlasting death is broken.
The first apostles were called by Jesus – like Peter, Andrew, James and John in today’s Gospel – to work with him in establishing this kingdom. He formed these and other disciples into the Church as his instrument to establish the kingdom on earth. And, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, this task remains the fundamental mission of the Church today. So the Church exits not for itself but to transform the human family into a community that lives by the values of Christ’s Gospel.
However, this kingdom has not yet fully come. It is in a state of ‘becoming’ and this is why Jesus asked us to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ …’ when he gave us what we know today as the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus launched the kingdom with asking people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. Repent’ means to turn way from something in order to go in a new direction.
So what are we to turn away from and turn to? Essentially, it is to turn away from selfishness to the service of others; to turn from love of yourself to love of God in others; to recognise in your life a need for God and depend less on your ‘self’ and more on God’s power; to strive to become self-less rather that selfish; to realise that what you and the ‘world’ consider important may count for little or nothing with God; and that what you and others might not rate at all may be seen differently by God.
In the kingdom, to rule is to serve; clinging to a selfish life leads to spiritual death; and death to selfishness leads to what Jesus calls ‘the fullness of life’.
There are countless ways we – perhaps unknowingly or unconsciously – put selflessness [death to self] into practice. These can vary from the work we do for the benefit of others in our job or profession to the daily sacrifices we make to support or care for another person, be it a spouse, partner child, neighbour or friend. We do it when we bring a tin of sardines to church for refugees or give time to supporting people seeking asylum; when we support a charity for the homeless or an organisation that supports people living in socially deprived neighbourhoods. We do it when we stay up all night with a sick child, when we spend time preparing meals for others, or doing the washing and ironing for the family; we do it when we go out of our way to visit someone in hospital or a neighbour who does not get out much anymore … anywhere we put ourselves at the service of another we are making, bit by bit, the kingdom of God alive and active.
St Therese of Lisieux, in what’s become known as the Little Way, sums the challenge like this:
What matters in life is not great deeds but great love … Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.
And it’s succinctly summed up by the late Jean Vanier, the founder of the worldwide L’Arche communities which welcome people with an intellectual disability and those who choose to live with them, or support them.
We are not called by God to do extraordinary things but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.
Such is the kingdom of God.
Holy Name, Jesmond
22 January 2017