• Acts 14:21-27
• Ps 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
• Rev 21:1-5a
• Jn 13:31-33a, 34-35
Among the criticisms I once had, as an Evangelical, was that Catholics were too concerned with “The Church.” They were so focused on the Church, I thought, that they had little time or energy for Jesus. Besides, I knew that having a saving, personal relationship with Jesus had little to do with the Church. The love of God, I believed, would only be hampered by the sort of laws and structures found within the impressive but worldly Catholic Church. Put simply, I thought that on one side was love and relationship, and on the other was law and, well, “rule-lationship.”
I eventually changed my mind for two basic reasons: my understanding of the Catholic Church was faulty, and my interpretation of what Scripture says about these issues was equally faulty. Instead of recoiling in horror, I can now appreciate the Catechism’s statement: “The Church is the goal of all things” (CCC 760). I now see that the Church is very much about love and law, relationship and structure.
This is apparent throughout the Acts of the Apostles, including today’s reading, which describes some of the work of Paul and Barnabas in Asia Minor. Luke takes pains to point out how the early Church grew and was governed. The gospel was proclaimed, disciples were made and then exhorted to persevere. Elders were appointed and ordained in each church. And, having returned to Antioch, the base for his missionary journeys, the Apostle to the Gentiles called together the local church to tell the Christians the news about their brothers and sisters in Christ. In this way Paul carried out, in basic ways, the three-fold duty of bishops, the successors of the apostles, who are to teach, govern and sanctify.
Paul spoke of the suffering that Christians will face in entering the kingdom of God. The rule of God requires the followers of Jesus to endure the trials and difficulties, even death, just as He willingly endured shame, torture, and death on a Cross before He would be glorified by the Father. Today’s Gospel places together two words that many people think (or assume) are in direct opposition to one another: commandment and love. We live in a culture that is enamored with the notion that love is about feeling and passion—after all, you have to follow your heart!—while commandments (or laws) are considered stifling and limiting, and certainly loveless.
Jesus says otherwise: “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” This is not, of course, the type of love found in many popular songs and television programs, but a commitment to putting others first, even to the point of physical death; it is a gift from the King and it is integral for the life of the Kingdom. Thus, the greatest commandment, Jesus said elsewhere, is to love the Lord God with our entire heart, soul, and mind, and the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-40; CCC 2054-55). This love declares, “We belong to Christ, who died for the world.” And it is this love that holds together and animates the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the household of God.
In this way we can begin to appreciate the important relationship between the Church and the Kingdom. The Church is “ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity,” the Catechism teaches, “because it is in her that ‘the Kingdom of heaven,’ the ‘Reign of God,’ already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time” (CCC 865). The Kingdom was established in the person and work of Jesus and grows throughout time.
In the end, as the Book of Revelation describes today, the Kingdom is not an earthly reign, but the final triumph of Christ over the power of sin and Satan, culminating in an eternity spent in communion with the Triune God (cf., CCC 865), free of death, sorrow, and pain. In Christ, through the Church, all things are being made new.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 6, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)