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Jesus, Founder of His Church

General Audience — June 15, 1988

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mk 1:15). These words at the beginning of Mark's Gospel are recorded as though to sum up briefly the mission of Jesus of Nazareth, who "came to announce the Good News." At the center of his announcement is the revelation of the kingdom of God, which has drawn near and indeed has entered human history. "The time is fulfilled."

By proclaiming the truth concerning the kingdom of God, Jesus at the same time announced the fulfillment of the promises contained in the Old Testament. The Psalms frequently speak of the kingdom of God (cf. Ps 103:19; Ps 93:1). Psalm 145 sings of the glory and majesty of this kingdom, and at the same time indicates its eternal duration: "Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations" (v. 13). Subsequent books of the Old Testament again take up this theme, especially the particularly eloquent prophecy of the Book of Daniel: "The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed or delivered up to another people: rather it shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and put an end to them, and it shall stand forever" (Dan 2:44).

Referring to these announcements and promises of the Old Testament, the Second Vatican Council noted and affirmed: "To carry out the will of the Father Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth" (LG 3). At the same time the Council pointed out that "by preaching the Good News, that is, the coming of the kingdom of God, which for centuries had been promised in the Scriptures...the Lord Jesus inaugurated his Church" (LG 5). The inauguration of the Church, its institution by Christ, is inscribed in the Gospel of the kingdom of God, in the announcement of his coming and of his presence in humanity. If the kingdom of God is present among men by the coming of Christ, by his words and works, it is also true that, by his express will, "The Church, or in other words, the kingdom of God now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world" (LG 3).

In many ways, Jesus made known to his hearers the coming of the kingdom of God. Indicative of this are his words about "casting out the devil" from persons and from the world: "If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Lk 11:20). Indeed, the kingdom of God means the victory over the power of evil and of him who is its principal and mysterious author. It is the spirit of darkness, the lord of this world. It is a question of every sin born in the human heart, as a result of man's evil will and under the influence of that mysterious and baleful presence. Jesus came to forgive sins. Even when he healed various illnesses, he observed that the liberation from physical evil is the sign of the liberation from a much greater evil which weighs on the human soul. This was explained at length in the previous reflections.

The various signs of God's saving power offered by Jesus in his miracles, together with his preaching, open the way to an understanding of the truth about the kingdom of God in the midst of humanity. He explained this truth especially by using parables, among which is that of the sower and the seed. The seed is the word of God which can be received in such a way as to take root in the soil of human hearts. Alternatively, for different reasons, it may not be received, or not in such a way as to mature and bear fruit in due course (cf. Mk 4:14-20). Yet another parable confronts us with the mystery of the seed developing through the work of God: "The kingdom of God is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day. The seed would sprout and grow, but he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear" (Mk 4:26-28). It is God's power that "gives the growth," as St. Paul would say (cf. 1 Cor 3:6 f.), and indeed, as the same apostle wrote, it is God who "works in you both to desire and to work" (Phil 2:13).

The kingdom of God or the "kingdom of heaven," as Matthew calls it (cf. 3:2), entered human history through Christ. Even during his passion and when his death on the cross was close at hand, Jesus spoke of himself as a king and at the same time explained the nature of the kingdom he had come to inaugurate upon the earth. His replies to Pilate, recorded by the fourth Gospel (cf. Jn 18:33 ff.), are a key text for understanding this point. Jesus was before the Roman governor, to whom he had been brought by the Sanhedrin on the charge of having claimed to be "king of the Jews." When Pilate questioned him on the matter, Jesus replied, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews" (Jn 18:36). However, the fact that Christ is not a king in the earthly sense of the word does not cancel the other meaning of his kingdom, which he explained in reply to a further question of his judge: "So you are a king?" Pilate asked. Jesus replied firmly, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice" (Jn 18:37). It is the most clear and unambiguous proclamation of his kingship, and also of his transcendent character, which confirms the deepest value of the human spirit and the principal basis of human relationships, "the truth."

The kingdom which Jesus, as incarnate Son of God, inaugurated in human history, is the kingdom of God. As such it is established and grows in the human spirit by the power of truth and grace which come from God. This we learned from the parables of the sower and the seed which we have summarized. Christ is the sower of this truth. However, in the last analysis, it will be by means of the cross that he will achieve his kingship and fulfill his work of salvation in human history. "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself" (Jn 12:32).

All this is evident likewise from Jesus' teaching on the good shepherd who "offers his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11). This image of the shepherd is closely connected with that of the sheepfold and of the sheep who hear the shepherd's voice. Jesus said that he is the good shepherd who "knows his sheep and they know him" (cf. Jn 10:14). As a good shepherd, he seeks the sheep that has gone astray (cf. Mt 18:12; Lk 15:4). He thinks also of the "other sheep that are not of this fold"; those also he "must bring," so that "they will hear his voice and there shall be one flock, one shepherd" (Jn 10:16). It is a universal kingship exercised in the spirit and manner of a shepherd, which leads all to live in the truth of God.

As is evident, all of Christ's preaching and his entire messianic mission was directed to gathering the flock. It is not merely a case of so many individual hearers, followers, and imitators. It is rather an assembly, which is expressed in Aramaic as kehala, and in Hebrew gahal, corresponding to the Greek ekklesia. The Greek word derives from a verb meaning "to call" (the Greek translation of "a call" is klesis). This etymological derivation gives us to understand that, as in the old covenant God had "called" his people Israel, so Christ calls the new People of God, choosing and seeking its members from among all peoples. He draws them to himself and gathers them around him by means of the word of the Gospel and by the redemptive power of the paschal mystery. This divine power, manifested definitively in Christ's resurrection, will confirm the words once spoken to Peter: "Upon this rock I will build my Church" (Mt 16:18), that is, the new assembly of the kingdom of God.

The Church-ecclesia-assembly receives from Christ the new commandment. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.... By this all will know that you are my disciples..." (Jn 13:34; cf. Jn 15:12). It is certain that the "assembly-Church" receives from Christ also its external structure (of which we shall treat in the near future). But its essential value is the communion with Christ himself. It is he who gathers together the Church; it is he who builds it constantly as his Body (cf. Eph 4:12), as the kingdom of God on the universal level. "They will come from east and west and sit at table (with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) in the kingdom of God" (cf. Lk 13:28-29).