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The Kingdom of God

An address by Fr John Slater

20 July 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

I’ve been to Galilee half a dozen times and it’s always a very green, pleasant and restful countryside to enjoy, especially if you come straight from the busyness of the airport at Tel Aviv or from the crowded streets and alleys of Jerusalem. Tradition tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, very close to Jerusalem in the south of the country, but he was brought up and spent most of his life in Galilee, in the north. Orthodox Jews in the south looked down on Galilee and called it Galilee of the Gentiles because of the many Greek speaking cities in the north - Caesarea Maritima, Tiberias, Scithopolis and Sephoris.

If Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, when he began his ministry he made his base at Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, not far from Greek-speaking Tiberias. In Capernaum today you can see the remains of a house which tradition says was Peter’s. And there is a bay where the best place to speak would be from a boat, using the hills as a natural amphitheatre. In Galilee it is easier to feel close to Jesus than in the bustle of Jerusalem.

So Jesus calls four of the local fishermen, Simon and Andrew, James and John, the core of his twelve disciples. The number is significant. Somehow, Jesus understands his mission as the renewal of Israel, the People of God, traditionally divided into twelve tribes descended from the sons of Jacob.

And if we had been there on the hillside by the lakeshore, what would we have heard Jesus saying? What was his essential teaching? Mark’s Gospel sums it up in these words, The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News. And what does that mean?

It means that the long centuries of waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promises in the words of the prophets are over. We are living in the time when the prophecies will be fulfilled. That means that the Kingdom of God is no longer something to be anticipated in the future but something we can experience now. And the way to experience it is by repentance and belief. I said just a couple of Sundays ago that the real meaning of repentance is not just being sorry for any wrong we have done, but radically turning around the entire direction of our lives.

The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had encouraged the people of Judea to look beyond their present troubles to a golden age in the future - the Kingdom of God. What the people came to hope for was a time of national prestige and prosperity. By the time of Jesus it came to mean more particularly the liberation of Judea from the occupying Roman legions. But when Jesus proclaimed, the time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand, he clearly meant something very different. Kingdom of God, which sounds like a very concrete place and time, is perhaps best translated as the kingly rule of God.

Jesus did not drive out the Roman legions. He said to Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world. But he did reveal God’s kingly rule by his own life of perfect congruity to the will of the Father. And he called the twelve disciples to live that same life and to preach it throughout the world. The Kingdom of God can be found wherever men and women live their lives according to God’s kingly will. Perhaps such men and women will often be no more than a small minority in most societies, but Jesus describes them as leaven in the dough, salt in a world which has lost its savour, a light in dark places.

There were other messianic figures in Jewish history who interpreted the prophecies in an uncompromisingly political way, challenging the Roman Empire and bringing ruin on their land. But Jesus, preaching a kingdom of the heart’s love started a revolution which spread rapidly throughout the known world. His death on the cross was not the end of his work but its watershed. And his message has come even to us, the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Good News.

For Simon and Andrew, James and John, that meant abandoning their way of life as Galileean fishermen and following Jesus. For us too it means becoming disciples, following Jesus. But there’s a challenge there. How do we follow Jesus in our contemporary world? What does discipleship mean for us? It will be different for each of us, but it is bound to include repentance, that radical turning around of our lives to face a new direction. It will mean costly obedience and sacrifice.

His kingdom is not of this world - not geographical or political. It is a kingdom of the heart. Jesus would reign as king in our innermost life, transforming us from within and making us instruments of the Father’s will. This Kingdom is truly at hand if only we have the courage to let go of the bondage of the past and reach out to the glorious liberty of the children of God.
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