Monday, July 21, 2014

Kingdom of Heaven

What do we hear in the gospel today? "The kingdom of heaven is like this, the kingdom of heaven is like that." Jesus tells us a lot about what the kingdom of heaven is like, without actually telling us what the kingdom of heaven is. But if he's going to talk about it so much, then it would be good for us to get a really good idea about what the kingdom of heaven is. And the kingdom of heaven is, to put it simply, the Church. When we hear the term "kingdom of heaven" we maybe think about heaven in the normal sense, the place we hope to go after we die. But in this first parable, Jesus explains that the kingdom of heaven is like wheat and weeds, the good and the bad, mixed into the same field. Now, the cloudy heaven won't be a mixture of good and bad, it will be all good. But the Church here on this earth is does indeed have the good and bad mixed together, and only at the end of time will it be sorted out.

If we look at the other two parables, then we can see even more how the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talks about is the Church. The mustard seed and the yeast each symbolize tiny beginnings that end with huge results. The seed grows into a huge bush and just a little yeast causes a whole batch of dough to rise. Similarly, the Church that Christ established in a backwater corner of the Roman Empire has now reached every corner of the globe. Tiny beginnings lead to huge endings.

And yet, just like last week, Jesus isn't giving the explanation to everyone, but rather just to his disciples. Last week we heard the parable of the sower and the seed, where Jesus gave the parable to the crowds, but then the explanation about what each piece of the parable meant he gave only to the disciples. And he does the same thing today: he gives the parable of the wheat and the weeds to everyone, and then he actually dismisses them, he sends them away, before giving the explanation of the parable to the disciple. Last week we learned that he does this because the crowds listen but do not understand, so instead of focusing too much on them he is giving specialized, one-on-one instruction to his disciples so that they will be equipped to keep preaching about the kingdom of heaven after he is gone. Jesus is laying the groundwork for the kingdom of heaven.

Center of the visible Church, on the bones of St. Peter
Now, there's a big picture lesson to learn from this, and there's a personal lesson to learn as well. The big picture lesson is that this Church, this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, this kingdom of heaven, this thing that grew from a tiny seed, is the Church that Jesus himself established. He established just one Church on his apostles, and he wants all people to be a part of this Church. He didn't establish several churches and say "Hey, go shopping for the one that feels right for you." He established one Church and said "The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it."

Vatican II summarized this teaching well.  In the document titled Lumen Gentium, which is about the Church and what she is, we find: "This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic which our Saviour, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd...constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure (Lumen Gentium 8)." Christ established the Church, and he wants all people to be in the Church, and yet, he can work outside it. So we have to profess that Christ wants all people in this Church, and we have to acknowledge where we see Christ working even outside of it.

So, this Church is a mixture of sinners and saints, of wheat and weeds, and I'm grateful for it. If it were a Church of just saints, then there wouldn't be room for me. But as long as the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow together until the harvest, then this Church can accommodate even a sinner like me.

And this knowledge that Jesus wants all people to be a part of this Church is not a weapon that we use to go out and conquer the world, we don't beat people over the head with this. But rather, this Church that we are a part of is a gift that God has given to us that we must share with the world. The Catholic Church is a gift to be shared with the world, not a weapon to be used to conquer the world.

Even the Pope goes to Confession
So that's the big picture lesson of these parables, that Jesus himself established this Church and that he wants all people to be a part of it. The personal lesson of these parables, the other thing to notice, is how God accomplishes this all-inclusive goal. The personal lesson is that God likes to work quietly. Jesus uses these images of farming and slow growth to demonstrate that God is going to accomplish his goal of a universal, all-encompassing Church by quiet, almost imperceptible growth. Sometimes there's a growth spurt, sometimes there's a St. Augustine conversion, but more often than not, God works to convert a heart to himself by slow and quiet means. He likes to work through the regular stuff: through hard work and regular prayer and coming to church even when you don't feel like it. So in order for God to convert your heart, you have to be receptive. You have to let him do it. You have to bring him all your problems, especially in Confession and in the Eucharist, and you have to let him fix them. You can't try to fix yourself and then bring Jesus a heart that is already holy, only he can make you holy. That requires humility and receptivity.

And to slowly convert the nations, Jesus likes to work through each one of us. This is where we take what we receive from Jesus at this Eucharist and bring it to the world. The love that we experience from Jesus, he wants to give to the world through each one of us. So we have to love the world with the love of Christ. I don't love the world with my own love, because my own love is weak and prone to fail, but I let Christ love the world through me.

Slowly, almost noticeably, through humbly receiving the love of Christ and then actively taking it to the world, we can help the kingdom of heaven grow here in our world.

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